The Piper at the Gates of Dawn by
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(146 Stories)

Prompted By Children's Books

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From a 1913 edition of The Wind in the Willows

This story is about a children’s book and much more. It is dedicated to the Mills College that was and the irreplaceable impact it has had on me and generations of students, and to the memory of Elizabeth Pope, Mills Professor Emerita of English.

Shortly after she began, I heard a soft sniffle from somewhere in the lecture hall. A minute after that, another.

As an early and voracious reader, I’d gone through all the children’s books in my home and at the local library by the time I was about ten, and then got special permission to switch to the adult section. I had read The Wind in the Willows by then, but I don’t clearly remember much of it from that time, except for the antics of Mr. Toad and his wild ride.

In the fall of 1972, my family moved to California and I started at Mills, where I decided to switch my major from theater to English. I enrolled in a yearlong course required for majors, “Basic Myths of Western Civilization.” Yes, we were to spend the entire year studying Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology as a basis for later literature, and yes, the course turned out to have tremendous value, hard as it is to believe such a course would exist today. Dr. Pope, a diminutive, round, white-haired woman, walked with a cane because of polio. She taught the course seated at a table, easier for her to manage than a lectern.

One morning in class, toward the end of the first semester, Dr. Pope said she was going to read part of a chapter from The Wind in the Willows, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, to show the effect mythological figures could have, even in children’s literature. The story involves Mole and Rat, who row down a river all night to search for the missing son of Otter. At dawn they hear achingly beautiful and mysterious piping, and they find the baby otter in the care of the god Pan, who then erases from the animals all memory of the incident. Here is a portion of what Dr. Pope read:

” … and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, [Mole] looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”

Shortly after she began, I heard a soft sniffle from somewhere in the lecture hall. A minute after that, another. As Dr. Pope continued reading, she reached for a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. Within another few minutes, there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere. When she finished, the silence lingered for several minutes as emotions ruled. Dr. Pope said, “I cry every time I read that.”*

About three years later, I sat in a classroom at UC Berkeley as an MA student in the English department. I still found it improbable that I was there; first, that I’d even been admitted. I came from a small school and didn’t intend to do a PhD. And second, that I could afford to attend; I’d won an academic prize my senior year at Mills, which paid my tuition. I was taking a class on English courtier poetry, taught by a young, accomplished, and clearly brilliant assistant professor who had an arrogant streak (not named here because this person is now a famous professor at Harvard). The class was small by Berkeley standards, and the poetry fascinating.

We were discussing some poems by Thomas Wyatt. I can’t remember which one came up. It probably was “Whoso List to Hunt” or “They Flee from Me.” At one point I said, “I really loved this poem.” Dead silence. The oxygen had left the room. The professor came up, looked at me, and said, “It’s totally irrelevant to our work here whether or not you like a poem,” and walked away. Apparently I’d committed what the English department considered a cardinal sin, and everyone had known about this prohibition except me. As a consequence of this one comment, my reputation, which is everything in graduate school, would be toast.

That evening I sat in my room pondering what I thought was a bleak future. I just didn’t subscribe to this scenario. Why would I want to spend the rest of my career not being able to say I was enjoying what I was studying or working on? What to do? When I got up the next morning, I went to campus and withdrew from the program, a decision I’ve never regretted.

*While collecting the excerpt of The Wind and the Willows for this story, I came across evidence that Mills folks weren’t the only ones who cried when reading The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Christopher Milne (the son of Winnie the Pooh’s A.A. Milne) recounts that this part of the book was his mother’s favorite, and “read to me again and again with always, towards the end, the catch in the voice and the long pause to find her handkerchief and blow her nose.”

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I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Wonderful story Marian, and good to learn more about your humanities side as we know the science-techie side!

    I agree the need to refrain from saying why you love a piece of literature would have been intolerable. I also don’t understand the school of literary criticism that discusses the ideas of writers but not their writing style! To me style is what it’s all about – and it’s certainly what makes us cry.

    And I cry too – at the last line of Mrs Dalloway when Peter is overwhelmed when Clarissa suddenly appears before him.
    And at the final YES in James Joyce’s Ulysses!

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    You made me realize that our commentary in Retrospect would be taboo in an English literature class ha ha. I loved your story. And it sounds like you made the right move, especially since you can continue to enjoy reading and literature on your own terms. There was (is?) an honors major at Harvard on folklore and mythology—wonder if your unnamed haughty professor landed there.

    • Marian says:

      I think this entire prompt would blow up some English departments, Khati. The folklore and mythology major sounds fascinating, but based on the well known books this professor has written, I think he’d be in the English department with a Tudor and Elizabethan specialty.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    I loved your story, Marian, and could not agree more with your bafflement at being criticized for loving a poem. I mean, what is the point of literature, if not to move the readers. To tears sometime (as was also noted with Beth’s death, and certainly with Charlotte, too) and other times to peels of joyous laughter. I think our side has won this culture war, at least.

    Incidentally, while I didn’t major in folklore and mythology at Harvard, I did take a course in it as part of my anthropology major and loved it. While we read only folktales from outside the Anglo/German/American tradition — I recall Turkish, Japanese, Native American and Nigerian in particular — the main point was how universal the adventures and morals of these stories all were. And, of course, almost all these societies had their “tricksters.”

    • Marian says:

      Beth’s and Charlotte’s deaths get me every time, John. What a great Harvard course you had. Looking back, my mythology course should have had worldwide focus. I did take Central and South American anthropology, and am fascinated by those precolumbian civilizations to this day.

  4. Suzy says:

    Thanks for this story, Mare. I loved the passage from The Wind in the Willows that you included, and could imagine it being read aloud by a beloved professor and having everyone in the class in tears. As for the Berkeley professor who is now at Harvard, I am of course curious about who it is, but think his attitude was dreadful and you were so right to leave the program. I agree with you that how you feel about a poem is important, and if English scholars think otherwise, then I’m very glad I wasn’t an English major!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I have wondered from time to time if this professor ever changed his attitude. He was really young (maybe not even 30) when he taught the class I was in. In my charitable moods I hope he matured.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a beautiful story, Marian. I love that Dr. Pope cried every time she read that passage. As an undergrad English major, I also reacted emotionally to works I read, especially poems. To deny a student’s love for a piece of literature is cruel. I don’t care how famous that professor became. The ability of an author to impact a reader’s emotions is an amazing gift.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    I’m with you, Marian – Beth, Charlotte=tears! Isn’t part of the point of reading great literature to enjoy it and elicit a reaction? I am glad you withdrew (can’t believe your reputation was toast from then on…good grief!) and never regretted it.

    Lovely that you dedicated this piece to your professor and Mills College.

    • Marian says:

      Graduate school was very politicized when I was there, Betsy, although I can’t speak for all programs. I think part of the scenario might be due to associating emotional reactions with women, who were particularly unwelcome at the time. Can you believe that? The English department? Female faculty were having an awful time back then as well.

  7. Such a gorgeous, heartfelt story, Mare! I love that moment when you made a personal choice that took you in another direction, your true north. I feel like I know you better after reading this. XO

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    It seems like the Prof. was one of those who thinks that cynical detachment is the height of cool and the sign of a true intellectual. Very sad. But to call you out like that for daring to be enthusiastic was sadistic.

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