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  • English at Vanderbilt: A Recollection
  • Robert Benson (bio)

I have been teaching this year for forty-three years, twenty-eight of those in Sewanee, and at the age of sixty-six I have been thinking about whether I ought to retire or to teach until I drool and become more forgetful, fall asleep in my own classes, and students begin to complain and beg the dean to have me put away—or down. Harry Greene has encouraged me to quit “while they’re still cheering,” and teaching half-time for a few years seems a reasonable and prudent way to leave a world I have loved deeply for a long time. The process is a little daunting and discouraging to me. I have taught the Divine Comedy (in translation) now every term for nearly twenty years and Chaucer every term for thirty. Each semester’s work has been gratifying [End Page 299] because Dante and Chaucer demand—and richly reward—rereading. The idea of forgetting the drowning of Buonconte or the way Chaucer’s good parson knits up the feast of the Canterbury Tales and points the way to celestial Jerusalem frightens me because I am an undisciplined person, and I am not convinced that I will be able to follow Dante or the pilgrim parson without the goad of class preparation. After so many years my own pilgrimage is tied to theirs, and I worry about becoming unmoored, simply drifting.

As I have contemplated the end of teaching, I have thought more about the beginning of my vocation—my undergraduate study of English at Vanderbilt from 1959 to 1963. Much has been written about the Vanderbilt University English department through which the Fugitives passed daily. There the New Criticism was born and raised, and there I’ll Take My Stand (1930) was still considered a prophetic and influential book in the 1950s and 60s. My memories of my years at Vanderbilt are vivid, but they are also spotty and unsystematic. I am keenly aware of how inattentive and even unconscious I was in the days of my youth. But now looking back and trying to hear the voices of the men who taught me is a useful way of taking stock of the academic life I have chosen.

Edwin Godsey, a promising young poet who died in January 1966 while trying to rescue his son who had fallen through the ice on a pond in North Carolina, taught me freshman English in 1959–60. His single volume of poetry, Cabin Fever, appeared in 1967. That Edwin Godsey was a talented poet learning his craft well is obvious to anyone reading this book. His friend Lloyd Davis wrote a fine reminiscence and critical appraisal of Cabin Fever for The Vanderbilt Tradition. Godsey’s poetry reminds me at moments of Ransom’s—at first glance deceptively simple and ironical—and of David-son’s in its evocation of southern folkways and traditions; but my most vivid memories of Godsey are from the classroom. He was teaching at Vanderbilt while he finished writing his Ph.D. dissertation at Yale. In some ways he is to blame for my majoring in English, though the story is more complicated than that. But Mr. Godsey was a good teacher who took my bad writing seriously and who taught me to read. The first semester we studied short fiction from an anthology, the name of which I have forgotten, and we used Donald Davidson’s American Composition and Rhetoric to learn to write clearly and persuasively. The second semester we read poetry from Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry, and we read a few plays by Shakespeare taken from a small collection edited by Hardin Craig.

I remember during the first semester reading and approving a painfully sentimental story about failed love and space travel, a story that filled me with longing of a very vague sort and with thoughts of the girl I was dating in New Orleans. The next day we talked about that story in Mr. Godsey’s class. It was raining. Mr. Godsey was a slightly built man, about five feet seven inches tall. His face was serious and pleasant, and he...


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pp. 299-311
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