Tuesday, May 9, 2017

William & Harry & the Last Things

Harry Morris, my Shakespeare professor at Florida State, was not likable. He made sure of that.

He was pedantic, fussy, punctilious. A misplaced comma or period in a bibliography made him furious, and as a result the writer's grade would wilt and wither from Harry's wrath.

When he directed a dissertation or thesis, he became his student's worst enemy, seeming to wish him harm. He fed on the poor bastard's fear and his failure.  

Aside from my Chaucer professor Eugene Crook, I'm not sure any of his colleagues cared much for him, either.

Harry loved Shakespeare so much he was a bit irritated that there were 20-something students in the room while he read the plays aloud from the yellowed pages of his Kittredge texts pasted onto notebook paper to allow more room for annotation.

In my two undergraduate courses with him, he read almost all of each play we studied, changing voices and cranking up the volume at critical points – sometimes so powerfully that some of us worried that he may be suffering a breakdown right there in front of us.

With a silky whisper, in hushed reverence, he would sing those ditties from the comedies, even the ones that included the annoying refrain, "With a hey, and a ho, and hey nonny no!" After one of these brief recitals, many young scholars could be seen biting their fingers till they leaked blood in an effort to keep from laughing out loud.

He, not we, would intermittently interrupt his performance with many insights and bits of research he had dug up while writing a series of essays and finally a book on the Bard’s eschatological vision: Last Things in Shakespeare.

So, yes, he saw the Bard's works through a filter smeared with Church of England doctrine and mostly Catholic iconography. Many of Harry's students believed Shakespeare might be up to something a little more universal than that, something more than continuous, complex, multilayered, sophisticated proselytizing, and they therefore resented "Father Harry's" narrow vision.

Most of his students resented his teaching style, esp. since the embers were still glowing from the Sixties when students demanded greater involvement in their education so they could learn, without grades, through Happenings, Role Playing, Teach-Ins, and Calling Professors by their First Names. 

Did Harry encourage class participation? Interactive learning? Socratic questioning? Group work? 

No. Let me rephrase: Hell no! Harry has yet to establish eye contact with a student, and it is my understanding he has been dead for a couple of decades.

When someone raised a hand, Harry would let out an impatient sigh and look away from the student in thinly disguised disgust while pointing toward her in a way that was supposed to say “Go ahead,” but really said, “Go away. Please jump out the window directly behind you.” 

Harry dressed as if he had just popped in on his day off to pick up a forgotten book. Even though he was in his late fifties (he looked like I thought an ageing Woody Allen would look, only he was taller and heavier, and had a bigger nose), he wore jeans, scuffed low-cut hiking shoes with white socks (a terrible fashion misstep in the early Seventies), and any old kind of button-up shirt. 

The few times I had the nerve to visit him during his office hours, which he rarely kept, he had his feet up on his desk and his hands locked behind his head, and he held that position for the duration of my nervous stammering. I remember he used the word "harangue," which I had never heard before. There was no small talk. He was interested chiefly in my leaving, not my learning. 

Ecce homo! Here is a man who, figuratively and literally, failed and frustrated most of his students. 

I was crazy about him.

As a bashful junior just finding his way in the academic world, I was mesmerized by the depth of his learning, and I had no desire to interrupt his show with questions or comments of my own, comments that could only appear pretty lame compared to his. Nor did I want any of my classmates to share their questions, thoughts or feelings.

Here was my philosophy of education at the time: “I’m personally paying my college tuition to get as much knowledge as possible from people who have been studying literature all of their adult lives. So could the rest of you shut up, let Professor Morris talk, and let me write down every word of it because, first, I’m fascinated by this stuff, and second, I can use it all someday when I grow up to be a teacher."

"Educationalists" are quick to point out how little information from lectures students retain. But sitting here chatting with you, 43 years later, I can easily recall a good handful of words and terms Harry introduced me to: Memento moriubi sunt, eschatology, miles gloriosus, anagogical, acedia, Literature of the Divine Rebellion, Et in Arcadia Ego, topsy-turvy universe, et al (oh, and et al).

Furthermore, my path crossed with Harry's on other grounds. As a recovering Southern Baptist, I was trying my hand as an Episcopalian, and one Sunday at the 8 a.m. service, I saw Harry -- in jeans, Goodwill shirt, hiking shoes, white socks -- kneeling on a hassock, his head bowed, checking in with his Maker, I guess, about the Four Last Things -- you know: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

A few months before I enrolled in my first class with Harry, my dad had died, and it dawned on me just now that Harry partially filled that vacuum for a while: Like my dad, he knew everything and hoarded compliments as if they were gold. Probably another reason I felt at home in his presence.

Reminiscing about Harry, I think of kairos as I so often do in these pieces. He taught me that word, and hence I understand more clearly how a teacher like him contributed so heavily to my Four Great Things: reading, writing, thinking, teaching. Harry caught me at the one time in my life that I would listen to him. The student was ready, and the teacher reluctantly appeared.

Finally, some things in "real life" are too literary to include in a piece of writing, and what follows is one of those things, but I'm including it anyway because it is both factual and true, history and myth: 

After work, Harry was an avid bird watcher, often roaming the north Florida woods with his binoculars. During work, a Starling (sturnidae) watched him and inched a little closer to flying free.


  1. Roy, this is simply beautiful. Your sense of this man's complexity (and how it complicates our vision of the nature of "effective teaching"), your understanding of and reverence for his role in your life, your exquisitely chiseled prose--what a gift they were this morning. Thank you. Barbara

    1. Your comments are a fine gift, too. Thank you.

  2. Excellent piece, Roy. I can clearly see Harry Morris as you so aptly described him. I'm thinking it proves the old saw you quote above. When the student is ready...I had a similar high school experience. My junior English teacher who first exposed me to Shakespeare ( and not willingly) is a character forever etched in my memory. She managed to teach this rather oblivious student despite all my foolish attempts to avoid it. I can still quote the soliloquy from Macbeth perfectly as well as the first part of the prologue to Beowulf. Thanks for your delightful piece.

    1. Thank you for reading! I think Macbeth was Harry's favorite -- is mine.

  3. It would be easy to dismiss Harry as a self absorbed academic. But, through your thoughtful words he becomes as endearing to your reader as he was to you. Well done!

  4. Hi Roy Starling: John Christensen here... So I decided on whim to look up Roy Starling, remembered from my time at FSU English ; thought he had moved to Colorado, found this. So I too had Harry Morris as Shakespeare prof at FSU, liked him (remember being surprised at grading better in his class than I should have). Anwyay, live in central Fla, work in downtown Orl. So, talk soon? (If yes, might not be able to find this page again, so better to reach me at southmilhausen.com )-- Of course, Go Noles!

    1. I just now saw this!! Holy crap! I don't have a StarkNotes notification. I'd love to meet w/ you. You were one of my best buds at FSU.