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Frayed notes trigger memories of college days

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow

Dolly Withrow is a retired English professor and the author of four books. She is a columnist for The State Journal and the Charleston Daily Mail. She is also a regular essayist for Now & Then, a scholarly publication published by East Tennessee State University. Contact Dolly at

 "Black God on the black cross, white Christ upon the tree./Sloe-eyed God whose hands are yellow./Red Sun whom the red men follow./Brown-skinned Jesus by the sea./Who, in heaven, fashioned me?" — Louse McNeill 

Cleaning my office one snowy day, I found yellowed notes in a desk drawer, notes I had long ago scribbled on tattered scraps of paper. The last two lines of the first stanza of McNeill's poem were on top of the stack: "Brown-skinned Jesus by the sea./Who, in heaven, fashioned me?" Reading those words again, I was reminded of the time I met Louise McNeill. Sitting in a room at Morris Harvey College (now University of Charleston), I watched her as she stood before an audience. She wore an ankle-length gown and rhythmically tapped her foot as she recited her poetry. Those yellowed notes elicited more memories of my travels through countless books of literature.

I read the next note: "As an ‘older' student, I consumed Romantic poetry, especially enjoying William Blake's "Book of Urizen," about which I had written a long essay. The essay has long disappeared from my files. Traveling through the proverbial realms of gold, I visited Coleridge's Xanadu and after sampling additional servings in graduate school, I thought Coleridge might have traveled to Xanadu on puffs of opium. I wandered, "lonely as a cloud" with Wordsworth and pondered Keats' enigmatic statement about truth and beauty triggered by a Grecian urn. I savored Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind." It was, however, during my reading of Shelley's sonnet "Ozymandias" that I felt as insignificant as I still do when gazing up into the infinite expanse of  heavens on a starlit night. As one new to great literature, I remember being surprised at the strange pronunciation of  "Juan" in Lord Byron's poem "Don Juan," Juan rhyming with "doin'" instead of "dawn."

Sampling a dab of this and a dollop of that, I acquired a taste for stream-of-consciousness prose even as one acquires a taste for bleu cheese. Stream-of-consciousness appealed to me because our fragmentary thoughts can jump forward into the future and back into the past and land once again into the present—and all within a split second. Virginia Woolf and others in her genre spoke to me. 

My diet of words helped me to understand a little better human motivation and behavior. It was odd, though, for the more I read and the more I learned, the less I felt I knew. I observed those who pretended to know more than they could possibly know, and I marveled at their unabashed display of self-esteem. I grew to recognize the comfort-inducing results of making others think we have knowledge we really lack. At some point, then, during my devouring of words (we are what we eat), I began to understand the utter ignorance of self-delusion, of pretending to have a sure knowledge of facts that are forever withheld from us mortals. We humans often pretend to know what we do not know and often pretend to believe what we sometimes doubt.

I later was served the works of Poe and Melville and Hawthorne and many others, writers whose works reveal the dark side of nature.

When I first read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," I didn't know one day I would be teaching a linguistics class, explaining why Eliot called upon poetic license when using ‘I' instead of ‘me' in his first lines, despite his breaking of usage rules. 

In retrospect, I know now that when I was explaining the pronoun misuse, my students' thoughts must have drifted out the windows and floated ‘lonely as a cloud' over the West Virginia hills. My tattered notes written years earlier brought back memories of literature that helped to form part of my philosophy. In her poem "Reflections Without Color," the late Louise McNeill helped to broaden my perspective. Thanks to Phyllis Wilson Moore, who found, scanned and e-mailed the poem to me, I was able to read the entire poem again. Recently, though, I found my copy of a chapbook containing Pease's poem. Like all great literature, it has stood the test of time.