“It takes a husbandman with spade and hoe
To teach the learned, who profess to know…”
from the poem “Sufficient Wisdom” in the eponymous book of poems by Father Arthur MacGillivray S.J., 1943, Bruce Humphries, Inc., Boston
Someone once told me that part of all of us remains nineteen for the rest of our lives, which I think is true. For many in my generation, that time of greatest disillusionment and the shock of early adulthood occurred in 1968 in the terrible three months of the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. For other unfortunates, the amber in which they stuck like fossils was the “summer of love” and Woodstock in 1969. For me, at only seventeen years old, it was 1963 outside the book depository in Dallas[i], and my freshman year at Boston College. On the afternoon of the assassination after the university cancelled all the classes, we drifted in the streets of an almost silent Boston, stunned like everyone else. Small eclectic groups of neighbors and strangers gathered around car radios or televisions in homes, bars and shop windows following the events in disbelief.
There are much happier memories though of that year after high school. Father MacGillivray with whom I studied for my first two semesters is one of them[ii]. I was recently reminded of him through a conversation with my brothers about E.B. White, author of beloved children’s books like “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little,” and one of the most accomplished essayists of the American mid twentieth century. We studied White with Father MacGillivray, especially his “Elements of Style” and an extensive analysis of his definitive long essay about the Big Apple, “Here is New York[iii].” To say he opened worlds and gifted us with an irreplaceable formation previously unimagined would be a woeful understatement.
Before we started, we were assigned a freshmen summer reading list, including Thomas Merton’s “Seven Story Mountain,” James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” There was a fourth book, I think, which eludes me.
He was somewhat dramatic with a trained theatrical voice he would employ to great effect doing readings of plays, essays and poetry. On winter mornings, he would sweep around campus in a red lined black cloak greeting all with an ironic smile, sparkling eyes and a friendly nod. We read and analyzed in some depth Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” which we memorized and recited. I still remember parts of it. “I fled Him down the nights and days; I fled Him down the arches of the years: I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter…” .
We studied among many works “Macbeth,” Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man” and the “Road Not Taken.” We spent almost a month on T.S. Eliot’s[iv] “The Hollow Men,” “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” “Ash Wednesday” and finally “The Wasteland,” many of the allusions in which were wasted on me.
“He seemed to know that all the choicest fruits
Mature by early tugging at the roots,
That once the earth is clear of stick and stone,
‘Tis wisdom to leave well enough alone.”
from the poem “Sufficient Wisdom” as above.
After a series of emails with my brothers and sister, I grew curious and regretted not having done research earlier. Father MacGillivray had published his own poems in 1943 in his book “Sufficient Wisdom,” which he never mentioned to us. I learned he had exchanged letters with Eliot and knew Robert Frost well from a series of lectures Frost delivered at the college, facts also previously unknown to me. I found a picture (shown above) of him with Mr. Frost cutting an 82nd birthday cake, which was Frost’s last. The Boston College archives has a book left to it in 2000, when Father MacGillivray died: a first edition of Frost’s inscribed to him and with some lines in Robert Frost’s own blocky hand printing. At first the book generated great excitement, as it was thought the short stanza was an unpublished Frost poem, however it turned out to have been from his earlier work, “Kitty Hawk”:
“But God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
Father MacGillivray’s own book was long out of print, but I was able to locate a used copy through Abe Books in a small bookstore in Ohio, which I promptly bought for $12.50. In wonderful condition with the original dust cover, a first (and probably only) edition, it found its way to Ohio from the library of Admiral Richard Byrd to whom it was inscribed by the author. He met the famous explorer and Medal of Honor winner on a train trip to Connecticut in 1956 six months before Byrd’s own death in March of 1957. The inscription in Father MacGillivray’s strong cursive was on the inside flyleaf: “For Admiral Richard E. Byrd with grateful remembrance of our train-meeting on your way to Bridgeport – October 19, 1956, Fr. Arthur MacGillivray, S.J.” I fantasize a brilliant serendipitous conversation between the two, wiling away the monotony of a three-hour train ride.
His poems are full of tree and farming metaphors, of seasons and weather and nature’s gratuitous order and beauty. I will persist as time allows to learn why. I marveled at some of them, harkening back vivid memories five decades old. Father M was a miner of minds. He cunningly and carefully placed his charges and detonated them with perfect timing. When the noise quieted and the dust cleared, he exposed clean veins of insight in the ego encrusted bedrock of our seventeen-year-old selves. Veins that have yet to be exhausted.
A small treasure of a book that I never knew existed. Makes 2020 already a good year.
“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.”
[i] I once wrote a blog post on the Kennedy assassination. November 23, 1963, if you have interest. The same day was also the date of the deaths within hours of Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis. That coincidence was the subject of a book I enjoyed by Dr. Peter Kreeft, who is a longtime professor of philosophy at Boston College: Between Heaven and Hell, A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Between-Heaven-Hell-Somewhere-Kennedy-ebook/
[ii] The English Literature course with Father M was three of the eighteen credits that were considered full time. For me in addition were a lab biology intensive (my initial major), French, Old Testament theology, Logic as a prelude to Epistemology and Pre-calculus/calculus.