Idly browsing in the bookstore one day, I found this, carefully wrapped in onionskin and folded into an old edition of Hardy’s Collected Poems. The road to ignorance may be paved with good editions, as Bernard Shaw remarked, but its byways are littered with interesting ephemera.
Dear Mr. Smyth,
The assignment is all of the “Collected Poems” of Hardy. But I asked the class to give particular attention to those on pp. 7, 15, 58, 83, 99, 112, 124, 152, 161, 194, 222, 234, 248, 255, 269, 271, 288, 297, 325, 328, 369, 387, 390, 391-8, 409, 412, 439, 456, 505, 566, 598, 648, 658, 685, 710, 799.
I hope you recover quickly.
The signature is Mark Van Doren’s. Van Doren taught English at Columbia, including a legendary “Introduction to Poetry” course, for almost forty years. The tone of this note aligns with his reputation for brooking no nonsense, regularly tossing students out of class for failing to read the assignment. In his autobiography Van Doren claims (though I find this hard to credit) that a student once attempted to excuse a late term paper on the grounds of being in love. “Then you don’t love her very much,” Van Doren said. “How can you say that?” asked the student indignantly. “You won’t sacrifice a mark for her.”
He was also an excellent poet and critic, who wrote brief and readable books about Shakespeare, Dryden, and E.A. Robinson, among other subjects. The selections available on the web do not do his poetry justice, but this conveys some of the flavor.
Mark Van Doren is remembered only as the father of game-show cheat Charles Van Doren, and then only because of the hit movie made about the scandal, Quiz Show, in which he is played by Paul Scofield, with twinkly donnishness, as the soul of upright virtue — which, by all accounts, he was.
The hapless Mr. Smyth, it appears, was too ill to attend class and had to receive his assignment in writing. He must have quailed when he read it. All of the collected poems? All of them? They run to 800 pages of small print. I have read Hardy, quite assiduously, for years, and have not got round to nearly all of them. Nor do I expect to.
Unfortunately the poems Van Doren singles out for “particular attention” have more pedagogical than poetic interest. They include the Satires of Circumstance, which date badly; one or two philosophical colloquies that neatly clarify Hardy’s views on God and pessimism; and a few anthology favorites. They exclude all of his best poems.
Still, three generations of students found Van Doren inspiring. Even Smyth, once recovered, seems to have bestirred himself sufficiently to make an abortive start on the assignment. The table of contents shows the first six poems dutifully ticked off, and then nothing. One wonders how many times he was thrown out of class. However many it was, he kept the book, at least for a while, and took some pains to keep the note. Something probably got through.