for John Milton and Stephen Westergan
I’ve only just planted my seeds,
and already I’m pulling up the harvest–
the seasons have been sped
before the shoots broke soil.
Give me time, let me wait for rain!
See, my dirt is still dry . . .
Perhaps if I stoop to pluck,
some migrant hands will bend with me.
Bright brooding wings might sing
some work song, tragic fingers help
to shake the dust from little roots
if Memory serve me,
I’ll serve her one day, reap her wheat
beside her daughters in some redder autumn
after damper spring–
only help me pull back these little seeds
before the coming drought still them withall.
And of what shall the wings sing?
Of the sower, of course, giver of seed
sung of before, praising tunes
that drew me to these fields
the lush crops to admire
and the pregnant fruits to taste.
I took a satchel of seeds from him
upon my back,
took fire from his lips
that put sweat on my mouth’s indent
which I tasted on my tongue.
Daemon-chased and chasing sower,
who flew through the planting spilling seeds
and coaxing out of the dirt
musical wheat for baking rich breads.
The field is empty now, plow abandoned,
satchel of seed left in the rows empty.
Trees that nodded outside his cottage window
and gave shade to the stalks of wheat
drop their leaves like sighs,
bark curling with grief.
Why could not the bread he grew
nourish him? Why did you,
O Memory, quick the rising of those loaves
and fill his hungry plate with soft crusts?
Where were the other tillers who labored
beside him when his crumbs were spilt?
Where was the wheat?
O futile plowing!
Deep as the metal blade cuts,
long as the seed waits to sprout up,
gentle as the care of hands and rain,
it all came for naught.
Why delve as deep into the soil for rich loan
when scrabble on dusty rocks
feeds most empty bellies?
The textured bread from his wheat
could sop a thousand meaty stews
and still be dry, and a single bite
filled deep hunger and made one hungry still,
hungry for more of those rich loaves.
But now that hunger will not be sated
by dry crusts, though that is now all we eat.
We have new sowers now, and new bakers,
and his cottage is turned dark and empty
as our rumbling stomachs;
new sowers and bakers without wheat and bread,
though possessed of king’s commission–
as though decree could feed us.
Oh, I long to smash their plows and ovens!
I will build him great statues, then,
to stand in his field as he did,
tall and proud with satchels and loaves
like his, I will build him pillars
of marble and obsidian, angelic tall!
But what needs my sower piled stones,
that will not grow even poor scrabble?
No, I will plant for him, bake for him,
make breads as textured and as rich
from wheat as lovingly planted.
I will fill bellies with food and hunger both.
And in my hands will be his
when I strew the seeds on deep-plowed dirt,
when I swing my scythe to cut down wheat,
when I bundle long stalks
and when I pull
the flowery tops apart from chaff,
when I grind the seed between stones
and knead soft elastic dough into loaves
to make soft, crusty bread.
And I will send my sower on to other fields,
still chased by daemons, still chasing them,
and together we’ll catch those fiery fiends
and sit them down with us to supper.
Even now I see him, satchel and scythe,
his beard blown in autumn winds,
walking along rural lanes while I make harvest.
Even now I see him, striding ahead,
to make new fields ready for our crop.
Stephen Westergan was the instructor for my class on John Milton; he obviously had a big impact on me, both in the way he taught the class and the example he gave of living a rich life of the mind.
We didn’t touch “Paradise Lost” until late in the semester; before we even read a line of Milton, we were introduced to Greek and Roman mythology, Homer and Virgil, the Old Testament, and Milton’s contemporaries. We had to be prepared to meet Satan, Adam, and the vengeful God; it was a classical education compressed into a few weeks. Most classes, we sat in a circle and discussed what we had read, with Stephen sitting on the edge of his chair, fingers at his temples as he listened hard to what we were saying and guided us along.
Stephen represented the best in college teaching: he had a deep love and respect for his material, high expectations for his students, and an almost superhuman ability to listen and guide and teach. And because of his passion, we students were driven to at least not let him down, even if we struggled to rise to his expectations. Reading and understanding Milton was the most important thing in the world in those classes.
He played cello in the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, and I’d often see him crossing the Main Street Bridge over the Fox River with his cello case and long coat. He looked the part of a Milton scholar: tall and thin, with wild red hair and beard, always wearing a rumpled suit; he could well have stepped out of the pages of Stoner, or a Renaissance salon. He had an intensity about him, as if he could barely contain all the poetry roiling about in his head, but at the same time an easy approachability.
At the time I took his class, he was still “Mr. Westergan”: he hadn’t finished his dissertation yet, a fact that he occasionally mentioned, like when he explained the “sympathetic fallacy” with an anecdote about receiving encouragement from the wind-blown trees outside his window when he was working on an especially tricky part. The life of an ABD instructor at a liberal arts college is tenuous, no matter how good a teacher you are, and during that year the college started interviewing for other instructors. I was one of the students who got to see these applicants–”new sowers and bakers without wheat and bread, / though possessed of king’s commission”–and I was generally unimpressed, firmly a partisan for Stephen. Replace Mr. Westergan with some diploma-mill hack? That would be like scuttling the course on Milton in favor of a class on modern advertising jingles!
Things have worked out well for Stephen. He’s still at St. Norbert College, with “Professor” attached to his name, and he won the Founder’s Award in 2003. At RateMyProfessors, he gets a 2.2 for “easiness” (that sounds about right), and 5 for helpfulness (though I don’t understand why there’s no “hotness” rating–he was certainly one of the handsomest teachers at the college). It sounds like he continues to inspire students.
Alas, this poem that he inspired has some problems. The central metaphor is muddled (is he a baker? a farmer? is it harvest or planting time? and is the speaker a student or a peer?), and the pastoral form (inspired, of course, by Milton’s Lycidas) feels clunky and forced. Parts of it are more than a little overwrought, and the jumble of classical and Biblical references is a tangled and unfocused mess. But as an undergraduate ode to a great teacher, and a sort of seminar paper on the classics and pedagogy, I’d give it a solid C and ask for a few revisions.