Words of Wisdom from Dr. Louise Cowan

Recently many fellow English majors and I had the honour of spending the afternoon with Dr. Louise Cowan. The afternoon was filled with wine, laughs, and deep and intimate conversation. Dr. Louise, even in her old age, is energetic, quick witted, and extremely charming. In our three hour conversation (most of which we spent simply and truly listening – our last lecture, if you will, at UD) Dr. Cowan spoke with delight about the founding of our university and her contributions to it. Her mind! I can’t believe, as Goldsmith says, “That one small head could carry all [s]he knew.” What a delightful way to end our education: to have wine and cheese, carry on a meaningful exchange, and baske in the wisdom of the founder and designer of UD’s Core Curriculum. Dr. Louise spoke of many mystical and ponder-worthy subjects, but of all, the remark which struck me most pointedly was concerning our time and place. She said that we are in an interesting time in the world, that we are “between myths,” by which she meant that the “old myth” of the Englightenment, acquisition, conquest, and masculinity was dying, and that it seemed to her that the “new myth” emerging was one in which the feminine would be dominant. She spoke of equality without egalitarianism, as in Wordsworth’s poem:

“The Rainbow”
My heart leaps up when I behold
A Rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the man;
And I wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

In this poem, Dr. Cowan quoted that “The Child is father of the man,” and that the truth in that lies in the worthiness of the child, rather than an actual hierarchy. The household is still intact, but there is a certain equality, which she believes will be part of the new myth. She seemed to hint that it would be our generation which would bring about this “new myth.”
By the end, it seemed to me, that Dr. Cowan thought and acted and argued just like a UD student, only with much more charm, eloquence, and wisdom.
In the end, she listed a couple things that made me quite happy, which is that the greatest book in the world, which happens to be my favorite book, is The Brothers Karamozov, and that Andrew Marvell, my Junior Poet, is among the greatest lyric poets of all time. This, of course made a couple of us, whose poets had not ‘made the cut,’ sad. Shakespeare and Hardy did not make it. Sorry Mary Pat Jones and Mary Watson The shock of Shakespeare not being listed among the ten greatest lyric poets caused Mary Watson to question Dr. Cowan’s judgement (and many of us were, if I am not mistaken) on Mary’s side. Who messes with Shakespeare? Dr. Cowan, however, was most judicious and gracious in her response, which she e-mailed to Laura Papania a day or so later:

“Laura, I very much enjoyed meeting with your friends; they are lovely people. Sorry that I wasn’t able to get to know them before they graduated. I worry, however, about all the unguarded things I said! When I’m around students, I feel so intimate that I don’t hold anything back. Would you please see if you can find the young woman who sat on my right and did her “junior poet” project on Shakespeare? I’d like her to know that of course I consider him the greatest writer in the English language. The dramas grow richer the longer one knows them. I was referring to lyrics when I was a bit dubious about whether I’d place him among the ten greatest. The sonnets are magnificent; but they are really intellectual exercises, in a way. The lyric is such a fragile (though powerful) utterance that its “intimations of immortality” hardly stand up to the intellectuality of the sonnet form. But Shakespeare’s sonnets are masterpieces; and they are my constant companions. It’s just that they don’t quite penetrate the mystical veil that the lyric penetrates. But I realize one would have to discuss this matter at more length. Anyhow, let her know that of course I place Shakespeare first in the English language! Best wishes to you in your future undertakings. Louise Cowan”

Dr. Cowan – 1
UD English majors – 0

In the end, I enjoyed the time spent there with Lady Louise, who gave us strong encouragement to continue to keep our minds active and not to squander our fought for education. And, is it me or did she mention the oncoming dark ages? And New York city is better than Boston, by the way.

Please share your memories, dear classmates.

Day 1 of summer,

Peter Bloch

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8 Responses
  1. John P. Bloch says:

    So who are the other 9 best poets in the English language?

  2. Peter Bloch says:

    T.S. Eliot

    To name a few…

  3. Joshua Neu says:

    I find it ironic that in a post about the greatest English professor of all time, Peter made a mistake in the very first sentence. In a compound subject the first person pronoun ought to be placed last. It should be “Recently, some fellow English majors and I.” I’m glad your UD English education did you so much good.

  4. Peter Bloch says:

    Your pedantry shines like the morning sun in July; I apologize for my poor grammar, however, I am glad to see that at least now there is some sort of use being made of my blog. I was hoping against all hope that this blog would become a forum to be used frequently by pedantocrats such as yourself.

  5. Chelsea says:

    I am excited because The Brothers K was first on my list of things to read this summer and right after I picked up my copy, I read that Dr. Cowan proclaimed it as “the greatest book in the world” A fine proclamation indeed.
    I noticed a letter that Dostoevsky wrote to his brother that is included in the introduction. Although the circumstances were quite different and more drastic (he was facing execution), I found it fitting and applicable to our current state, that is, recently graduated and facing the real world:

    “Brother, I’m not depressed and haven’t lost spirit. Life everywhere is life, life is in ourselves and not in the external. There will be people near me, and to be a human being among human beings, and remain one forever, no matter what misfortunes befall, not to become depressed, and not to falter–this is what life is, herein lies its task.”

    So there ya go.

  6. Peter Bloch says:

    Indeed. Now, more than ever, one must ask, “What is our lives?”

  7. John Sercer says:

    I am shocked, still, that Dr. L. Cowan excluded my man Bill. I assess Bill’s drama and sonnets as does Dr. Lou, but I submit as evidence for my shock two of Billy’s lyrics:

    “What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter / Present mirth has present laughter, / What’s to come is still unsure; / Then come and kiss me, sweet and twenty, / Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”
    [See Dr. Quinn and John Senior, tape #8 or #9.]
    “Golden lads and lasses must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”

  8. Allison W says:

    Thank you for sharing Peter! I was student of Dr. Cowan’s more years ago than I’d like to admit. Apparently she is still as charming and magical as she was in my time. Just reading through you note took me right back to classes. Southern Literature how I love thee!
    I hope you also had a chance to take classes with Dr. Scott Crider. He was the second most influencial professor in my time at UD right behind Dr. Cowan.

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