They came across like a flood when the traffic light changed, the girls in sweaters with books shelved in their folded arms and the wind fiddling with their hair, the young men in shirtsleeves or field jackets, bareheaded or wearing canvas hats. Toward the time when the campanile bell would ring two o’clock, they had loitered out as couples or little groups from the restaurants and rooming houses, until they jammed the corner opposite the campus with a nearly amorphous concentration of movement. Except for linked arms here and there and a few couples holding hands, the bodies in the crowd did not quite touch. Nevertheless, when the light turned green something to be felt like a physical drag swept them all in a single direction and carried Orin Corrigan with them over to the diverging campus walks.
A girl in a plaid skirt shouldered into him, looked up with innocent, hard eyes. After she had reasoned that such an old man must be a professor, she said, “Par me”, and trotted ahead of him as if she counted on pure hurry to bring her up with friends sooner or later.
Corrigan took the same walk as she and watched the distance between them increasing. He saw her fat little hips work comically under the plaid until she was screened from sight by a crossing flow of students. I wasn’t really laughing at her, he thought, turning right to avoid the crowd—nor at any of their genitive fashions. I was laughing because to my eye all this never changes. It was only the decrepitude of the body and the heart’s deliverance from longing that registered change.
To the naiveté of his senses the school year seemed to begin as years had begun for a very long time now. Once again the drying elm leaves and the autumnal brassiness of the sky kept a silence for him over the babble of the students surging toward their first classes. Under the changeless sky their rhythm and tone seemed exactly what it had been when he first came along this walk in 1921. He was a student him self then, but had been no more a part of them than he was now. Then he was, if you please, a cowboy from Western Nebraska who had never been farther from home than Fort Riley, where he served a short hitch in the cavalry. He had come to the University with a new black suit from Denver wrapped in paper at the bottom of his suitcase, wearing that same black suit nearly every day through his first three years. He had worn it on this very sidewalk, his hands hanging raw and big and awkward from the sleeves like the token burdens of his separation from the others. He was older than they, even then, almost thirty when he enrolled as a Freshman here. He was also taller than most and had the habit of walking with his head thrown back a little—partly from shyness, partly to catch the air and the overhead sights, and partly because it had once seemed a poetic stance.
His unaltered habit of alertness let him hear and see—no clearer after all these years of expectancy—the shrill harmony the unknown students made with such a day. The emotional part of his imagination transposed it to an entity crowded with wings and horns that blew the failing seasonal magic, the dignity of youth, and the dignity of their faithful ignorance as it clattered on under such a sky.
Well, well, well... he had caught this much of meaning before, so many times. He had come to the University first because he caught—like a tall snowman catching snowballs in the face—so many things which beat up his emotions and which he meant to write down as poetry. And when it came right down to it, he had stayed too long because he had never quite managed to find the verbal shapes for what he knew. There had been no failure of initial vision, he thought soberly, but a failure of language, a failure to convert. The passage of thirty-odd years had clarified and then accommodated that failure.
Quite a lot of years ago he had published two volumes of verse—Ranger Ballads and Days West. Nice things had been said about the books when they were new. For a little while in the late Twenties he had been a figure on the national literary scene. He was one of the “younger poets” compared rather favorably with Sandburg, Masters, and Lindsay. That was fine—worth what it was worth. His wife had been proud of his position, though by the time he had married Gail his little bit of fame was already fading into the past. To the end of her life Gail believed that he had “contributed something” to American poetry and he was glad she thought so. But for him the illusion that his published work mattered went with everything else, whistled away by the knowledge that he had never learned to write out the best things he knew.
It was not in his nature to be bitter about this failure. The effort to write had carried him bitter enough to see life better than he could have if he had not tried. If there were no words of his own for all this, there was, like an armory open to him, poetry to borrow for the expression of his reverence. He might have “gone farther” as some of his colleagues said if he had not learned here so awfully much of the poetry on the library shelves. He thought what he had learned worth the price of ambition. He had got what he needed most.
For two steps he limped as the shock of remembered words met the shock of his straining senses. “And in my heart how deep, unending, ache of love...” For every detail of it all, he thought—these kids, the weather, the disastrous neo-classic buildings of the main campus, the post-prandial mellowness of his bowels. Armed with the verse he could confront the mystery of the day without a shadow of dread.
A workman on top of Sedley Hall threw down a handful of leaves from a choked raingutter. They fell separating and flashing yellow from the height of the building. A few struck among the vines on the wall and then tumbled after die others like a shower of notes from stringed instruments. Beauty momentary in the mind... but in the flesh it is immortal. Stevens’ paradox might be a game of wit for some of his younger colleagues. As for himself, he believed it. Leaves fell and his good young wife was dead and their beauty for having been, was immortal. What had been was the unchangeable and everlasting. In truth—through the truth of poetry—what had been was enough for a man and left no room for anguish. He had lived close to despair when Gall died two years before. She had so much not wanted to die and that was worse than death itself, and she had gone before he had patiently taught her that neither of them quite needed to be what she had always wanted and sometimes imagined them to be. “A little too soon,” he had thought in a terrible sacrilegious rebellion against her death.
But finally he knew better than that. In the very incompleteness of life was its immortality—a tricky and worthless enough immortality without poetry to illuminate it, he supposed. But there was poetry, and in it the whole story was told, finished, rounded to completeness. The true aspiration was not to alter or add to it, but to rise through emulation to the point at which it could be grasped. That was all he must slyly teach his class. He must urge them on the way toward the inevitable and welcome submission to the loss of the world. He must never tell them toward what it was that they must aspire.