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Friend Lost, Words Found

why the most beautiful lines in the English language remind me of a classmate who died too young

Ken Parejko

More than once I’ve heard those lines striding through my brain, treading lightly over a memory of Dwight holding them in his hands, turning them over and wondering what the hell they mean.

While reading the London Review of Books, I came across a letter referring to a piece they’d recently done on the poet Stephen Spenders. The letter writer tells of having met T.S. Eliot years ago at a Spenders reading, where Eliot was asked  “…what he thought the most beautiful lines in the English language were. Eliot,” the letter says, replied without hesitation: ‘But look, the morn in russet mantle clad/Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”

That’s from Act 1, Scene 1 of Hamlet. Here they are again:

“But look, the morn in russet mantle clad
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”

It sometimes happens that a letter will arrive from a far-off place 50 years late. That’s the rest of this story.

I took typing class my sophomore year at Flambeau High School at the same time we were reading Hamlet in English. On first reading I found those lines so luscious I wasn’t going to let them get away. A few days later in typing, when the teacher was away staring over someone else’s shoulder, I typed them out from memory in one long line. I pulled the sheet from the machine, stuffed it into my folder and when I got home cut off the rest of the page and stuck those lines in my wallet.

One day the following summer I was playing some pickup softball on the Sheldon Grade School field. After the game was over and everyone else had left, a classmate of mine, Dwight Abbiehl, and I were goofing off. He wrestled me to the ground, slipped my wallet from my pocket and took off with it. I caught up with him just as he pulled my little bit of Hamlet from the wallet, probably the only “paper” in it.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Oh nuthin’.” I was embarrassed and trying as hard as I could to be nonchalant.

“Something you wrote?”

“No.”

He shrugged and handed the wallet then the sliver of paper back to me.

Later that summer I brought my bit of Hamlet with me to my six weeks at the Summer Science Institute in Madison. While I was there I got a letter from Mom telling me the previous Friday evening (I imagine after a long day haying or fixing fence or whatever but excused from evening chores so he could go out and have some fun) Dwight was riding in a car when the driver lost control on the curve on Highway 73 coming into Gilman from the east. Dwight was thrown from the car and killed. He was 16.

Dwight and I were pretty good friends in grade school and the two years we had together in high school. One night that same summer before leaving for Madison, I joined him at the North Star Pavilion for a few beers. Yes, you could drink beer back then at 16, if you knew the strategy for success which was to walk confidently up to the bar and buy two beers. One you kept for yourself then walked the other over to whichever of the McCann brothers was constable that night. Ezra and Cecil, who had a hardscrabble little farm up along Little Jump by Brown’s slaughterhouse, were the Irish versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Astutely calculating that discretion was in fact the better part of valor, the McTweedle brothers always came to work with a blackjack visibly tucked into their back pocket.

Dwight gave me a ride home from the bar that night and dropped me off in front of our house. We chatted a bit, him behind the wheel, me standing in the warmth of the summer night, wallowing in the pleasure of what might have been my very first beer-buzz. We promised to get together again later in the summer. A few days later I left for Madison. It was the last time I saw him. I felt bad missing his funeral.

I wore out a number of wallets after that, but before throwing each away I moved my little piece of paper into the new one. I don’t have it any more, but those lines, of course, did get stuck in my brain, rising now and then to consciousness. Sometimes even appropriately, like when I was facing east on an early morning deer-hunting stand.

I’ve likely repeated them to myself hundreds of times over the years. Sometimes, they would come to me muddled as “But hark, the dawn,” rather than “But look, the dawn,” which of course is nonsense. What sound after all do dawn’s footfalls make whatever hill it’s striding over or whatever the color of the mantle it’s nonchalantly thrown over its shoulder?

More than once I’ve heard those lines striding through my brain, treading lightly over a memory of Dwight holding them in his hands, turning them over and wondering what the hell they mean.

Now, whatever you think of T.S. Eliot’s poetry – and to me he’s a bit too anal (intellectual, self-referential) – the fact is that he is considered one of the most influential poets of the last century. Which by my reckoning means he’s not only a skilled wordsmith but likely a pretty reliable judge of what is or isn’t a beautiful line. So if all along you’ve been wondering about that – about what really are the most beautiful lines in the English language – time to worry no more, now that you’ve got not only his word on it, but mine too.

Way to go Thomas Stearns!


 

Ken Parejko of Holcombe is a professor emeritus from UW-Eau Claire and the author of several books.

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