Poetry and Reflection: A Teaching Legend's Last Day on the Job

Poetry and Reflection: A Teaching Legend's Last Day on the Job

John Mahoney offers a tribute to the muse in his classroom finale

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Rattigan Professor of English John Mahoney's last hurrah as a full-time faculty member may have been unusual in that the master teacher was on the sideline, but the spirit that has animated his teaching at Boston College for 47 years was clearly front and center.

Rattigan Professor of English John Mahoney speaks to students during his final class on April 30. "Teaching," he said, "is a matter of intuition plus preparation." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
With the semester-ending meeting of English 358 devoted to a symposium on "Poets, Poems and Poetics," students took the floor. They recited Thomas Hardy and John Donne by heart, presented historic overviews of poetry from Horace to Oscar Wilde, and amidst thoughtful give-and-take on the poet's art, turned themselves into the teachers.

The April 30 class in the Fulton Debate Room was the last of Mahoney's career as a full-time member of the English faculty. The finale was testament to classic notions of the humanities and liberal education, conveying the joyous regard for the muse with which the Wordsworth scholar, himself a 1950 graduate of Boston College, has infused 10,000 students at his alma mater since 1955.

Mahoney's teaching portfolio at BC has included a full complement of day classes over nearly half a century, Friday night classes at the old Evening College on Newbury Street until 1962, when he was first named English Department chairman, and 20 years of summer-session courses.

A Mister Chips-like parade of past students might take hours to pass the reviewing stand. "I gave a lecture during the Arts Festival to the Alumni Association," he said. "You know you're getting older when someone comes up to you and says, 'I had you in 1970 and now you're teaching my son.' And now I'm getting into the grandchildren."

He said he prepared for his final class as a full-time professor as he had for all the others.

McIntyre Professor of English J. Robert Barth, SJ, presents Rattigan Professor of English John Mahoney with a copy of The Fountain Light: Studies in Romanticism and Religion , a collection of essays published in his honor and edited by Fr. Barth. The gift was presented at a surprise party for Mahoney at Connolly House on April 20. (Jet Photo)
"I continue to read and re-read," Mahoney said. "Teaching is a matter of intuition plus preparation.

"I'm a teacher who is always prepared. But I'm not a formal lecturer. I blend lecture and discussion. That's why classes have such a mixture of thrill and exhilaration."

Mahoney has so internalized the poetry he loves he seems able to produce an appropriate line for every circumstance in life, said Nicole Cotroneo '02.

"Now, I don't mean this merely superficially; it goes deeper than seeing a daffodil and reciting Wordsworth's 'I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,'" she said. "When we read Milton's 'Lycidas,' he uncovered the life-lesson that we could all relate to - for instance, in the face of the fragility of life, we should strive to cultivate all our gifts and be the best we can become.

"See, Professor Mahoney didn't teach poetry for poetry's sake; he wanted desperately for us all to learn from these poems as we learn from reading philosophic treatises and history books. These poems are lessons and observations on living. And by having us read critical theory - essays written about the art of poetry, often by poets themselves - he enabled us to see how poetry has a place right alongside history, not below it. That is, we were able to see the Truth in it and the power it contains."

Stephen Calme '03 described the Mahoney classroom experience, which included memorizing and reciting 25 lines of poetry, then offering a critique of the verse.

"One of Professor Mahoney's great gifts to me was showing me how to savor a poem," he said. "We took our time, slowing down to really get into the poems. We rarely discussed more than two or three poems a class, and each one was read aloud twice - once at the beginning and once at the end of our discussion. He was not afraid to give us a few moments of reflective silence to let us really absorb all the flavor of a poem."

Mahoney, a Romantics scholar reared in a Somerville triple-decker, a jazz aficionado who holds forth on Benny Goodman as readily as on Keats, has spent a career instilling in students a critical appreciation for the beauty of poetry and the way in which poems convey truths about the human condition.

He retires at a time when prevailing trends in postmodern literary theory have, in the view of some critics, stripped away notions of beauty and truth while reducing poems to "texts" decipherable only in terms of class, race or gender.

Mahoney, who describes his approach to literary studies as that of a "comfortable middle-of-the-roader" who avoids "being trendy for the sake of being trendy," said he keeps thoroughly abreast of the latest in literary scholarship. "To be a good teacher you have to be absolutely au courant," he said. "Literary studies are moving rapidly. If you pause for a few years, you're out of date. You may not be pleased with all the new theories, but you have to know them.

"I try to use what I find valuable in the new theories and approaches, but I don't want to be an ideologue," he said. "The danger in presenting everything as political is that it trivializes politics. If everything comes down to gender, it trivializes gender." The poem, he said, "must be seen as a human document, and if human nature is complex, all of that must be brought to bear.

"Think of the 45 of us sitting in that room today - older, younger, male, female, some believers, some skeptics. If there was some core of humanity that united us all, we touched a common humanity."

The veteran professor will not withdraw entirely from the stage. Mahoney will return next year to reprise his "Poets, Poems, Poetics" course for upperclassmen, and to teach a course for freshmen on literary forms. Jesuit Institute Director T. Frank Kennedy, SJ, has asked Mahoney to once again host a series of monthly seminars for faculty and staff on the Catholic nature of the university.

In May 2003, Mahoney is to present the annual Wordsworth Memorial Lecture at Rydal Church, the Anglican chapel in the English Lake District at which the Romantic poet worshiped. Mahoney said he will expand on the address' topic, "Wordsworth: Religious Experience and Religious Practice," in an upcoming book.

The professor many have long considered Boston College's finest closed a chapter of his teaching career last week on a note of thanks, expressing gratitude to the 40 students of EN 358 for making the course "a very special experience" for him.

In turn, Cotroneo, representing the class, presented Mahoney with a card signed by all. "Thank you," she said, "for sharing your wisdom with us, and sharing your life with us."

Row after row of students in the ornate room adorned with portraits of St. Paul and Daniel Webster began to applaud.

The teacher celebrated for his love of words stood silent as the ovation filled the room. Then, after a few moments, self-conscious, he shooed the students to their next class: "Out you go, then."


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