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mcnaron

From the moment I decided to return to graduate school for my Ph.D., I knew where I wanted to go: the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Helen C. White taught there, and I knew her work on seventeenth-century metaphysical poets in England. My dissertation was to be on John Donne, so no place could be better for me. There were other scholars of Donne and his band, but Miss White (I thought of her fondly as I struggled through my second year of teaching in Vicksburg, Mississippi) wrote about them in language that echoed their own. One of my favorite of her sentences went something like this: The metaphysicals wanted to bring home the sunset in a hat. I was charmed by her and set about getting myself admitted to her department.

My application was accepted, and in the fall of 1961 1 packed my forest green VW with all the belongings that meant anything to me and drove steadily north from Alabama. Once in Madison, I went promptly to the English Department only to find that Miss White was not only a teacher but also the department chair. As I sat in an uncomfortable chair outside her office, my palms began to sweat, and I felt the familiar queasiness that often accompanies excitement. My name was spoken in a low melodic tone, and I rose to enter my hero's chamber. The woman who welcomed me, standing several inches over six feet, had snow white hair crowning a luminous face (a trace of the faintest pink lipstick was the only visible sign of makeup) and wore a suit of the deepest purple I'd ever seen. (In the South of that time, very elderly ladies sometimes wore lavender to teas, but this was royal purple with no muting or apology.)

I have no idea what either of us said during the fifteen minutes of my visit, but I left in a fog of adoration which never dissipated during the three years I was a student. My exposure to Miss White, or the Purple Goddess, as she was called by English Department graduate students, consisted of a lecture course on Metaphysical Poetry; a graduate seminar on Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Crashaw, and Vaughan; close work with her on my dissertation; a trip to the corner grocery store to fetch cider and cookies for her to serve to a group of freshmen whom she had volunteered to entertain; a summer spent putting her books in alphabetical order; and a crucial thirty minutes in her office when I thought I might have to leave Wisconsin to be closer to home and my ailing mother.


Reprinted with Ms. McNaron's permission.

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