In continuing with April is National Poetry Month, I’d like to introduce to William Alfred (16 August 1922 – 20 May 1999).
Alfred was not a poet, but a friend of poets, a playwright and a beloved figure, a truly legendary presence at Harvard University for generations of students. Born in Brooklyn to poor Irish parents, he was a sickly child. As his page at Brooklyn College indicates, he had had several heart attacks by age sixteen: it defies logic as to how he could have served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Never forgetting poverty that he and his family lived in, the discrimination that he had witnessed against the Irish, the sacrifice of his family, and the profound influence religious orders had on shaping his character and intellect, Alfred attended Brooklyn College and used the G.I. Bill to advance his education. Alfred received his Master’s at Harvard in 1949, his doctorate there in 1954, and he was made a full professor at the same institution in 1963.
His most famous play, Hogan’s Goat, launched Faye Dunaway’s career. Alfred would win the Drama Desk Award for Best Playwright for Goat and Dunaway and Richard Mulligan would earn Theatre World Awards. Dunaway would become a life-long friend of Alfred’s. He started the play in 1956, after publishing Agamemnon in 1954, under the guidance of Archibald MacLeish. Although Hogan’s Goat had been first a stage production in 1965, it was later made into a TV series in 1971 and also adapted as a musical.
Although William Alfred was known primarily as a medievalist and playwright, he taught Harvard courses on English drama and literature, too. His other plays included The Curse of an Aching Heart (another Alfred piece starring Dunaway), Nothing Doing, and Cry for Us All, a musical adaptation of Hogan’s Goat. He published a bilingual edition with his translation of Beowulf in 1963 and a book of poems, The Annunciation Rosary.
In 1991, when I was living in north Cambridge, my phone rang one evening and it was Emeritus Professor Alfred inviting me to his home for a ‘talk.’ I had at the time written him for advice since I was interested in pursuing studies in medieval literature and had been accepted to both New York University and the University of Leeds. The address Alfred gave was ‘Thirty-One Athens Street.’
His house is still there in Cambridge. St. Paul’s, a Romanesque church, where Alfred attended Catholic Mass daily, is still there. The McIntyre & Moore bookstore on Mount Auburn Street on the way to Athens Street is now gone. Wordsworth Bookstore is also gone. It is ironic, that next to the red brick Vatican (what detractors of Harvard University call it), bookstores were the first thing to go. Harvard Square molts and transforms itself about every five years into something unrecognizable. The awful cheese-grater building visible from the end of Athens Street is still there. If there ever was a time-warp continuum, it’s manifestation was the Romanesque St. Paul at one end of the street and the Brutalist rectilinear monstrosity at the other end. Medieval and Modern.
Alfred invited me inside and the first thing I noticed was that he kept a plastic jug near his front door with dollar bills trapped inside. I discovered later that street people would stop by and Professor Alfred always gave them money. Whether his book royalties or Harvard pension, I’ll never know.
He invited me to take a chair and then excused himself to get fresh lemonade and cookies. The parlor was filled with books and clocks. Alfred had an obsession with clocks: on the table I saw numerous clocks in various states of repair. When he had returned he had given me a photocopy of a piece by Paul Valéry’s in which Valéry discussed “the given line” (une ligne donnée), which is defined as “the line that is ‘given’ to the poet by God, or by nature, or by a muse, or by some power outside himself,” and I listened to Alfred talk briefly about the importance of revision. This conversation in turn led to the two of us to talk about poetry.
The poets and writers whom Alfred had known was simply astonishing, and by “knew” I do not mean as acquaintances, but as people with whom he had had a long-term communication with. He had exchanged letters with Gertrude Stein. The chair that I was occupying, he pointed out, was T.S. Eliot’s favorite when he visited Cambridge. Eliot, whom most people have described as a distant man and thoroughly British in manner, was, as Alfred assured me, a profoundly compassionate and sensitive man. I would read years later about the meeting between Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot, which proved the point. Groucho was painfully aware of his lack of formal education and felt intimidated meeting Eliot in London. Eliot invited Marx to dinner and treated Groucho with such kindness that he never forgot it.
Alfred and I spoke for two hours and I know that there are numerous Harvard alumni who have their own stories about William Alfred. In my brief time with him, I listened how this man recalled the women in his family reading to him as a child (Wilkie Collins) and how Archibald MacLeish guided him in improving his writing. I was stunned to hear that Alfred had had a crush on Lillian Hellman. He was gracious enough to not voice his dismay as to what Lillian might have seen in that “other writer” (Dashiell Hammett). He asked me if I had met poets and I mentioned those I had met briefly: James Merrill, Alan Ginsberg, and Galway Kinnell. We discussed their poetry in passing while we sipped the lemonade and munched on the cookies. I listened to his anecdotes about Auden, Archie MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, Seamus Heaney, and Mason Hammond, whose Aeneas to Augustus I had used, as other countless Latin students had, too.
Alfred did not neglect in conveying to me the difficult times in his life. He had spoken about discrimination against the Irish, anti-intellectualism in America, and the McCarthy era. He had simply adored Robert ‘Cal’ Lowell and in one somber moment Alfred described to me in harrowing detail a night that Cal showed up at Athens Street in full manic rage. Lowell was dear to Alfred. He admitted that in those days little was known of mental illness, although Lowell would later improve with lithium. A professor I had at USC who had had Lowell for a graduate seminar saved the paper that Lowell commented on. Alfred went dark describing that long-ago night when Lowell had appeared at his house in a maniac rage. The account was both harrowing as it was sobering. I’ve read Lowell biographies but what Alfred described to me has not been written about. It has since made me admire Lowell’s ability to write at all. With that said, I will not detail it nor will I describe Alfred’s pain and horror at the meeting between Robert Frost and Ezra Pound at a time when Pound was being evaluated for legal action for his war-time radio broadcasts. This was before St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Try as I might to be objective, I cannot read Frost’s poetry.
Before I took my leave left Alfred had advised me to attend Leeds. He spoke kindly of the poet and professor, Geoffrey Hill, who at the time, had been appointed to Boston University, largely due to Christopher Ricks’s having campaigned for him. I would later meet Hill and talk with him. Alfred’s reasoning for Leeds: it would give me experience in paleography experience. I took my MA at Leeds.
I do not claim to have the charisma to have earned Alfred’s confidence. He was a kind, serious man who loved literature. I know that Faye Dunaway was a faithful friend to William Alfred and that others have known him as students and colleagues. For a single afternoon he made me feel special and honored, privileged to talk about literature, be in his room among all those books and clocks. He had a framed picture and signed letter of Swinburne (I didn’t ask why).
In my youth I had an experience that has become a hallowed memory. Yes, my meeting and conversation with him was a touchstone to other writers I admired, but it was the man William Alfred himself, with his gentle, unassuming manner, his love of humanity, and his generosity of spirit, who has loomed large in my memory, for I had the privilege that day of being in the presence of a remarkable human being. He was a devout Catholic who lived his faith. He gave to the poor and he opened his home and heart to students. I would meet Alfred one last time, outside St. Paul. It was summer and he was wearing a seersucker suit and a straw hat that looked as if it had been run over by a truck. Twice. He smiled, shook my hand and asked whether I was well. I answered.