RIP: Karl Maurer, 9/12/48 – 5/4/15

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By Daniel Orazio,

Contributing Writer

 

 

 

 

 

Karl Maurer in Italy, the country he once called “the spine of all that is good in the world.” -Photo courtesy of Patsy Craig.
Karl Maurer in Italy, the country he once called “the spine of all that is good in the world.”
-Photo courtesy of Patsy Craig.

It does not seem possible that a world without Dr. Maurer could be so beautiful as the one in which he lived: that the sun could shine so brightly, or the birds sing so enchantingly, or coffee smell so good.  One of his favorite poems was Thomas Hardy’s “Afterwards,” in which the speaker wonders what people will say about him when he is gone:

“When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,/ And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,/ Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbors say,/ ‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?”

The leaves in May, “the dewfall-hawk” that “comes crossing the shades to alight/ Upon the wind-warped upland thorn,” the hedgehog that “travels furtively over the lawn,” and the “full-starred heavens that winter sees”: we have indeed lost one who used to notice such things.

What tribute would be adequate for this man?  Before I met him I knew nothing and no one; he quickly remedied these lacks.  He taught me Latin and Greek and a love of poetry, and he introduced me to so many friends: Catullus, Propertius, Horace, Vergil (as American classics spell the great poet’s name) and Solon; Herbert, Hardy, Housman and Frost; Auden, Betjeman and Larkin; and Jacob Balde (of course).  Near the end of his life he rediscovered music. Soon he had my eyes staring wide at Julia Fischer — and my heart lifting to her performance of Schubert’s “Violin Sonata in A Major.”

He was the most irrepressible man I ever knew. He was alive.  The seething intensity of his hatreds — directed (to choose a few targets at random) at aboricide, rock music, skyscrapers and solecisms — was more than matched by the passion of his loves: for language, poetry and his brother Kit; for birdsong, trees and weather of all kinds; for David Sweet and his favorite students.  To many at this school he was just a caricature. For some, he was an annoyance. For us who loved him, he was a life-changing gift from God.

The first time I met him was during freshman advising in the fall of 2009.  As chairman of the classics department, he had read my placement exam and decided, for reasons I still cannot imagine, to place me into Intermediate Latin II (when I felt I belonged in Grammar Review).  Grace Starry West called him into her office as she was discussing my schedule with me, whereupon he startled her — and scared and amused me — by sharing with a grin his intention to “boil away” any student who would not work.

My first quizzes for both Latin and Elementary Greek received F’s.  I hung around, though.  How could I not, when on the first day of Latin class he had declared that “the farther north in Europe you go, the more barbaric the buildings become”?  Who could drop a class from a professor who says that he would sooner be a dog than a person who knew no meter; a professor who says that bad Shakespearean actors (bad because they do not recite in meter!) should have their tongues pulled out and, harnessed like horses, be made to pull carts “till they get the meter”; a professor who exclaims, “I keep forgetting that I’ve changed countries and now live among the Hottentots in Southern Africa —that’s how small your English vocabulary is”?  Yes, he made us laugh, and through his constant quizzes, he made us learn.

In a culture so crude and stupid as our own, a teacher who reads good poems to his students will win any heart in the room with the faintest sensitivity to beauty.  That first semester he read us Tennyson’s “To Virgil,” teaching us that “measure” must be “moulded by the lips,” not cogitated by the brain.  Later, in the Balde class, he read aloud “Death’s Echo,” that haunting Auden poem that urges, “Dance, dance, dance till you drop.”  It was a revelation for me: Auden!  Of course, when he himself was young, he had learned hundreds of lines of Auden by heart, lines he was still reciting during his final hospital stay.  That’s another lesson he taught us: when you love a poem, you learn it by heart.  It’s music, after all.

When, still later, he showed us Hardy’s “Afterwards,” he defined “postern” as “an unobtrusive back door” and informed us that “a well-worn doorsill is the distilled quintessence of home.”  Then, pointing to the line that reads, “And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,” he told us that the atheist Hardy was imagining church bells and assured us that his soul “is not for us to worry about: when a person like Hardy dies, a committee of angels comes down from Heaven to fight off the devils and snatch his soul to Heaven.”  Who talks like this?  He was at once being silly and expressing, I really do think, a sincere concern for the eternal fate of a favorite poet.

Who else was so mischievous?  Once, for a delightful moment, he and I discussed Bobby Fischer (no relation to Julia).  I told him what I knew of Fischer’s mother.

“How boring!” he thundered. “I don’t want to read biographies even of great writers!  I don’t care about Hardy’s relationship with his wife.”  A pause.  Then a boyish grin started to form, his shoulders scrunched together and his eyes lit up, and he cried, “But I do!” And his nearly wraithlike body bounced back and forth.

He was ever a boy.  He told of his mother reading to him — and of his hiding from her when he didn’t want to go to confession.  He spoke of the “very beautiful” place in which he grew up, of his long-lived and fascinating aunts Florence and Hildegard, and of his bond with his dearest brother.

“A brother’s love is very deep,” he said.

Those whom he loved, he loved so.  This former student was “a person made of pure solid gold”; this other was “a good simple soldier in the battle of life.”  Some of the most sensitive and kind things anyone has ever said to me were said by him.  His favorable comparisons of others to himself would surprise those who think him a mere giant egotist.

One of his great virtues was his honesty.  You could bear any barb he directed at you because you knew it came from a place of love, a love that demanded you to work harder and write better.  And everything that he said was true, by which I do not mean that he never made an error while parsing a Greek verb — or that he was always fair in what he said about people — but that everything he said was what he really thought and felt.  This made his praise as precious as diamonds.  My spring semester junior year, he taught me Latin prose composition and Virgil’s “Georgics.”   I sweated blood (to use a favorite of his phrases) over dozens of assignments that term, and these were his two biggest pieces of praise: “Not bad” and “Pretty OK”—four words that mean more to me than every “great job” reflexively thrown my way during 19 years of formal education.

At the very end of that junior semester, as I was studying with a friend for the “Georgics” final exam, having taken the prose composition final an hour or two before, he came to the doorway of the room we were working in and sort of hovered there, a slightly bemused grin on his face.  My friend got my attention, and I looked up.

“You idiot: I think you did it!” he said. To his great surprise, I had done well enough on the composition final to pass the sight-translation degree requirement.  More clearly even than surprise, love shone through his face.

Speaking of the “Georgics,” I should add, borrowing a phrase from Dr. Sweet, that he had a georgic soul.  He loved Vergil’s poem because he really knew and loved the created world.  He couldn’t understand why people were afraid of bees, complained about the weather, or butchered — I mean, “pruned” — trees.  I once sat on his porch as darkness was descending.  Like one of the animals discerning the signs of weather in the first book of the “Georgics,” he stared rapt at the sky, his body tightening in study and his self increasingly abstracted.  A storm was coming, he told me. I would have to go.

He said that the change of seasons was subtler in the country than in the city, and in his final years he increasingly wished to be around more flowers and trees.  At the very end he got his wish. His dear and faithful son Felipe bought a “very quiet” house with “a huge yard” that was “bliss.” Well, it was bliss until the neighbors began blasting “horrible” rock music.  He died at home in view of the flowers that he had spent some of his final hours and energy identifying, emailing Felipe at one moment to say that he did not know what this one flower was, then writing him back an hour later to report that he had it figured out.

Though he had lived his last 17 years in that “trash-heap of a town,” Irving, he was laid to rest on Thursday in the bosom of his native Pennsylvania hills.  His funeral Mass was preceded by three eulogies of a rare and precious quality.  There is no dull member of the Maurer clan, I assure you, and his brother, sister and daughter are each of them made of shining solid gold.  The Mass was held in a lower church. The upper church was where many Maurers, including his father and aunts, had attended Mass, where he had married his Chilean bride and where his son had received his First Communion.  At the cemetery, which was filled with beautiful trees and plants, it was bright and clear. The sun was hot, the birds were chirping and the May month flapped its glad green leaves like wings.  He was buried next to his mother, Neva — dead when he was not yet 20 — and next to his father, Herman, who had died, at age 104, only one week before.

Karl Maurer was a unique and beautiful man.  So much more can and will be said.  For now, let me say one thing further: that although by the time he died he had long since ceased attending Mass on Sundays, he was as deeply Catholic a man as any I have ever known.  He cherished the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary because children know what they mean and instinctively love them.  For Mary he had a special devotion.

“Like every wretch I sometimes have a simple faith and sometimes lose it,” he wrote me once. “But when I lose it and can hardly pray, I can still pray to Mary! And the Hail Mary is like my life-support that keeps my feeble faith alive.”

Indulge me, then, dear reader and pray it now along with me, for his soul’s sake:

Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.  Amen.

Our Lady, I suppose, should receive the last word. Yet I cannot end a eulogy for this man in any language but the one which he considered “the most physically beautiful of all languages,” the one which with impish delight he called “the ladder to heaven.”  And so, with all our pagan heart, let us cry:

Atque in perpetuum, amantissime magister, ave atque vale.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Recently Dr. Maurer said to me of Auden’s “The Chimeras” : “Of all Auden’s poems, the two most important to me, that most often haunt my thought day and night, are not among the most beautiful, they are two of the very drabbest: ‘Limbo Culture’, and ‘The Chimeras’. A third is another drab one: The Maker. How important these poems have been for me!”

    I wrote my own drab imitation of the Chimeras, which I call “Like words that haunted his last days”, but first I quote Auden’s poem, “The Chimeras”:

    The Chimeras, by W.H.Auden

    Absence of heart – as in public buildings –
    Absence of mind – as in public speeches –
    Absence of worth – as in goods intended for the public –

    Are telltale signs that a chimera has just dined
    On someone else; of him, poor foolish fellow,
    Not a scrap is left, not even his name.

    Indescribable – being neither this nor that –
    Uncountable – being any number –
    Unreal — being anything but what they are,

    And ugly customers for someone to encounter.
    It is our fault entirely if we do:
    They cannot touch us; it is we who will touch them.

    Curious from wantonness – to see what they are like –
    Cruel from fear – to put a stop to them –
    Incredulous from conceit – to prove they cannot be –

    We prod or kick or measure and are lost:
    The stronger we are the sooner all is over;
    It is our strength with which they gobble us up.

    If someone, being chaste, brave, humble,
    Get by them safely, he is still in danger
    (with pity remembering what once they were)

    Of turning back to help them. Don’t.
    What they were once is what they would not be;
    Not liking what they are is what now they are.

    No one can help them; walk on, keep on walking,
    And do not let your goodness self-deceive you.
    It is good that they are but not that they are thus.

    ===

    Like words that haunted his last days, by L. Yaceczko

    Absence of light—as in dawn approaching
    Absence of stars—as in evening falling
    Absence of sight—as in clouds oppressing all of heaven—

    Are canvas spread for a chimera who has fed
    On someone else that now, regurgitated
    Is a paint impressed like leaves on the sky.

    Unrepeatable—being not an image seen—
    Unknowable—being out of reach—
    Untouched—fondling everything but what they love,

    And cold like morning mist on someone’s head uncovered.
    It is our fault entirely if it is.
    Mist cannot press us; it is we who will press it.

    Sallow green the gingko leaves—that do not leave a mark—
    Black the branch—from standing to the sky—
    The fabulous robin’s nest—that murmurs in the tree—

    We hear and look and listen and are lost:
    The lonlier heart we trust to such a teacher;
    It is our heart alone they cannot hold.

    Go walk the well-worn steps, strong marble,
    With footprints—deep, or shallow, going higher—
    (With panting at walking where fewer walk)

    Instead of talking with them. Don’t.
    Go talk to those that always say the same;
    In finding what to say saying nothing more.

    No talk can help them—walk on, keep walking—
    And do not let their talking much deceive you:
    That will always say more, but never something twice.
    ===

  2. Thank you for this beautiful and loving tribute to a truly remarkable man. I had the privilege of taking a class from him at UD when he was still a new probationer on the faculty — Poets on Poetry. His love of poetry was so intense, and his knowledge of it so vast, that he had a roomful of doctoral students completely intimidated. Who would not be intimidated by someone who taught himself Russian just so that he could read the poetry of Osip Mandelstam in its original tongue? He was a real inspiration to me, and gave me a lot of encouragement as I worked on my dissertation.

    I was deeply saddened at the news of his death. I hope many, many students will remember him with the same respect and appreciation that I feel.

  3. Thank you very much for your tribute to this great man. I am very grateful that God brought him to UD.

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