"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

8.14.2006

"Life piled on life were all too little"

Ann Miller died.

I don't know what to say. Dr. Daniel says what we all feel. Nothing will be the same without her. She was a character, in the very best sense of that word. She married her professor and they lived an academic, adventurous life in Waco and around the world. Her life was full. Betsy must have written her obituary. It is far better than anything I can say. But here is my experience:

Ann Miller was one of the best teachers I've ever known. She was my English professor at Baylor. I took British Literature since Burns from her in the spring of 1998. The first thing she said on the first day of that class was, "The class before this in the sequence is 'British Literature Before Burns.' This is supposed to be 'Since Burns.' The problem with that is, you never cover Burns. So we will start with Burns." And we did. We launched right into "My Love's Like a Red, Red Rose" and "Tam O' Shanter" and "Holy Willie's Prayer."

Ann Miller loved poetry with all of her being, and she taught me to love it as well. She also taught us a very important lesson - to memorize the words that you need the most to carry you through a specific time. To that end, she made each member of our class memorize and recite 20 lines of poetry. I had to go first. With Tennyson's Ulysses. It was terrifying and exhilirating all at once. And I have carried those lines, and so many more, everywhere.

She loved - loved - to tell two stories. One was about the day she was walking across campus with a student and saw a couple sitting on one of the benches under Baylor's great live oaks and quoted Yeats' "For Ann Gregory." The student she was with wrote her account of that afternoon here. She would laugh and laugh at the looks on the lovebirds' faces, and quoted the whole poem to our astonished and amused class.

The other story she loved to tell came with an admonition: "You should never buy, or send a Hallmark card." She usually told this one on the first day of class. The reason one shouldn't deal with Hallmark was, she declared, that those cards fell prey to the evils of sentimentality. And sentimentality is unacceptable, in poetry and in life. "When my husband died," she told us, and every class after us, "I received a handwritten note from the dean of Westminster Abbey. It said, 'One stands before the church to marry these young couples, and sees the hope and love in their faces, and one just wants to say to them, 'One day, one of you will bury the other.''" And that, she said, was worth far more to her than anything Hallmark could have mass-produced.

She took our whole class over to the Armstrong-Browning Library, a place named for her mentor and which I'm certain she had much to do with getting built, and proceeded to rip apart the statue on the front lawn. The statue depicts Pippa, a character in a Robert Browning poem, and is inscribed at the bottom with the words, "God's in His heaven; all's right with the world." Pippa is pointing off into the distance and she looks to be at peace, excited, even. "This is ridiculous," said Ann Miller. And she explained that Pippa was an orphan, and she was singing that little song to make herself feel better when nothing was right with the world. "It's completely wrong," Ann Miller said. "Typical of Baylor."

But she loved Baylor, for it was the place that had given her love and life and poetry. She loved Yeats, and wanted us to love him, too. She had a way of reading his poems on war so carefully that when September 11 happened, "The Second Coming" had to come to mind. "Easter 1916" is the only poem I know that really captures the sadness of losing a fight for what is just. It seemed like she knew them all, and she quoted them at will on every occasion.

The lessons she taught - to not skip important links like Robert Burns, to memorize poetry because there are times in life you need someone wiser to speak for you, and to search for the right words when the sentimental ones are much easier to find - are ones for which I am profoundly grateful. She was my teacher, and she was my friend. I worked in the English department, and after her course, and after I graduated, I would stop by to talk about poetry and life.

Betsy said that she died surrounded by family, and described the moment as one that was "holy." It could not have been otherwise. And in her heart of hearts, Ann Miller certainly recited some Yeats, and felt a lifetime of love and poetry "in the deep heart's core."

3 Comments:

Anonymous Sister said...

Lovely, dear, lovely.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006 3:09:00 PM

 
Blogger humblebarfly said...

I'm an old but not very good BU alum ('68). Didn't have Ann Miller, but it seemed that everyone I valued did, and they loved her. Nice post.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 12:51:00 PM

 
Blogger texasinafrica said...

Humblebarfly, thanks for your kind words. And you may have the best blog name I've ever seen!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 3:54:00 PM

 

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