My tears drop on the bar in front of me, soundless plops eaten up by the throng of bodies moving through Penn Station. My spine curves forward to dull the ache spreading across my chest. My heart twists, and heat skewers the cavity behind my breastbone. I watch as New Yorkers climb up countless stairs to walk among topless buildings. I remain motionless.
My phone buzzes against the bar. I hold it to my ear, my voice barely audible. “I heard…”
My professor’s voice wavers. “It’s true, Alicia.”
My hand flies up to my face. “His students, his colleagues—he gave us so much.” I pull the phone away from my ear, briefly, to turn up the volume and wipe wet splotches off the screen. “I didn’t know,” I blurt out, continuing to fold into myself. “He read my thesis a couple of months ago. I didn’t know he was so sick. All he asked was that I thank him in my book acknowledgements. He won’t read them now. He won’t…I didn’t….” I choke on my words.
“I know,” she responds. “He didn’t want to burden anyone.”
I can barely hear her. “I…I wanted to make him proud.”
She does not respond for some time. Then, after a shaky breath, she says, “He was already so proud of you.”
The pauses between her words are too much.
Six years earlier, I walk up the steep hills surrounding Mars Hill College, a small institution located in Western North Carolina. I’m here because I was recruited as a music major, but I head towards Cornwell Hall on a whim—the building that houses the English department. Today, professors hold meetings for prospective majors, and I’m curious about English. I love Shakespeare. He was a constant presence in the various schools I attended across continents growing up. As my calves burn, I try not to think of my family in Brazil, an impossible distance away—in a time zone that doesn’t allow for many calls on the Vonage phone.
I enter the building, take a left, and end up in a small room where other students and professors congregate in a circle around a small table. The professor at the head of the table who introduces the major is a slender man on the shorter side, with graceful hands that make delicate yet enthusiastic movements as he speaks.
“Are there any questions?” he asks when he’s finished, looking around the table. I raise my hand.
“Will you tell me a little bit about the Shakespeare courses you offer?” I ask.
“Ah, a Shakespeare fan!,” he responds. “That’s my area of expertise. We offer an upper-level course on Shakespeare that students may repeat for credit if the topic or professor changes. I just taught a course on the history plays.” He looks me in the eye, his own crinkling at the sides as he smiles at me.
“Do you know of any other early modern poets?” he asks.
I’m not sure what he means by early modern, but I nod knowingly anyways—not wanting to seem unprepared for college. Earlier, in my first class, I pretended to know what a syllabus was as well.
“Oh, good,” he exclaims. “I write on the Sidney family and George Herbert. My ‘body runs to dust’ though,” he says, quoting a line from Herbert’s “Faith”— “so I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to.” He laughs. “Which poets are your favorite?” He waits for my answer.
“Many of them!” I reply, after a brief pause. “But Shakespeare is my favorite.” Nice save, I think, sitting back in my chair,
“Well, we’ll be happy to have you as an English major.”
“Oh. I’m a music major, actually,” I correct. “I love reading, though, so I thought I’d come to this meeting as well.”
He smiles at me again, but with a touch of mischief in his expression this time. “You’ll be an English major, eventually.”
My professor was sixty-nine when he died. George Herbert was thirty-nine. Illness stalked both, moved into their bodies and refused all attempts at eviction.
Herbert cries out to God in The Temple, demanding a rationale for his suffering. In these poems, he vacillates between humility and anger. “Though thou troublest me, I must be meek,” Herbert writes in “Affliction (1),” “In weakness must be stout.”
The next lines betray him.
“Well, I will change the service, and go seek / Some other master out.”
I am not certain of my professor’s faith. But I still wonder if he spoke to a deity in clipped anger while he was ill. I wonder if he saw his own affliction in Herbert’s. I wonder if The Temple gave him comfort at the end of his life.
“No, no, no,” my professor exclaims years later, shortly after I begin my MA program in English literature, at a Bonefish Grill in Asheville, North Carolina. “You must give George Herbert another chance.”
He takes a dramatic breath and begins to recite “Praise (III)” from The Temple: “But when mine eyes / Did weep to heav’n, they found a bottle there.” He pauses in reverence. “A bottle,” he continues, “Readie to take them in; yet of a size / That would contain much more.”
He looks at me. “A bottle,” he repeats, “big enough to hold all of the world’s tears.”
His food is untouched, his hands wave with joyous affection. “It’s a perfect metaphysical conceit. He describes God, he describes the indescribable, he gets us closer to something.”
“A bottle,” he repeats, eyes glazing over, “big enough to hold all of our tears.” There is a slight smile on his face as he sits back in the booth.
I pick at my food, unmoved. “It’s all very religious,” I retort, “I prefer John Donne. He’s sexier. His poems are sexier.”
My professor looks at me and laughs. “As you get older, you’ll appreciate Herbert more.”
Whatever you say, I think, but remember when he told me I’d eventually become an English major.
“Oh,” I exclaim, changing the subject. “My new Shakespeare professor says Desdemona and Othello were never in love.”
His eyes narrow. He takes a breath. “She had eyes,” he pauses for effect. “And she chose me.” He goes to pick up his fork but changes his mind. “Othello says that, after his first exchange with Iago,” he tells me. “Iago destroyed their love for each other. That’s the whole point.”
We talk like this for hours, and I leave the restaurant sure I’ll see him again.
During his memorial service, I teach “Great Works of British Literature” at Queens College, CUNY—a school that feels a million miles away. I cancel all my students’ assignments for the day and read “Praise (III)” to them in class, instead.
“A bottle,” I recite, “big enough to hold all of the world’s tears.” I bite back my own.
I write metaphysical conceit on the board. They copy it down.
“A perfect metaphysical conceit,” I tell them. “It gets us closer to something.”
“I don’t know,” a student says, from the corner of the room, with unabashed confidence. “I like Andrew Marvell’s conceits better. They’re more dark, more detailed.”
I take a breath and reply, with affection, “Maybe you’ll change your mind one day.”
After my professor’s memorial service, one of his colleagues puts me in touch with his sister. She tells me that, in his will, he left some of his books and papers to his favorite students. “What authors or texts are you interested in?” she asks.
“Whatever books have the most annotations in them.”
When I open the box she sends me, a small edition of The Temple sits on top. The cover is green with an intricate black, floral pattern. The book jacket is frayed, the pages discolored and delicate. I open it and there, on the top right corner of the first blank page, is his name, written with swoops of black ink. The letters join in a precise, elegant, cursive hand; the bottom of them create a perfectly straight line.
When I turn the page, I see a plethora of careful underlines and notes made with a sharp pencil. I scrawl in my own books with a black, ballpoint pen, highlighting every other sentence in bright pink—but this book has been treated with veneration. Throughout, faint, penciled-in checkmarks live beside certain lines. I run my fingers over them as well as small, elegant question marks and eight-point stars bursting with emphasis. As I read, I try to imagine why he made each mark.
Then, I flip the page to “Love Unknown.” Beside the line, “My heart, that brought it (do you understand?)”—there is a tiny, neat, “no!”
I begin to laugh.
Now, I thumb through The Temple to feel less alone, whenever life feels insurmountable—and I always land on “Affliction (1).” Without my professor here to guide me, I often turn to the poets he loved to ask, like Herbert does,
Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show…
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.
How do I know with faith my efforts will make a difference? How do I reckon with all I do not know? How do I justify asking students to spend time, resources, and energy on early modern poets in a world with so little time, in a world where, to use Andrew Marvell’s words, “at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” When all I can see are “deserts of vast eternity,” I talk to my professor, like I did when he was alive. “What do I do in this broken academy, in this broken world?” I ask, often angry, “Because ‘none of my books will show.’”
And still, I carry the books he gave me—in hope I will be just, in hope I will grow. In hope that students will, like I did him, come to me in trust.
A year into my PhD program, a year after I learn my professor passed away, I walk up a tall set of steps, emerging out of 34th street station. As it turns out, the Q train takes me directly from Brooklyn to my school. I rarely go to Penn station anymore.
My body is a wreck because I haven’t slept well for weeks, but I head to the Graduate Center to take my first comprehensive exam. I repeat literary terminology like a prayer. My hands shake as I steady myself on a subway-station rail. In an hour, I must demonstrate extensive knowledge of the literary canon. The exam is divided into four sections, and in the first I am required to scan a poem. I will be given several poems to choose from, without knowing who wrote them. I must select one to close read, mining its meaning. But I’m terrible at meter, at determining which syllables are stressed, which are unstressed.
As I move past tourists, I touch my professor’s copy of The Temple. I pass the Empire State building and walk into the Graduate Center. I flash my ID at the security guard in front of the elevators and ascend to take an exam that feels like a measure of my belonging. I run my fingers against the frayed edges of the delicate book cover one last time before I put my purse at the front of the room. My classmates and I open the exam and “Love III” stares back at me, the last poem in The Temple, in the book I received a year ago.
I blink, but it’s still there.
I begin to write, taking in shaky breaths.
In “Love (III),” the conclusion to Herbert’s meditations on faith, Love is personified as a gracious host. The poem is a conversation between the speaker and Love, in which the speaker tries to convince Love he is unworthy. When Love “sweetly” questions the speaker, do you lack “any thing” he responds—“A guest…worthy to be here.”
Love replies, “You shall be he.”
Am I a guest worthy to be here? I wonder, when “Love (III)” moves through my mind.
You are a guest worthy to be here, my professor responds, still, over and over. You shall be he.
And now, I tell my students the same.