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Columbia College Today May 2004
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Ted Tayler: The Good Man, the Good Poem and the Great Professor

What makes a professor great? Poet David Lehman ’70 reminisces and recollects with Edward Tayler, Columbia’s Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities Emeritus. A Renaissance man, Tayler taught Literature Humanities, Shakespeare and Milton to generations of English majors and changed their lives by asking questions many still ask themselves today.

Ted Tayler
Ted Tayler received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Commencement in 1996.

By David Lehman '70

The first time I heard of Professor of English Edward W. Tayler, I was sitting in the back seat of a car going from Boston to New York City on a frosty winter’s night. It was in 1967 or ’68. I was a sophomore riding with a bunch of cigarette-smoking, poetry-writing seniors and juniors, English majors all. One of the guys could barely contain his excitement. He had learned by phone that day that he’d been accepted into Tayler’s Shakespeare course. I must have looked insufficiently impressed, because a fellow passenger — perhaps Leslie Gottesman ’68, then-editor of Columbia Review — took the moment to further my education.

“You have to take a course with Tayler,” he said. “It almost doesn’t matter which course. Whatever else it’s about, it’s going to be a course in the mind of Edward Tayler.” I was made to understand that Tayler had a certain dash and charisma and that he somehow inspired or instigated his students to write their most brilliant papers. I got the idea that his insights into Shakespeare and Milton, the subjects of two courses he offered in those years, were exceptional, but even more exceptional was how he got you to arrive at those insights by yourself.

When the opportunity came, I signed up for Tayler’s senior seminar in Renaissance and 17th-century poetry. Many able English majors sat around that table in Hamilton Hall. After 34 years, my memory still yields the names of Eugene Hill ’70, Lawrence Rosenwald ’70, Sanford Friedman ’71, Jon Whitman ’71 and Steve Berkowitz ’70. The focus of our attention was a trim, compact, sturdy-looking gent with an ironic glint in his eyes, an almost military bearing, and an unnerving ability to say remarkable things in an even monotone. He had an in-your-face style, though no one called it that then, and used curiously effective strategies for arousing and sustaining his students’ interest. The combination of articulate classmates and a knowledgeable professor who could guide and goad you into doing your best is usually enough to ensure a successful class. But Tayler’s senior seminar was amazing in ways wholly unanticipated.

It was a highly specialized class devoted to the close textual analysis of “metaphysical” poetry, and some texts we read may have been esoteric. Yet they furnished the means by which he conducted us to the vital intellectual center where the relations of art and virtue, truth and religion, get thought out. You left a session thinking you had come to the verge of an astonishing breakthrough. In some cases, you still were thinking about it 10 or 15 years later. Rosenwald, now a professor at Wellesley, vividly recalls the experience: “Gene Hill and I used to go out for hot chocolate after the seminar and decompress, try to figure out what he meant, what the other students had meant — and, most intently, what Fulke Greville meant!” Greville was a magnificent but frequently overlooked Renaissance poet to whom Tayler introduced us. “The sessions on Greville were the highlights,” Rosenwald said. “I felt the way a Talmud student must feel, exerting your most intense intellectual capacities to figure out something really hard and really great.”

One of Tayler’s most unusual stratagems, which went against the grain of academic practice and struck some of us as outrageous, seems in retrospect to be a defiant insistence on making qualitative value judgments. Each week, he required us to bring in a list of the top 10 poems by the poet under study, in descending order of greatness. With the confidence of an absolutist in a relativist universe, we were to list not our favorites but the poet’s greatest works. We were to state unequivocally which was the best of John Donne’s poems, or George Herbert’s, or Ben Jonson’s or Andrew Marvell’s. “It was a different kind of reading for us,” recalls Jonathan Tuck ’69, who took the seminar a year or two before I did. “Our normal expectation had been that the question of value had already been answered — or else why were we reading this work rather than another?” But here we were to read Donne’s or Herbert’s collected poems, as if it were up to us to affirm or deny their individual greatness, and rank them in order of worth.

Ted Tayler
Tayler shares a laugh with his wife, Christina Moustakis, in their Riverside Drive apartment.

The assignment was not merely an exercise in taste and judgment, but the professor’s attempt to get us to propound the criteria by which to arrive at the right choices. For there were right answers; some poems were better than others — this was an ardent Tayler belief. And in class, when he went over our lists, he unhesitatingly declared who among the students was right and who wrong. He encouraged competition, among the poets and their poems, and among the students, strategically. Rosenwald characterizes Tayler’s method as “a deliberately manipulative pedagogy, which in principle I hate — trying to get students to compete for the master’s favor — but he made it work. I really wanted his favor, unabashedly.”

Tayler stood up for value in art — not only aesthetic value but moral value as well. There was such a thing as greatness. No effort to smash the idea of a canon — a commonplace in academe in the last quarter century — has made a dent in Tayler’s armor. He challenged us to confront ourselves and our deepest assumptions about poetry and the areas of intellectual experience that went into it. Was it true, Tayler would ask in an almost belligerent way, that “only a good man can write a good poem?” Donne wrote that “Good was as visible as green.” Did we get that? Did we really get that and all that it implied?

I have talked to many former classmates, and I don’t think any of them has stopped asking himself the questions Tayler forced us to ponder. And we’re evidently not the only ones. Campbell Professor of Literature Humanities Michael Rosenthal, director of undergraduate studies for the English and comparative literature department, says Tayler routinely gets letters from former students 10 or 20 years after they studied with him. They say, “I finally understood what your insight was that I could never quite fathom,” or words to that effect. “It’s the most extraordinary thing,” Rosenthal says. “The letter writers claim that the professor has so bewitched them that they’ve been wrestling all their lives with an idea he introduced, like a weird time capsule that explodes years later and creates illumination. It’s mysterious. I feel envious, it happens so often. It makes me feel like some lead-footed proletarian in contrast.”

The dossier compiled when Tayler received the University’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1996 bears out Rosenthal. Andrea Solomon ’87 spoke of Tayler’s “'time-bomb teaching,’ because well after the semester was over, I would experience a delayed but decidedly richer understanding of concepts we discussed in class.” J.C. Sylvan ’99 waxed poetic: “Tayler is not a teacher but a magician who could, by turns, pull rabbits out of your inner ear or, like a latter-day Prospero, ‘bedim the noontime sun and rift Jove’s stout oak’.” Rebecca Stanton ’94 put it more simply and directly: “Professor Tayler taught me to read.”

A fierce dedication to literary ideals achieved through unforgettable pedagogical methods — this was one thing that made Ted Tayler a great teacher. The Lionel Trilling Professor of the Humanities Emeritus, Tayler has long been a legendary presence on the sixth floor of Philosophy Hall, seat of the University’s English department. He taught at Columbia for 39 years, starting the year of the Kennedy vs. Nixon presidential campaign and retiring in 1999 for health reasons. He plans to return to the classroom this fall, health permitting, under the Society of Senior Scholars program.

When Tayler came to Morningside Heights in 1960, tension and even animosity characterized the relations between the graduate English faculty and the College’s proudly independent department, which had its offices on the fourth floor of Hamilton Hall; each looked down on the other. Tayler was the first graduate hire to be welcomed into the College’s exclusive ranks. In addition to offering the lecture courses and seminars that English majors lined up to take, Tayler taught the great books year in and year out in Humanities A. He designed and directed the Logic and Rhetoric course that served as the writing component of the Core Curriculum for 18 years, starting in 1985. In 1986, he was honored with the College’s Mark Van Doren award for excellence in teaching.

Ted Tayler
Tayler's best advice: "Be a hero."

Among scholars of English Renaissance poetry and 17th century literature, Tayler has a commanding reputation. He is past president of the Milton Society and past president of the Academy of Literary Studies. In 1985, he was honored with a Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates. Twice he has been honored with a festschrift, a book of essays written in dedication to him by leading scholars in the field. “Few professors have made the marriage of scholarship and teaching so seamless,” says Marc Berley ’85, a Barnard professor of English who did his graduate work at Columbia under Tayler’s direction from 1988–93. “There’s a link between the assignments Ted gave and his remarkable devotion to reading and grading (by himself, without graduate assistants) all of the essays in his undergraduate classes, despite the 100-plus enrollments common in his Shakespeare class. Tayler always attended to the words that students used and how they used them with an attention that rivaled the inspiring focus he placed on the poets whose poems he asked students to rank. For a student to write a good paper in Tayler’s class thus became something far more important than in many another class. In a context (academic grade inflation) where As on papers are no big deal, Tayler sent countless students running out of his classroom excited to have earned a B.”

The collection of essays Berley assembled in Tayler’s honor, Reading the Renaissance: Ideas and Idioms From Shakespeare to Milton, was published in January 2003. In its pages, Ernest Gilman ’68, now an eminent professor at NYU, still wrestles with Ben Jonson’s “On His First Son,” just as Tuck, in The Wit to Know: Essays on English Renaissance Literature for Edward Tayler, continues to tease out the puzzles of Jonson’s Cary-Morison Ode. Both endeavors began in a Hamilton Hall classroom presided over by Tayler. In a footnote in his essay, Gilman, sneakily alluding to a complex metaphor in Jonson’s elegy, says he is “indebted” to Tayler, “to whom I owe all that I am in arts.”

Tayler has published influential volumes on Donne, Milton and Shakespeare, and his writing has a certain flair. As William Kerrigan notes in his introduction to The Wit to Know, which Kerrigan edited with Hill, Tayler has had the temerity to begin no fewer than three books with variants of a single sentence: “Perhaps Aristotle was right in supposing that nature reveals itself ever and everywhere the same, just as fire burns both here and in Persia.”

But Tayler put the greater part of his genius into his teaching. If you were lucky enough to have a course with him, you knew what made him special. He changed the way you thought about words and books; he disturbed your complacency; you weren’t the same person at the end of the semester. Above all, he taught you to read poems on their own terms, with a meticulous closeness to what the words signified and what the poet intended.

For students embarking on literary or artistic careers, the impact of Tayler’s teaching has been especially strong. Novelist Paul Auster ’69 was so stimulated by Tayler’s take on Milton’s Areopagitica that he virtually paraphrases it in his acclaimed New York Trilogy. (In Eden, Auster writes in a fascinating passage, “a thing and its name were interchangeable. After the fall, this was no longer true. Names became detached from things; words devolved into a collection of arbitrary signs; language had been severed from God. The story of the Garden, therefore, records not only the fall of man, but the fall of language.”) When New Yorker film critic David Denby ’65 decided to revisit Lit Hum three decades after his freshman year, it was Tayler’s section that Denby attended, and it is inevitably Tayler’s personality that dominates select pages of Denby’s Great Books (1996). Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns ’78 has singled out Tayler (“quirky but fantastic”) as one of his favorite teachers. So has poet David Shapiro ’68, for whom Tayler’s impatience with mental laziness made a big difference. “He admonished me at the end of papers: ‘But go on!’ ” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner ’78 recalls being “overwhelmed” after a Tayler lecture on Richard II and Twelfth Night. Kushner says Tayler’s “Shakespeare class — his whole approach — made me want to be a playwright.”

Tayler has his impish side. He complimented poet Laurance Wieder ’68 on his poems, nicknaming them the “Wieder lieder.” Once, in class, he called on “rhymester Lehman,” which may not sound like unambiguous praise but did initiate a discussion in which it became clear that the professor had read and thought about my undergraduate verse. Tayler’s sense of irony could be unnerving. Inside or outside of class, he always seemed to make people feel that there was a right answer — but that he wasn’t going to tell you what it was. You had to figure it out for yourself. Former CCT editor Jamie Katz ’72 recalls riding in the Hamilton Hall elevator with Tayler. Katz confided that he had a political conundrum to negotiate and appealed to the professor for his wisdom. Tayler looked at him with increased bemusement as the convoluted story went on. When the elevator finally stopped at Tayler’s floor, he paused and with a twinkling eye gave his best advice: “Be a hero.”

"Elizabethans talked a lot about order because they didn't have any. Modern academics talk about power for roughly the same reason."

Edward William Tayler was born in Berlin in 1931. His father was an MIT-trained engineer who formulated a method for making wallboard material from the waste of sugar canes. In the late 1920s and ’30s, he was in the business of setting up wallboard factories in various European locales. He met Tayler’s mother, Violetta, who was Latvian, in Berlin and courted her in Riga. The couple returned to Berlin for the birth of their son. When Tayler was 9 months old, his father was involved in a scuffle with Nazi brownshirts, and Tayler and his mother left soon thereafter, first for Britain and then for the United States, where Tayler’s father joined them when his business allowed.

Tayler grew up in Westfield, N.J., attending Benjamin Franklin School and Westfield Junior High, where he was, in his words, “plucked out for bad grades and uncertain character.” He loved attending summer school at Valley Forge Military Academy, where he rode old cavalry horses and rose to the rank of sergeant-major before he went AWOL after being demoted (for “sneaking out nightly with other bad boys, filling a Jeep from an underground tank and eating hamburgers in Wilmington, Del.”). During another summer in his early teens, he held a job with the Singer Sewing Machine Co., and in spare moments read classic texts in slim volumes with minute print that fit in the back pocket of his jeans. It was under these circumstances that he read his first Shakespeare plays. He was, he says, “determined to read the canon,” perhaps because of the example of his self-educated grandfather. For his last two years of high school, Tayler’s father sent him to The Gunnery, a small school in Washington, Conn., where his grades improved enough to gain him admission to Amherst.

At Amherst, Tayler achieved magna cum laude grades and joined the wrestling team. (Asked about the latter, Tayler imitated a caustic coach: “Thanks for showing up for practice, Tayler. Don’t get nicotine stains on the mat.”) He studied with the formidable Theodore Baird, whose exercises in logic and composition served as models when Tayler set out to revitalize freshman English at Columbia in the early 1980s. In Baird, too, he found an example of intellectual integrity and authenticity. Baird was, in Tayler’s eyes, an “incurable sentimentalist, inveterate debunker and original pedagogue,” who set store by clarity of thought and language and recoiled from cant as from a noxious thing. Baird seems to represent to Tayler what Tayler represents to many of his ex-students. “Every few years I would write to him saying, ‘Dear Professor Baird, I think I’m beginning to understand what you meant when you invited us to consider … ,’ and he would reply with unfailing courtesy, avoiding the matter at hand and its implied praise.” Tayler says that when he asked Baird how he had managed to establish English I as a required course at Amherst, the old professor replied simply that the others in the department “all wanted to sit around and teach novels or something, but I had a plan.” In that assertive clause lies the “stubbornness” and “recalcitrant integrity” that Baird embodied for Tayler. After graduating from Amherst in 1954, Tayler received a doctorate in English and humanities, with honors, from Stanford in 1960. There he encountered his second great professorial influence, poet and critic Yvor Winters. Winters resembled Baird in just one way: He had a gargantuan personality. Winters was never less than definite in his pronouncements. On one occasion, he declared George Herbert’s “Church Monuments” to be the greatest poem of the English Renaissance. Tayler remembers standing there with another Winters student, poet Thom Gunn. When one of them asked Winters to support this extravagant claim, he refused. “Go back and read it again,” he said. Poet Richard Wilbur, another Amherst graduate who went on to study with Winters, was asked what Winters was like. “Well,” Wilbur said, “I asked him why he raised Airedales. He said, ‘Because they can kill any other dog.’ ”

Ted Tayler
Tayler, with his wife, just prior to a recent trip to New Zealand.

Ferocious and feared, Winters achieved immense influence for one who stood so demonstrably out of step with his time. He wrote in defense of reason and rationalism and fought the various versions of the doctrine that genius is closer to madness than to sanity. Like T.S. Eliot, he repudiated English romanticism in favor of Elizabethan poets. But to Winters, Eliot’s brand of modernism was itself infected with the ailment it was meant to cure. In such books as Primitivism and Decadence (1937), Winters wrote about poetry as if civilization hung in the balance. Literature he defended as a source of moral value, an effort to impose reason and order imposed on the chaos and anarchy of society and nature.

If Baird represented skeptical relativism, Winters was the epitome of a dogmatic absolutist. “I like to imagine that they cancelled themselves out while branding grand antinomies in my cerebral cortex,” Tayler says.

Tayler’s emphasis on seeing texts as they are, and not as intercepted by our preconceptions, is almost quixotic at a time when what often passes for the study of literature is, in his words, “flagrant acts of personal aggrandizement and ill-concealed attempts at theoretical terrorism.” Too many teach literature not for what it can give us in moral excellence and esthetic delight but as an illustration of a theory or to advance a political position. Nor is this merely an academic problem, an instance of unseemly professorial quarreling on a par with a dispiriting exchange of letters in the back of The New York Review of Books. Tayler, in an essay reprinted in Berley’s Reading the Renaissance, explains what the stakes are. He quotes the late poet J.V. Cunningham, another distinguished student of Winters, who insisted, as Tayler does, on honoring what Donne or Jonson meant by a given word, image or concept. “In fact,” Cunningham points out, “the problem that is here raised with respect to literature is really the problem of any human relationship: Shall we understand another on his terms or on ours?”

Tayler always seemed to make people feel that there was a right answer - but that he wasn't going to tell you what it was.

For Tayler, fashionable academic jargon is poison; he hates it as much as George Orwell did, and for similar reasons. And it is perhaps his impatience with cant, especially theoretical cant, that made him an ideal person to reform and redesign Columbia’s English composition program. Jargon, a reliance on “bugswords” (a Tayler coinage), gets in the way of authentic thinking and excuses the student from making the effort necessary to engage a thought or a book. Tayler is similarly suspicious of “theory,” a word embracing a whole clutch of critical theories that propose to reduce all texts to variants of a single paradigm, whether it be that of Marxism, or French poststructuralism or some other ism or ology. He says wittily that there is nothing wrong with “theory” unless you seek to apply it, and he is mordant in his observations of academic fads and fashions now in vogue. “Elizabethans talked a lot about order because they didn’t have any,” he notes. “Modern academics talk about power for roughly the same reason.” Tayler likes Herman Melville’s canine metaphor for a person confronted with a new idea: He may “wag his bushy tail comprehendingly” but doesn’t have a clue. The purpose of Tayler’s Logic and Rhetoric course was, in a sentence, to discourage bushy tail-wagging and the loud barking that sometimes masks a refusal to think.

In his area of scholarly expertise, Tayler developed his canon of greatness with Winters as a guide but with a demonstrated willingness to commit apostasy. Shakespeare and Milton were the two towering figures, the master of the dramatic and the master of the epic, which may sound obvious but isn’t — or wasn’t. No course devoted entirely to Milton had been given at the College before Tayler introduced his year-long course for upperclassmen (and graduate students) in the 1960s.

In embracing Milton, Tayler broke not only with the T.S. Eliot-inspired New Critics who held sway in academe but with his maverick Stanford mentor, who had joined in the anti-Milton chorus. “Sometimes Thom Gunn and I were raucous, sometimes we sighed,” Tayler says, “but we knew that Winters, wildly wrong as he often was, had something we wanted to learn, that poetry is the great act of the human spirit. There, he never failed us.”

For Tayler, following Winters, the great lyric tradition included Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Walter Raleigh, Fulke Greville, George Gascoigne, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Andrew Marvell and George Herbert. If you were making top-10 lists, as Tayler had his students do, “They Flee from Me” should have headed your Wyatt list, and once you understood why, you should then be on your way to grasping why Jonson’s “To Heaven,” “On His First Sin” and “My Picture Left in Scotland” merited special attention and why “The Canonization” and “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Eve” were the bluest of the blue chips in the Donne portfolio. Not that Tayler said such things outright. He proceeded by indirections, hints, questions, clues: Why does Hamlet begin, “Who’s there?” What’s the central line in Donne’s “The Canonization”? Or he made you choose between rival points of view: “Harvard’s Douglas Bush says Marvell’s “Horatian Ode” means what it says and Yale’s Cleanth Brooks says it means the opposite. Which one of them is right?”

A valuable teaching concept that I owe to Tayler’s senior seminar is the awareness that there’s a constant struggle in poetry between a plain and a sugared style of writing — or, as I have since come to term it, between the poetic impulse and the anti-poetic resistance to it. Greatness in metaphysical poetry is achieved when the maximum of ingenuity is married to a plain style of speech that still allows for multiple levels of meaning. It occurs, for example, at the end of Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” when the poet, taking leave of his lady before a journey, likens the two lovers to the legs of a compass, a flamboyant but wonderfully exact simile that also illustrates the Tayler axiom that the circle, not the straight line, is the emblem of perfection and, therefore, the 17th century poetic structure of choice.

Poem not in the manner of John Milton

Dear Ted, were we the last to love John Milton,
that cornerstone Romanticism was built on?

The Leaning Tower of Pisa keeps tiltin’,
but does anybody still read Milton?

Lovers of cheese have their Roquefort and Stilton,
but not even English majors still read Milton.

It’s a heartrending tale, the loss of Eden as Milton
renders it in English that sounds like Latin.

Three short chapters of Genesis are filled in
and fitted out majestically by Milton

In his many-colored coat of satin edged with guilt in
the lining of our being. All hail Milton.

In every room of every Sheraton and Hilton
should be found the complete works of Milton.

—David Lehman ’70

There were sentences Tayler repeated in his classes either as statements of truths or as provocative interrogations that would lead us to the right doorstep, key in hand. He had us read an essay of Freud’s, “The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words,” which argues that a word at its origin meant itself and its opposite — an idea with devastating consequences when applied to Donne’s love poems with their puns and double meanings. About the human penchant for binary oppositions, Tayler quoted Columbia philosophy professor Irwin Edman ’17’s quip that “there are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide everything in two and those who don’t.” Dull of hearing was the Tayler student who didn’t learn that “meter is to language as art is to life” or that, as a Wallace Stevens aphorism would have it, “identity is the vanishing point of resemblance.” If these and other repeated phrases did their work, and you paid as close attention as Tayler demanded to the meaning of a poet’s words in their historical context, it was just possible that you might have a complex, and in some cases almost mystical, experience that culminated in an epiphany, perhaps long-delayed but nevertheless sudden, leaving you exhilarated and in a renewed state of wonderment.

I can tell of two such experiences. Tayler always began his lectures on Hamlet by saying, “Now the first thing you have to understand is that the main character is aware that he has been cast as the revenger in a fashionable if limited dramatic genre called The Revenge Play — and he feels very uncomfortable in the role.” Tayler also emphasized Hamlet’s “readiness is all” speech, and I recall rereading the play in the light of that emphasis and having a sudden, blazing insight when I came across the lines in Act V where Hamlet complains that before he “could make a prologue to my brains / They had begun the play.” It struck me that Hamlet is, among great stage characters, perhaps uniquely conscious of himself as an actor (and frustrated author), limited by a script composed by another; that this paradoxically makes him a universal man, who is powerless to alter his destiny and must achieve a “readiness” to accept it; and that as Hamlet to Shakespeare, so are we in relation to God. I confess I couldn’t resist sending my old professor a note with this idea worked out, concluding: “Am I on the right track? You see, I remain your student, looking to you for confirmation.”

In the Milton class, Tayler quizzed us relentlessly on what kind of reader could understand Paradise Lost, and whether we “liked” Satan as a character and did we agree with William Blake that Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it?” If Milton had so powerful an intellect and was so calculating and controlling of every inch of Paradise Lost, why did he make the reader feel sympathy for the devil? Was it really inadvertent, as Blake thought? If so, there was a streak of subversive impiety in Paradise Lost. But perhaps this was to underrate Milton’s cunning as an artist. Could it be that Milton intended us to like Satan, because this would demonstrate the reader’s fallibility? Perhaps we’re not superior after all to Adam and Eve; perhaps, like them, we would have succumbed to the serpent’s charm and fallen as they did. And perhaps we do fall with them while reading the poem, and we do so exactly when we find ourselves liking Satan, and this is what Milton had up his sleeve. This view of the matter, which is roughly the argument made by renowned Milton scholar Stanley Fish in his book Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (1969, 1972 and 1998), was anticipated and all but articulated years earlier in Tayler’s lecture class on Milton.

I recently asked him whether he really believes that it takes a good man to write a good poem. What ensued was altogether characteristic. He answered my question with a question, rabbinic style, but with an unsettling twist: “Do you mean do I confuse ethics and aesthetics?” His use of confuse made me pause: was he using the word ironically, to anticipate an objection, or was he intimating that the “good man, good poem” line amounted merely to a teaching strategy, a way of arriving at 17th-century notions, not the professor’s own? Leaving me to tangle with the ambiguities, Tayler happily supplied more than one source (Milton, Jonson) for the idea that moral virtue was a prerequisite for aesthetic excellence. He reminded me, too, of the pages devoted to the question in his book Donne’s Idea of a Woman (Columbia University Press, 1991). But then, in classic Tayler-style, he warned me off it. “You see,” he said, “the moment I start laying it out in expository prose rather than quoting a line and asking a question about it, I’m doing the thinking, you’re not doing the thinking.”

Ted Tayler
Tayler, teaching a class in 1985, helped his students learn that their opinions mattered as well as his.

That was always Tayler’s goal in the classroom: to get the students to realize that it was their opinions, not his, that mattered. He knew that if he revealed his judgments on matters where rival opinions could be held, students would stop thinking and start parroting. Only by a system of judicious withholding and strategic disclosure can a professor have the sort of time-capsule effect that Tayler so often has had on his students. There are those who would dismiss his methods as manipulative. Some regard his antipathy to the academic reign of critical theory as stifling. All to the good, says this once and future student. It takes sustained generosity and greatness to foster the learning that happens when the student’s mind becomes itself the field of ideas and the subject of examination, as it did when Edward Tayler was your professor.

David Lehman ’70 is the editor of the Best American Poetry series and the author of The Evening Sun and other books of poetry. The Last Avant-Garde, his study of The New York School, includes a chapter on the late Kenneth Koch. Lehman has written articles for Columbia College Today on Koch, Lionel Trilling ’25, John Hollander ’50, Jason Epstein ’49, Norman Podhoretz ’50, Robert Giroux ’36, Donald Keene ’42, Allen Ginsberg ’48, senior colloquium and freshman English.




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