A Change of Scene
I am grateful to Professor Greg Marks, Chair of the English Department, for pointing out that I was eligible for a fellowship leave / sabbatical. The idea that I could apply successfully for such an honor had never occurred me. To my surprise though, after more than twenty years of continuous teaching, summers included, I was able to return to full-time literary research. The primary goal was to continue some ideas from my book on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but also to explore my growing interest in American poetry of the 20th century.
Fortunately, I was able to spend my sabbatical, the summer and fall of 2015, in Israel “the start-up nation” and to enjoy its unique blend of creativity and tradition. I worked at the libraries of Tel -Aviv and Bar- Ilan Universities. At the latter I had access to a separate research library devoted to English and American literature. There I also benefited from talks with my friend and mentor, Murray Roston, Professor Emeritus at Bar-Ilan and UCLA. On the other hand, many of my former colleagues had passed away, among them Dorothea Krook, who mentored Sylvia Plath at Cambridge; Alex Aronson, who worked with Rabindranath Tagore in India, and Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987).
In any case, changing my venue so completely allowed me to step back and take a fresh look at everything I was doing. Preparing for class and grading papers has always been a round-the-clock occupation for me; there are no shortcuts, especially since I prefer to teach basic and developmental courses which have the greatest impact on students’ lives. Now I was entirely on my own, with no classes to meet and no papers to grade, so that a major adjustment was needed. Of course, being in walking distance of a world-class beach did me no harm. I soon developed a Mediterranean lifestyle with dinner in the early afternoon followed by a siesta, so that much of my work was done in the cooler evenings and at night.
Over the years, my research has increasingly dealt with the ways biblical sources are used by English and American writers. This probably began in 1987 with “Bacon’s Borrowed Imagery” an article published by The Review of English Studies. It continued with a short article in The Explicator on John Berryman’s “Dream Song 97,” in which the poet (who studied Hebrew) transliterates verses from The Book of Job. I followed this with a long article in American Literature on Berryman’s Sonnets, which was later reprinted by Harold Bloom in his anthology of critical essays on this poet. I returned to biblical sources in 2010 when “More Psalms in Thomson’s Seasons” was published by Notes and Queries at Oxford University Press. I felt it was important to call attention to The Seasons, a neglected poem which I consider the finest English epic after Milton’s Paradise Lost. Although the biblical influence on Thomson is well known, I was able to add and explain a good number of important references to The Book of Psalms.
At the start of my sabbatical, therefore, I was eager to build on this area of research which is closely bound up with my own heritage. And I was in the best place in the world to do so. I had a hunch that I should return to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, especially the opening group which repeatedly urge a young man to marry and have children. I noted that Psalm 45, subtitled “A Song of Love,” is a wedding poem which warmly praises a youthful king, celebrates his marriage, and promises that “I will make thy name to be remembered in all generations.” Here then were three major themes of the Sonnets: admiration for “the fair youth,” procreation, and poetic immortality. I worked these ideas into an article which was published by Notes and Queries in October, 2016. Meanwhile, I’d begun to think about Sonnet 146, the most religiously oriented of them all: “Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth.” It is a difficult text since the obvious misprint in line two forces the reader (or editor) to make a correction by inserting two or three appropriate words. I realized that this process is circular: The way we read the text generates our emendation of it, while the words we choose to insert will in turn reinforce our interpretation of the sonnet. The most recent example of this is Helen Vendler of Harvard University who offers a new and widely accepted reading of the crucial line. I criticized her version but ultimately accepted it for reasons vastly different from her own. My article, “Rewriting / Rereading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146” was published in ANQ in December, 2016.
By now I was feeling the need to write about something other than Shakespeare. I’d happened to pick up a copy of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which won the Pulitzer prize for best novel of 1938. The book became a major Hollywood film starring Gregory Peck; it also had a long run as a school text with study questions. What struck me, as I thoroughly enjoyed her account of a poor “Cracker” family in the Florida panhandle, was the obvious biblical parallel. Penny Baxter and his hardworking family clearly resembled the patriarch Jacob, while their troubled neighbors, the Forresters, followed in Esau’s footsteps. Learning more about Rawlings, I found she often alluded to biblical texts, for example in her story “Jacob’s Ladder” (1931). As I was working on this, I luckily found that The Journal of Florida Literature, named after Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, had issued a call for articles. I promptly sent them “Jacob and Esau in The Yearling,” and they published it in September, 2016.
Continuing with American literature, I began working on a poem by David Wagoner, a leading figure in the Pacific Northwest movement that began to flourish in the 1950s. Extremely prolific, he has written over a dozen books of poetry and as many novels. Yet he too, like James Thomson and Marjorie Rawlings, has not received enough attention from the critics. His poem, “At the Door,” has no biblical connections but is steeped in the existential philosophy that dominated post-war America. I also noticed some echoes of an essay that I often teach in English 110: “On Doors” by Christopher Morley (1925). Developing this parallel and analyzing the workings of Wagoner’s paradoxically omniscient tone, which explains everything and nothing, I concluded an article which is now forthcoming in The Explicator. Let me add that another article, “Sacred Space in Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent,’” has just been submitted for publication. I am hoping it too, like those mentioned above, will be accepted the first time around. Robert Frost, a professed “Old-Testament Christian” must have known the many biblical associations of the tent symbol. Influenced by the mystical school of Emanuel Swedenborg, he fuses the tent image with that of the woman he describes, creating a poetic icon.
This, then, is how I spent the summer and fall of 2015. Let me add that some time also went into writing and revising my own poems. I have amassed a few hundred of these using a nine-line format quite unlike the sonnets that I published in 2000. When time permits, probably this summer, I will begin to arrange that material into a book. But meanwhile, as I approach retirement, I sincerely thank Hostos Community College for granting me so many years of enjoyable teaching and allowing me to be an Associate Professor.
David K. Weiser started college as a music major, studying violin with Ivan Galamian and chamber music with members of the Hungarian and Juilliard string quartets. Preferring an academic career, he taught in the English departments of Indiana and Tel-Aviv Universities before coming to Hostos. He is married with four children and five grandchildren.