Students and faculty came together last Tuesday night during “An Evening with W.H. Auden,” bidding a somber and heartfelt farewell to the late Alan Dawley, professor of history, who died of heart failure on March 12.
Organized by Nicole Pfeiffer, senior English major, in conjunction with the history honor society and Lindsey Warren, president of Sigma Tau Delta English honor society, several of Dawley’s colleagues and students took to the podium to honor the life of one of the College’s most esteemed scholars.
Auden’s work was chosen not only because he was one of Dawley’s favorite poets, but the political and social commentaries he often incorporated into his writing spoke to the facets of history and international affairs about which Dawley was most passionate.
“What was most impressive about Dr. Dawley was his ability to bridge the gap between scholarship and activism,” Pfeiffer said in her opening speech.
David Blake, professor of English, was the first reader of the evening.
“It seems so wrong to be here, yet beautiful at the same time,” Blake said. “As Yeats said, ‘A terrible beauty is born.'”
Blake began by reciting Auden’s “Shield of Achilles” and dedicated it to Dawley’s anti-war work. The poem describes the images on the Trojan hero’s shield, which included that of a city at rest and a city at war.
The second poem Blake read was an elegy titled, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” The poem was a haunting acknowledgment of a talented man, which made it an ideal tribute to Dawley.
“I want to read this poem because it’s one poet writing to another,” Blake said. “And we’re all scholars and poets writing to Alan.”
James Huynh, junior history major, was the event’s first student reader. He read a satirical poem called, “The Unknown Soldier,” as well as the poem “Lullaby,” which he described as exploring “love in the sense that it is dual.”
The first year Nagesh Rao, professor of English, taught at the College, Dawley was on sabbatical.
“I kept hearing about his progressive activism,” Rao said. “Alan seemed to be an institution here, larger than life. I don’t think any of us know what it’s like to live without him yet.”
Rao’s second poem was Auden’s “August 1968,” a poem about a particularly volatile time in world history and politics.
“The poem has an acerbic wit and an unflinching conscience,” Rao said. “Alan would have liked it as an activist of the 1960s. He would have understood.”
Event organizer Nicole Pfeiffer read “September 1, 1939,” which she said was Dawley’s favorite.
“He had the last two stanzas hanging in his office,” Pfeiffer said. “He also used it in a speech to the College days after Sept. 11, comparing that day with a day from World War II.”
Janet Gray, professor of women’s and gender studies, was the last to read, choosing Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” an examination of the group of painters known as the “Old Masters.” Auden cites Breughel’s “Icarus,” where he notes how, in the painting, an entire town turns away from a boy drowning in a harbor.
“Alan did not turn away from suffering,” Gray said. “And he wouldn’t let the rest of us turn away either.”
Gray then revealed a surprise. The last poem she chose to read was not one of Auden’s, but a poem written by Dawley titled, “The Shoemakers of Lynn.”
A book of Auden’s poetry, as well as Dawley’s first book, was raffled away at the end of the night, ensuring that the words of these two brilliant men would continue to impact the lives of others.
“His door was always open,” Pfeiffer said. “He was an inspiration.”