Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Recollection of Dame Helen

Posting on the number of the beast reminded me of Dame Helen Gardner - not that the late Merton Professor of English was in any way satanic herself: far from it, in fact. I knew her via an early form of staff-student committee in the Oxford English faculty, which she invited me to join, probably assessing me shrewdly enough as suitably ordinary and from nowhere special (and so credible to the role), but (when it came to any dispute about the degree) deeply compliant. Stories about her were rife in the student body, and we massed in her otherwise not particularly remarkable lectures, hoping to hear one of her fabled candid asides.
She once quenched a potential postgraduate pitching a research project on a Renaissance numerologist called (apparently) Pietro Bongo with the regal and disdainful query: 'And who is Bongo?' (tonally very much in the line of the earlier Oxford joke, 'What I don't know ain't knowledge'). Another Unlucky Jim in a similar position unluckily ad libbed at some point about 'God-botherers', to be told acidly: 'I consider myself something of a God-botherer'.

In 1972 this devout and learned lady edited the New Oxford Book of English Verse, all 884 poems of it, and so had to choose a poem to be number 666. Somehow she slipped into place, without apparent disruption of the chronological run of the book, this sonnet, Lucifer in Starlight, by George Meredith:

ON a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.

Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend

Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,

Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.

Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.

And now upon his western wing he leaned,

Now his huge bulk o'er Afric's sands careened,

Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.

Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars

With memory of the old revolt from Awe,

He reached a middle height, and at the stars,

Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.

Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,

The army of unalterable law.

And so, having put the devil in his place, she passed serenely on - if you wanted to carp about her victory, well, Meredith was born in February 1828, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (the immediately prior poet in the anthology) not until the May of that year, and so technically he ought to appear in the book after Meredith. So she did cheat a bit. I doubt that anyone would have said as much to her when she was alive.

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