Memorials | George Herbert Society


Chauncey Wood 1935-2020

A Tribute by Sidney Gottlieb, Editor, George Herbert Journal, Sacred Heart University

I have spent many years with George Herbert, and the better part of that time – truly the better part, qualitatively as well as arithmetically – has been alongside Chauncey Wood, usually at a distance but always feeling that he was close. For me, there is Herbert before Chauncey and Herbert after Chauncey, and the glow of the latter surely has warmed everyone now reading what I am writing. That is why I am so sad to write that he died on March 27, 2020, at the Hospice of the Valley, Phoenix, Arizona, after a long battle with cancer. He is survived by Sarah, his loving, beloved, and inseparable wife of more than fifty-eight years, two daughters, Stephanie and Jennifer, and a granddaughter, Vanessa.

Although he lived elsewhere for most of his life, Chauncey was a proud New Jerseyan. He was born in Englewood on June 16, 1935, grew up in Tenafly, and went to Tenafly High School, Union College, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and then Princeton University, where he received his Ph.D., specializing in medieval literature, attracted to this field particularly after being introduced to it by legendary Princeton professor and scholar D.W. Robertson. Chauncey taught briefly at Hollins College, University of Cincinnati, and the University of Wisconsin before moving to McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where he was an extraordinarily dedicated, popular, and effective teacher (recognized by a Best Teacher award) and administrator and prolific researcher and scholarly writer until he retired in 1996. But retirement is not a word that can be easily applied to Chauncey, and he went on to be a visiting professor at numerous institutions, including Western Michigan University, College of Charleston, University of New Mexico (Albuquerque), and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (the latter as Distinguished Visiting Professor, where the students liked him so much they formally petitioned to have him come back).

We know him primarily as a Herbertian – and in many ways as the Herbertian. Some years ago I took great pleasure in not entirely jokingly introducing him at a conference as the current Godfather of Herbert Studies, a position of honor that was well earned: as author of numerous finely written and deeply researched articles on Herbert; teacher and mentor to lots of people doing important and often subsequently published work on Herbert; absolutely indefatigable and wise consultant reader of papers submitted to the George Herbert Journal; conference organizer; co-founder and reliable advisor to the George Herbert Society; and on and on. But there’s so much more: Chauncey chased birds and butterflies as well as Herbert. He and Sarah were out every weekend, and through the years traveled widely and birded from Manitoba to Key West, the Everglades, and the Rio Grande. And though for many years I have been in constant touch with him, I’m now realizing that I still missed things about him, which Sarah continues to fill me in on: Chauncey and I corresponded constantly about our shared love of the New York Knicks, but I didn’t realize that he was “a pretty good basketball player up until his retirement.” And though I knew he had a keen ear for Herbert’s musicality, I didn’t know that he was a talented jazz clarinetist. I did know that he was a photographer, and have copies of some of his stunning and radiant shots of butterflies. But my favorite Chauncey picture is not one he shot but one he is in, included here,

Chauncey Wood

Dr. Simon Jackson of Cambridge University receives the inaugural Chauncey Wood Dissertation Prize of the George Herbert Society from Dr. Sidney Gottlieb of Sacred Heart University, along with Dr. Christopher Hodgkins of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Dr. Chauncey Wood of McMaster University at the Fourth Triennial GHS Conference, Phoenix, Arizona, 17 October 2014.

presenting the first of an award that is so rightly named after him and acknowledges how much he has done for us and how much he is loved, appreciated, and respected.

In his last message to me, knowing that the end was near, he wrote honestly and bravely about “inevitable decline,” gratefully about the hospice care he was receiving, lovingly about Sarah at his side, and cheerfully about ongoing work on his mind, including a talk on “Use and Enjoyment.” We’ll have to fill in the blanks now, but I know that brief title captures so much of what he valued about Herbert, a poet of employment and sweetness; so much of his approach to and accomplishments in life, personal and professional; and so much of what I treasure and will always remember about dear Chauncey. I’ll never forget my first impression when I met him many years ago: what an intelligent, accomplished, charming, warm person . . . and what a smile! His last words to me captured and conveyed that smile: “Beautiful spring weather here – we enjoy it as best we can.” That’s exactly what he did, and what he spread around him, throughout a very full lifetime.

Butterfly on flower Butterfly on flower

Photographs by Chauncey Wood

Cristina Malcolmson 1950-2020

A Tribute by Michael C. Schoenfeldt, University of Michigan

Professor Cristina Malcolmson recently died at her home in Portland, Maine, at the age of 70. A world-renowned scholar of George Herbert, Tina earned her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1973, majoring in English. She attained her Ph.D., also from Berkeley’s English Department, in 1983. She was an assistant professor at Reed College and Yale University, before settling in at Bates College, where she was an assistant, associate, and full professor. She had recently retired from Bates, after twice serving as chair of the Department of English and once as chair of the Program in Women and Gender Studies.

She was a treasured colleague at Bates as well as an immensely popular teacher, electrifying students on a wide variety of subjects with her contagious enthusiasm. A founding and lifetime member of the George Herbert Society, she served a very active term on its Allocation and Planning Committee and, most recently, on the selection committee for the Chauncey Wood Dissertation Award for 2017-2019.

Tina was the author of three wonderful and frequently cited monographs; all have been major contributions to their fields. Her first book is Heart-Work: George Herbert and the Protestant Ethic (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999). The book deftly explores the volatile mix of devotion and business—what Tina, borrowing a phrase from Richard Baxter, called “heartwork”—that was for Herbert the essence of the truly religious life.

Her second book is George Herbert: A Literary Life (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). The work outlines the full extent of the social and political contexts surrounding George Herbert and uses those contexts to generate luminously original readings of the poetry. Again, she emphasized the profound ways that Herbert’s engagement with the world was the logical outcome of his spiritual commitments.

Her third monograph involved a major change of perspective and expertise: Studies of Skin Color in the Early Royal Society: Boyle, Cavendish, Swift (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013). Shortlisted for the 2013 British Society for Literature and Science Book Prize, the book looks at how both scientists and imaginative writers of the early modern period think about differences of skin color. In exploring the emergence of a discourse of race out of a hierarchy of color, the book was very much ahead of its time.

Tina also wrote many influential articles, and a wonderful entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on Magdalen Herbert, George’s mother. As an editor, along with Matteo Pangallo and Eugene Hill, she brought Edward Herbert’s previously unknown masque, The Amazon, into print (Manchester: Malone Society Collections XVII, Manchester University Press, 2016).

Tina was always a delight to hang out with at conferences. She had a smile that could light up a gloomy MLA session, and a joyous laugh that could gladden even dour academics. I have known her since we were in graduate school together at Berkeley, both writing dissertations on George Herbert. Her ethical and political commitments were deep, and authentic, and abiding, and sprang from the same spiritually engaged place that allowed her to understand Herbert’s worldly entanglements with such sympathy. We will miss her terribly. The field, and the world, are much poorer without her.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

Helen Vendler 1933-2024

A Tribute by Gordon Teskey, Francis Lee Higginson Professor of English Literature, Harvard University

According to The New York Times, Helen Vendler, Porter University Professor at Harvard, was a “Colossus of poetry criticism.” That’s true, but how she’d have smiled at the masculine image, bestriding the seas! She was born Helen Hennessy in 1933, in Boston, into a devout Irish Catholic family. She died on the 23rd of April, 2024, of cancer, at 90 years of age. Helen was briefly married to the philosopher Zeno Vendler, whom she accompanied to Cornell and her first teaching job, which was part-time freshman writing. She was nearly dismissed for becoming pregnant. But Stephen Maxfield Parrish, a navy man and already an academic star, told the chair that if Helen left, he would too. The chair wisely reconsidered. Helen made her way thereafter in the academy as a single mother to her beloved son, David, by whom she is survived, as she is by David’s wife Xianchun and her grandchildren Killian and Céline.

Helen’s major books have all become classics. In her 2001 Haskins Lecture for the ACLS, she quotes Joseph Conrad on “that mysterious, almost miraculous, power of producing striking effects by means impossible of detection which is the last word of the highest art.” Detecting the truth in that power with philosophical precision has always been Helen Vendler’s proud calling. In following it she writes wonderfully on John Keats, authoritatively on Emily Dickinson, magisterially on William Butler Yeats, fundamentally on Wallace Stevens, and indispensably on Seamus Heaney. Her great book on all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets time and again detects high intellectual adventure where appearances are of deceiving simplicity, as when “time’s best jewel” is not the beloved’s natural beauty but rather its “carbonized allomorph.” As in Herbert’s “Virtue,” the whole world turns to coal.

For this audience, Helen’s 1975 landmark book on Herbert will be of special interest. It was described to me by an eminent Herbertian as a “shot in the arm” for the field. She was an early member of the George Herbert Society and served on the first committee conferring the Chauncey Wood Dissertation Award. She is famous for preferring Herbert, that subtle and sensitive but also visionary anatomist of our inner states, to the hectic and theatrical Donne. Her paradigmatic reading of “Virtue,” which sets up the pattern for the book, may not be the last word on that poem, but it is “seasoned timber” and will never be surpassed. As she is decidedly not a religious critic, what exactly is Vendler looking for in Herbert? She tells us in the introduction: “What I am more concerned to show, which one can do only in meditating on single cases, is the depth of poetic resource discovered by Herbert, his resolute unwillingness to take the world for granted, his fixed intention to plumb every experience for its original reality, his willingness, as he put it, to thrust his mind into whatever nourished it in order to find out the ingredients of that nourishment … No sentiment is more unequivocally expressed and more constantly affirmed in his work than the absolute primacy of lived experience over abstraction.” That methodological declaration is in essentials true of all her work and is the source of its power. But the closing of the Herbert book, with its brilliant reading of “Love III,” shows us the heart’s reason for reading as she does. As she reminds us, “Love III” is an astonishing dramatization of nine words from the Gospel According to Luke: “He shall … make them to sit down to meat.” At the conclusion of the poem the recalcitrant speaker at last complies and sits down at the table, content to be served, to relax unselfconsciously as a guest should, and to eat. Comparing this scene with the more sublime one in Herbert’s “Heaven,” we are taught to prefer, “as Herbert himself did, the heaven in which a welcome, a smile, a colloquy, a taking by the hand, and a seat at the table stand for all the heart can wish.”

A string of shorter but intellectually fascinating books resulted from the five named lecture series she gave. Helen also regularly wrote scores of articles and reviews on contemporary poetry in which her judgments were decisive, though modestly expressed and, when not entirely favorable, kindly expressed, too. Her promotion of and friendship with brilliant poets whose reputations she helped to create was to Helen the most rewarding privilege of her career. She spotted early the genius of Seamus Heaney and of Jorie Graham.

The most challenging English-language poets of the past century have been Americans, many of them inheritors of Wallace Stevens, whose long poems Helen pioneered in On Extended Wings. She has performed miracles of exposition with the works of, among many others, Langston Hughes, Allan Ginsberg, John Berryman, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton, James Merrill, A. R. Ammons, James Wright, Frank Bidart, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, Jorie Graham (to mention her again), and Lucie Brock-Broido. She once quoted Czeslaw Milosz to the effect that every achieved poem is a symbol of freedom. This is rarely true of criticism, but it’s always true of hers.

Helen’s educational journey was an interesting one. Highly proficient in Latin poetry and in modern romance languages, which were taught to her at school and at home, she might have attended any elite college or university then open to women. But because her parents forbade her to attend a secular institution she matriculated at Emmanuel College, in Boston, and in 1954 graduated summa cum laude in chemistry. She declined to study her true passion, the arts, and especially poetry, in a religious context that would in any way limit her freedom to think and express her ideas. She then won a Fulbright Fellowship to the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, to study mathematics, but at the first opportunity requested permission from the Fulbright Program, which was granted, to change to the study of literature. During the period of the fellowship Helen traveled widely in France and especially in Italy, being fluent in those languages. She next wrote to the chair of English at Harvard requesting admission to the Ph.D. program. But being informed she needed more formal credits in the subject, she enrolled as a special student in English at Boston University. She was taught there by Morton Berman (1924-2022), who became a lifelong friend, with whom she shared a passion for music, and in whose company she would later renew her travels in Europe. The Poetry of George Herbert is dedicated to Morton Berman with a beautiful inscription, drawn from Herbert’s Latin verse—“Literae hoc debent tibi / Queîs me educasti”—which I venture to translate as follows: ‘the culture of letters, in which you taught me, owes this to you.’

Admitted to Harvard, she was given the usual speech by the chair and, in case she wasn’t listening, by other professors, that they didn’t want to train women who might take jobs from men who had families to support. You’re not wanted here and there will be no place for you later, Miss Hennessy, when you finish. (The chair later retracted and apologized.) She nevertheless had wonderful teachers, including John Kelleher, founder of the field of Irish studies, which were dear to the heart of this world champion explicator of Yeats and of Heaney. Also among her teachers were I. A. Richards, Douglas Bush, and Rosemond Tuve, the last two specially acknowledged in her Herbert book. When Helen took her Ph.D. in 1960, she was, after all, invited to join the Harvard faculty. She declined to do so not out of annoyance at how she was initially treated but only because she wished to accompany her husband to his appointment in philosophy at Cornell. Her memories of graduate school at Harvard are happy ones. One is touched by a photograph of her and Stephen Orgel, both in formal dress, about to go out to a cultural event, both young, of course, in their twenties, and smiling delightedly.

After Cornell, Helen went on to regular teaching appointments at Haverford, Swarthmore, and Smith colleges, and then at Boston University, always writing at night, after her son David had gone to bed. At Boston University she became the long-serving and very distinguished poetry critic for The New Yorker. In 1985 she returned to Harvard where, in the fullness of time, she became the first woman to be accorded Harvard’s highest honor, University Professor. She served for five years as Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and for many more years as one of the grandes éminences in the Harvard Society of Fellows. During this period she received 26 honorary degrees from universities in the United States, Great Britain, and Europe. Among her many honors, she was elected to the presidency of the Modern Language Association of America, to the Norwegian Academy of Sciences, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and to the American Philosophical Society, which would award her its Jefferson Medal. In 2007 she gave the Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor the Federal Government confers on a scholar in the humanities.

Helen did not rest in the summers, or save them for writing. For years she taught seminars to high school and university teachers; and from 1972 she regularly taught at the International Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland. For twenty years it was my joy to have an office adjacent to hers, and to observe with some amazement the amount of time Helen spent with students. She regarded herself as in equal measure a teacher of poetry and a writer. It seemed to me that the book of which Helen was proudest was not one of ones in which her soaring intellect was fully on display, illuminating greatness in poetry by the light of her own poetic and philosophical brilliance. It was her basic textbook, Poems, Poets, Poetry, which introduced generations of non-humanities students at Harvard to English and American poetry.

In 2023 two great honors came to Helen which managed to excite even her cheerful equanimity and to revive her spirits as her health was declining. The first was that Magdalene College, Cambridge, commissioned her portrait, which is soon to hang in the great hall of the college beside Nelson Mandela. (Around her neck in the portrait hangs her Irish grandfather’s pocket watch.) The second was being awarded the Gold Medal for belles lettres by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, its highest honor, joining some of the great poets about whom she has written. She was unable to attend the ceremony in New York City because of her health. I was honored to accept the medal on Helen’s behalf and to compose the laudation, noting that she is one of those rare spirits who has elevated criticism to the special dignity of art, to belles lettres. I also expressed, in the following sentence, what I must now describe as the most generous gift Helen has left us: “On great poets of the past she awakens delighted assent; and on contemporary poets astonishment at her swift grasp of what a poet’s doing as an artist. To all for whom poetry is a necessity of life, Helen Vendler is a beacon of good sense carried forward at the level of genius.”

I could have wished to write a more personal recollection of someone I knew for 34 years, twenty of them as a close friend. There are stories I long to tell of her exceptional kindnesses to people she hardly knew, because they were scholars or poets or students becoming scholars or poets. But in conclusion I will say only this of Helen Vendler as the world knew her: her achievement inspires awe; her intellect was a force of nature. May there be for her now a welcome, a smile, a colloquy, a taking by the hand, and a seat at the table.