I was recently visiting my good friend, Dr. Jerry Root, in order to share with him and his beloved wife Claudia that I will be moving to Colorado to teach creative writing ~ where they are welcome to come visit me and go skiing anytime they please!
My conversations and experiences with Jerry never fail to be interesting (as I have noted before and in posts on the Brotherhood of the Briar — more than once!) for Jerry Root is a man with an expansive soul, a tender heart, and a brilliant mind. He is a professor of Christian Formation and Ministry, the assistant director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and a C.S. Lewis scholar. He preaches sermons that always change something in my soul and writes publications that have reached countless readers, including the books The Quotable Lewis and C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil. He generally makes the world a better place to live in just by being alive and being himself. He is one of the most encouraging people I have ever met, and that is no doubt why he has had such a positive impact on Wheaton College students (like our mutual friend Liz!) and the members of the churches where he has pastored.
Jerry has a penchant for remembering everything. For instance, when my housemate and I met up with him and others from Wheaton College to attend the midnight showing of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he immediately recognized her from a class she’d been in with him years before — and recalled that her mother had once visited and asked how her mother was doing now! Jerry also remembers stories about all kinds of famous people and events, especially literary sorts, and tells them to delight (and subversively instruct) whoever is listening.
On this occasion of my visit with him, in addition to celebrating the progress of the mead (a honey wine) currently fermenting in the Root Cellar, we spoke about poetry since I am going to go teach it in Colorado. We fell to talking about the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, and Jerry reached for a book our colleague, Brett Foster, had given him for his birthday, opened it, and read the poem, “Digging”:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.
Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.
My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Death of a Naturalist (1966)
Jerry said he never was himself much interested in potatoes but that Seamus Heaney made them interesting to him — that the poet’s descriptions invoke them in such a way that they come to matter. He was glad that Seamus Heaney didn’t dig with a spade, but with a pen, and so brought vividly to life for everyone who reads this poem the reality of the men in his family, Irish farmers, working the land. (We did not talk about the phrase “snug as a gun,” which does imply a darker side to Seamus Heaney’s penmanship, but it is worth thinking on further …)
Then Jerry Root read one of his favorite sonnets to me, sonnet 45 from Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence, “Astrophil and Stella.” The Greek origins of the name “Astrophil” make it mean “star lover” and “Stella” is, of course, Latin for “star.” Sonnet 45 is about Astrophil’s temporarily unrequited love, a moment when Stella reads a story about unrequited love, and Astrophil’s hope that, in so reading, her heart might be turned toward him whose experience is so like that of the protagonist in the romance she has read.
Stella oft sees the very face of woe
Painted in my beclouded stormy face,
But cannot skill to pity my disgrace,
Not though thereof the cause herself she know;
Yet hearing late a fable, which did show
Of lovers never known a grievous case,
Pity thereof gat in her breast such place
That, from that sea derived, tears’ spring did flow.
Alas, if fancy, drawn by imaged things,
Though false, yet with free scope, more grace doth breed
Than servant’s wrack, where new doubts honor brings;
Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lovers’ ruin some sad tragedy.
I am not I; pity the tale of me.
Sir Philip Sidney (16th c.)
This reminded me of Dante’s story of Paolo and Francesca (and an image of them painted by one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; see my post on myDante), who fell in love reading a book together (and paid the price for it in hell — see Dante’s Inferno, Canto V!). Both Sidney’s poem and Dante’s are about how stories can affect the human heart in love. It’s a powerful idea.
Seamus Heaney gives us acute observation of his family at work in the natural world. Sidney gives us, like stargazer lilies, the lover waiting for the beloved to return the heart’s desires. Jerry Root has given me cause to think of these poets and their poems.
What has he given to you?