Cloud of Witnesses: Richard Eberhart

Odd it seems to see a historical marker on the house of Richard Eberhart (1904-2005). My English class met there weekly in the early 1960s before the pillars of our firmament were pulled down by the cultural chaos of ugly years panting to break forth. As Poet-in-Residence at Dartmouth, having been Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress for a couple of years, he taught us to write in front of the fireplace at 5 Webster Terrace, a short walk to Occom Pond. In winter we played ice hockey on that pond, for indoor hockey seemed a contradiction in terms. Mrs. Eberhart, Betty, was hospitable, and her family’s company, Butcher’s Wax in Boston, helped to polish the poet’s income.

That the relentlessly benign, pipe- smoking, elfin endomorph would live a full 101 years was never a conjecture to sophomores who thought all professors were beyond chronological reference. He was barely 60 when he used a poem of mine to inaugurate a new printing press using antique typeset. To 5 Webster Terrace came a parade of poets better known to the world than to undergraduates (for all learning is post-graduate), and we refreshed them with our blithe insouciance. “Mr. Warren, do your friends call you Robert or Penn?” “Mr. Tate, have you been writing very long?” Alan Tate was the first Catholic metaphysical poet to enter my universe. Eberhart had a reserved religious sense and was a fixture in the local Episcopal church. Some said he was a relic of Henri Bergson, whose convert Catholicism informed the professor’s governing maxims: “Poems in a way are spells against death,” and “Style is the perfection of a point of virtue.” He had been Robert Lowell’s teacher at St. Mark’s School but only obliquely referred to Lowell’s pirouette with Catholicism. He did speak of Lowell as of a son, albeit a manic one. He was paternal with us, too, writing chatty notes to our parents. The friend of Eliot and the Sitwells, in all his sophistication he could not bring himself to tell us the content of Oscar Wilde’s crime. In this I think we were not ignorant but rather innocent, in a way incomprehensible now to an earthly city invaded by the Vulgar tribe.

Eberhart’s piercing eye for the death of things began with his mother’s death when he was a teenager, just before his father lost his fortune: “In June, amid the golden fields/I saw a groundhog lying dead./Dead lay he; my senses shook/and mind outshot our naked frailty.” He continued on to Cambridge University after graduating from Dartmouth and worked on a tramp steamer. A favorite story was of spending 1931 and 1932 as tutor to the son of the king of Siam. When King Prajadhipok, with 600 pieces of luggage, came to New York for eye surgery, Eberhart took the royal entourage to the Cotton Club in Harlem. After surgery, all bowed as the king’s cataract was carried around on a silken pillow. Experience of World War II service in the navy produced “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment.” In the first stanza, “The infinite spaces are still silent” paraphrases Pascal in the Pensées: “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraye.” Latterly the Bollingen Prize and all the usual decorations came to him. I may claim a Pulitzer Prize—winning semi-colon, for he asked me to help edit his anthology that got the award in 1966, and the semi-colon was the one suggestion of mine that he took.

As the last of the post—World War I academic poets, flashing sestinas and villanelles, he read Ginsberg to us, with the unction of an anthropologist unveiling a howling curiosity. Professor Eberhart took another tack, and in a pleasant house now marked with a tablet as though the house itself had died, he read to teenaged scriveners of a “Mystery made visible…/This lyric mortal loveliness/The earth breathing, and the sun.”

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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