Tomorrow is the memorial for a favourite teacher, Dougal Fraser, up in Vancouver, and I’m not going to make it, having been laid low with bronchitis and a slipped disk (yes one can cough that hard), so I’ll post here the remarks I’d thought to make there.
Mostly I want to say that Dougal helped instil in me a love of poetry that will last me my life long. And that’s a comfort I thank him for. And so I thought I’d read a few bits of poetry that came to mind when the invitation came to speak today.
One speaks to my sense of something dark or even tragic in his seeing. Because it’s hard being a person, it just is, and he knew it, and he wanted us to enter the world not ignorant of the fact.
This is from the Old English poem “The Seafarer.” The speaker is saying why he prefers a life of restless wandering at sea to one of easy complacency on land. And today I hear in his words a case for a life of restless wandering in mind.
The Old English poem, the bit I have in mind, looks like this
and translated goes a bit like this
Always, for each, one of three things
near the end has thrown all in doubt:
illness, old age, or rage of the sword
wrests life from all who must, fated
to die, go forth. The best word-trace
a man may leave is the praise of those
who live to speak afterward: how he
brought to pass, before he went on,
good works on earth against evil,
daring acts to confound the devil,
the children of men praise him after,
that praise resounds forever and ever
among angels, the glory of eternal life,
joy in the host of heaven. Those days
of majesty on earth have passed now
though, there are no kings or caesars
or goldgivers like there once were,
performing the most glorious deeds
and living in lordly renown. Fallen
that company and past those joys.
Dougal was also, as all who knew him know, a reservoir of joy, and irreverent unto high iconoclasm, by which I mean a great clown, a clown of greatness. So Shakespeare’s Falstaff comes too to mind — the one whose wit’s so sharp it might skewer not just kings but kingship. Here he is on the verge of undoing the whole code of manhood and warmongering.
How then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word ‘honour’? What is that ‘honour’? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But it will not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.
Scutcheon: decorative heraldic panel. That his agenda’s mostly selfish just sweetens the dish.
I didn’t come to either of these works in my studies with Dougal — only later. As a last taste, one bit from something we did read together in Brit Lit 12, whose magnificent rhythms made it through my thick intemperate skin somehow. This from 1 Corinthians 13:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
Dougal, I don’t know who you are seeing face to face right now — maybe a heavenly host, maybe a diet of worms — but I hope you are having a good laugh together. You were brilliant and fickle and kind and mean in the best imaginable way and one of the most fully human beings it has been my good fortune to know.