I was wittering away yesterday ago about teaching, and, as usual, my post ran into the buffers by distracting itself (there is nothing like a parenthesis for making a sentence soothing, enjoyable, but perhaps occasionally incomprehensible: it’s like juggling, another thing I can’t do). And in the process of the riff, in which I referred to the stern atmosphere created by the kinds of teachers I had to put up with, I never moved on to a strange and extraordinary individual.
The most frightening teacher I had was also, deep down, a bit of a pussycat. He looked to all onlookers like Mr. Chips, or a rather well-irked version of Mr. Chips (who is kindly, and not in the slightest bit frightening, at least in the film. I may have read the book, but I’ve deep-sixed the memory of doing so). His self-appointed task was to teach us the entire history of English Literature (poetry section) from Chaucer to about 1945, in which he was assisted by a very tedious, almost completely male cast of writers assembled by an editor called Mair. Week by week, we ploughed remorselessly through pages of poets. Chaucer, Dunbar, Surrey, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Milton. Pope and Dryden (I was not keen on them at all), Gray, his own pet hobbyhorse, Cowper, and eventually The Seven Romantic Poets – Blake, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Burns – about which he had himself handily published an anthology of his own (yes, ‘Seven Romantic Poets’.) Mention of his name (Timothy D. Tosswill, though nobody in their right minds called him anything other than Sir) was enough to make the blood freeze.
But the truth is, there was more to him than met the eye (egg-spattered tie, unruly moustache). He was a bit obsessed with rankings, mind you. Occasionally he would conduct debates out loud with himself about which of the Big Three (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton) was actually The Best. (This was a very Leavisite thing to do, and was approached very much as if working out how to field a first eleven at cricket, while also selecting the captain.) Chaucer came in third. But the rest of the time, TDT (let’s risk calling him by his initials) was involved in a colossal mental struggle between Shakespeare and Milton. He wanted it to be Milton, but he knew that he had the whole of the academic world ranged up against him. So he havered, out loud. Perhaps the most puzzling part of his attachment to Milton was his absolute certainty that it was Milton who had come up with the best, the most luminous, the most extraordinary, the most staggeringly brilliant line of poetry ever. It’s line 156 of ‘Lycidas’ (which we were forced to study, together with all of Milton’s other shorter poems, before he ‘found out’ that actually we were only obliged to study ‘Samson Agonistes’) and it goes – hold your breath – like this:
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides…
That’s it. That’s the one. That’s the line of lines, the set of syllables to beat all other sets of syllables, the concatenation of vowels and consonants which no writer of poetry has ever, in his opinion, ever bettered. I wrote it down. I stared at it. For more than forty years, I’ve thought about it. But I still haven’t cracked it.
But as I was saying, TDT was an odd mixture. The year before teaching me, he had had a sabbatical, during which he’d been in Berkeley, California on some sort of exchange. He’d been in the middle of the sit-ins, sit-outs, sit-ups, love-ins, love-add-your-own-prepositions. He’d seen Country Joe and the Fish. He’d seen Big Mama Thornton (from whom Janis Joplin borrowed her showstopper ‘Ball And Chain’). And what’s more, he’d liked them. Yet here he was, in a dowdy classroom, debating whether Milton could deliver a knock-out blow to the bard with ten stonking syllables.
He had a line he used at the end of examinations, which he knew was a legend, and yet he declaimed it each time as if he’d just coined it. It went ‘Now when I say stop writing, stop writing; stop writing.’ You didn’t hear the punctuation when he did it.
One day, he came across me looking at some notices. I had some grit in my eye. He reprimanded me for something or other, and, when I turned, he must plainly have thought he had distressed me. That evening I had a note, addressed to me personally, and saying that he had been insensitive and that I must not be so sensitive, and that he was sorry.
And he signed it – ‘Tim’.