I have been discovering that love grows over time with reflection.
In 1965, Hogans Goat, a verse drama about love and politics set in turn-of-the-century Irish Brooklyn ran for over 600 performances on Broadway. It was written by Harvard Professor William Alfred, about the world in which he had grown up. In the early ’70s it was made into a movie.
Alfred was a legend at Harvard. Everyone loved him because he was completely approachable, lived in unassuming rumpled clothes, and had a habit of giving all the change in his pocket to the street people in Harvard Square. He knew some of them by name.
As a teacher, he was beloved because he taught an unbelievably good class on Beowulf, old English, and poetry in Sanders Theater every year to well over 500 adoring undergraduates. That is a testament to his talent.
He lived alone in a little house on Athens Street just outside of Harvard Square.
I was terrified when I was admitted as a transfer student to Harvard. The summer before my first classes, I had seen Hogan’s Goat on TV. It was great. I couldn’t get enough of it.
I was terrified of the place but I was a determined starstruck groupie with a plan.
As soon as I got my student ID, I went to Nick at Brattle Florist in Harvard Square. Nick was a proprietor and a friend. I had started buying corsages from him in high school, and I loved just going into his shop to talk to him.
I had decided to buy flowers and knock on Professor Alfred’s door to tell him the truth about being a starstruck groupie who just wanted to meet him.
Nick told me that Professor Alfred came in regularly, so he knew his favorite fresh flowers.
I took my bouquet early in the afternoon to Professor Alfred’s little house. I carefully ascended the three steps and almost knocked on his door, but I lost my nerve. I made two more passes before I finally knocked on the door and waited.
When he answered, I immediately straight-armed my flowers at him as I stood on the top step and I told him I was a transfer student who knew no one but I was a big fan of his and then I turned to go. He thanked me and to my surprise he said, ”Come in. I’m making tea.”
I entered into his little living room and sat in one of the wing chairs next to a little fireplace with a small clock on the mantle.
Professor Alfred returned with the flowers in a vase and a pot of tea with cups. He settled in and started to ask me questions. I was caught completely off guard. I talked too much about myself because I was nervous. But finally, I had the sense to ask him questions about the play as I kept an eye on the little clock on the mantle. I did not want to outstay my welcome, but I didn’t want to leave.
After almost 25 minutes, I stood up and apologized for staying so long, and Professor Alford asked me, “Do you have a tutor?” I didn’t know what a tutor was so I was sure I could confidently tell him, “No, I don’t.” He promptly replied, “I can be your tutor.” I promptly accepted, even though I had no idea what that meant.
That night, I went to my first dinner at Kirkland House, my new dorm along the river. I had been assigned a room and I told the three or four boys who randomly settled their trays at my table that I was a transfer student and I wondered if they knew what a tutor was. I was told it was like a graduate student who was sort of an academic big brother. I told them I had randomly met Professor Alfred that afternoon and he had offered to be my tutor.
My dinner companions were shocked. “You’re kidding! Alfred is your tutor?” The next day, I rented a room on Putnam Avenue and never stopped studying for fear I would flunk out.
I was convinced that once my fellow classmates at Harvard discovered how stupid I was, it would be the rage of the campus and I would be pointed out continuously, so I never moved in to Kirkland house.
For two years, once a week at 8:30 a.m., I met Professor Alfred and we studied poetry together. At the end of each meeting he would ask, “What do you want to learn next week?” There were no limits. We talked about Greek metrics and rhymes in English and non-English in translation, and poetry all the way back through Beowulf.
In the spring, we would set up two chairs in his little backyard and he would feed the squirrels by hand as we talked. Quite unconsciously, he became my poetic surrogate father. In short, I fell in love with the man, the devout Catholic, the humanitarian and the poet.
He would at times quote from memory poems he liked. One time, he quoted: “There is in God (some say) a deep, but dazzling darkness…”
It was by Henry Vaughan (1621–1695), but I didn’t take in the rest of it. His recitation had stopped me in my tracks because of the way he delivered it. He measured out the rhythm in the air and there was an intensity in the way he looked at me that made me lose my concentration.
Although Professor Alfred was in late middle age, he loved life, and I loved that he rose to almost any occasion.
One morning as I entered, Robert Lowell, the famous poet was leaving. Professor Alfred explained, “Cal wanted to go see the artistes last night.” They had gone down to the “combat zone“ in Boston because Lowell, the old Brahman, very much out of character, wanted to see the strippers at work.
One morning as I entered, Faye Dunaway, the star of Hogan’s Goat, and Peter Wolf, the lead singer for The J Geils Band, were on the couch in the living room. The two had obviously been on a very creative overnighter, and Alfred had sat up with them because they were friends.
I graduated with honors in 1973, and when I would visit Boston or Cambridge I’d visit Nick to pick up flowers and knock on Alfred’s door. If he was in we would always talk.
It was always professor/student but it was always friend to friend. The phone would ring occasionally, and he would smile and say, “They will call back I am certain,” and we would talk some more. The friendship ripened and grew stronger over time.
In June of 1999, I traveled up to Cambridge and ambled into the Brattle Street Florist, found Nick and requested my customary bouquet of flowers. Nick looked up from the flowers he was arranging for a customer. He dried his hands as he stopped his work to talk to me. He faced me, paused, and said “He died last month. He’s up in the Harvard lot in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.”
I read last month in The Crimson that the Brattle Florist would be closing.
Nick had died but I stopped there when I was in Cambridge and got flowers. I took them to Mt Auburn and found Alfred’s grave below the tower, up the hill.
The gravestone read:
“There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness.
Oh, for that night where in him
I might live in visible and dim.”
I had missed those last two lines when he’d read them, which defined him perfectly.
There was no one around, so I spent a lot of time with him, and when I got up, my knees were wet from the ground. I think I loved him more then than I ever had before.