“I am a poet in a Family of Prose.” This pithy little sentence tucked away in one of her letters to a friend was the beginning of my fascination and friendship with Emily Dickinson. It was a moment when I sighed aloud to my book, but really to her, “You too?” For, my family of eight brothers and sisters was very much a prose family. This does not mean they were not fascinating in their own right. I have an aeronautical engineering brother and a sister I would not hesitate to own as math geniuses. They have been known to sit at our kitchen table at long ago family get-togethers and work out some complicated math equation over beers together with a look of absolute, dare I say it, glee. I was continually flummoxed by them while looking over the top of my Wordsworth with the complete disdain of my young romantic soul. There was simply no poetry in mathematics – I would declare to myself – no imagery, no metaphor, no trippingly lovely cadences. No one could possibly rhapsodize over math, and life was not worth the living if we could not rhapsodize! I impulsively trampled math underfoot as a thing of naught and washed my hands of it, and I remained the sole poet in a family of prose for a long and lonely time. I was very much loved by my family, but not ever fully understood by them. I could not even understand myself! Understanding was to come later and in quite a delightful way.
I remember the day I met Dr. Richard Ferrier. He was to be my Junior year mathematics teacher in college – for Descartes, no less. He was standing with a small knot of students who were exuberantly singing the haunting English Madrigal “The Silver Swan.” He joined in quite impromptu with a look of…rapture. How could this possibly be? A mathematics teacher singing with a pathos that would rival Keats? I was cautiously optimistic. Who was this man? He had the look of a poet, with a delightful shock of curly hair that was always mussed up by his ever restless hands. He smoked a pipe and wore a tweed coat which was rather on the smaller side. His face was always moving with a myriad of expressions. He arrived as a centaur to the college Halloween party to everyone’s delight. He quoted parts of Dante by heart with tears in his eyes. When someone finished a Cartesian prop on the blackboard in class, he would cry out in sudden delight: “Beatrice!” This man spoke my language. He was a poet and a mathematician and gloried in both; he showed me how to glory, too. He was all wonder at the Universe. I had never met anyone like him before. And it is no slight to my own father whom I love dearly, when I say that I had found a spiritual father in Richard Ferrier that year. This was a person of whom St. Ireneus was to cry, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” He was to teach me who I was. He was to explain myself to me in a way that my biological family was just not able to do, and he was to show me that I was not an anomaly after all. They are so important, these spiritual fathers we encounter during our lifetimes. They enrich our lives by helping us grow into the adults we are to become. We owe much to our biological fathers – absolutely – but we also owe a debt of deepest gratitude to the teachers who father-forth the best in us through an understanding of our deeper selves.
Emily would have understood my gratitude at finding Richard Ferrier. She, too, found a spiritual father who was to make all the difference to her inner life. His name was Edward Hitchcock. Professor Hitchcock is the reason Emily Dickinson’s poetry is filled with accurate observations of volcanoes, chemical processes, an intimate knowledge of flowers, earthquakes, gems, alloys. There is more mention of these things in her poetry than, “in the poetry of Keats, Emerson, Browning, and Shelley combined!” He was her Natural Science teacher at a little jewel of a school called Amherst Academy. This was a high school of sorts that would be the feeder school for Amherst College. Here, in this small place, were collected many young and wonderful teachers. Both men and women were equally and thoroughly educated in all subjects (hurrah!). The teachers and prefects were encouraged to eat with and discuss with the students after class.
Edward Hitchcock was a star graduate in Natural Science at Yale when he moved over to head that department at Amherst College. The younger students at Amherst Academy were encouraged and allowed to attend classes at the college. That is when Emily met Edward Hitchcock.
He is aptly described in her delightful way as passing on, “the ‘phosphorescence’ of his knowledge to his students and to glorify God by opening their eyes to the wonders of the created Universe.” He was on fire with enthusiasm for the Natural World. He was an accurate scientist AND poet. We read from one of his former students that, “his voluminous scientific writing is for the most part strictly disciplined and factual,” but, “in his prefaces and introductions and wherever the text gives him the slightest opportunity, his style becomes rhapsodic.” Emily read all these texts. She became completely enamored of nature because of him. She had an herbarium complete with, “carefully printed Latin names for each item,” and was known among her friends for having a detailed knowledge of the flora and fauna in and around Amherst. He took them on field trips and they handled rocks, gems, stones. He wrote a very lovely treatise on the seasons and there combined scientific rigor and poetry. Later in life she would say,
When Flowers annually died and I was a child, I used to read Dr. Hitchcock’s Book on the Flowers of North America. This comforted their absence – assuring me they lived.
These are the tender words of a daughter for a beloved father. A man who fathered-forth and unlocked the beauty waiting for him in her mind. He was to show Emily to herself in a way she had not known before. Emily Dickinson’s younger self gathered all this knowledge and love of learning from him. And it overflowed in her poetry effortlessly as part of her mind’s store of treasures. It is a beautiful thing to think about – the debt we owe to Edward Hitchcock, a Natural Science teacher – for the genius that is Emily’s poetry.
Another student put him best when he said,
One of his greatest qualities was the spirit of love, amounting at times to rapture, which animated his studies. ‘No language can express what he enjoyed, when body, soul, and sprit were all in harmony, and all seemingly filled with the charms of nature, the delights of science, or the love of God.
I knew the joy of these words in my own life. I had my own Edward Hitchcock. I was able to meet Dr. Ferrier once again, not too long ago. I wondered if he had changed and what my middle-aged self would think. Was I just remembering him with rose colored glasses? No, as it delightfully turns out. He was the same. He hugged me like a jolly Santa Claus and took my husband and I on a tour of his wonderful, quirky, beautiful garden. We sat down to beers with him and his equally delightful wife Kathy and we talked and rhapsodized about everything under the sun. My memories had not deceived me. He was still my spiritual father and even now, after all these years, he was able to stir up my mind and heart renewed love for the beautiful, the good, and the true…. even….to my complete surprise…mathematics.
Let us give deep thanks for our families who raised us. But let us give equal thanks for the spiritual fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters who have entered our lives and who have introduced us to the beauty of our better selves. It is God the Father from whom they get their name, and whose gift they are to us. Praise Him!
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.