He was probably the most accomplished poet any of us knew.
His idol was William Butler Yeats. Anyone who attended Jene Beardsley’s literature classes at Eastern University knows that.
A student once asked him if he had ever written a poem as good as Yeats and he said, “Yes.”
Then he winced at his impertinence.
“I only wrote one poem I thought came close to Yeats,” he explained. I wish I could remember which of Jene’s many poems he thought was truly Yeatsian.
Jene Beardsley was professor of English literature at then Eastern Baptist College when I was a student in the sixties and seventies. He was an eloquent lecturer who meticulously dissected the pathology of poems and expected his students to show they had grasped some of it in their blue book essays. I remember one of my classmates had tears in her eyes when she showed me Jene’s red-ink comment on her test: “Most of the time you are way off.” Jene’s annotations on essays could sting because his handwriting was so graceful and elegant.
Jene was not an extrovert and he spent long hours alone in his tiny office re-reading and underlining the books that engulfed him. “I can’t really get excited about a lecture unless I find something new to say,” he explained.
He was cautious around new students until he got to know them. When I was accepted into his small phalanx of close friends I discovered a deeply complicated and intense man (as befits a poet) who had strong opinions about literary figures and a high pitched giggle when he laughed. He hated Erle Stanley Gardner, writer of the Perry Mason stories, and he dismissed poets Ogden Nash and Rod McKuen as “stupid and trite.” He thought some popular writing was actually terrible and he cited Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident as an example. I never understood why.
I was a pale imitation of a campus radical in the seventies (at least by Eastern Baptist College standards) and Jene would view my satirical cartoons of the school’s president and dean with apparent appreciation but no comment.
After my graduation from Eastern in 1971 it was easier to see Jene socially. I remember several evenings with Jene and other friends in my Phoenixville, Pa., apartment, feasting, laughing, and – yes – drinking wine, which was especially taboo in the Eastern Baptist College rule book. He liked most of his faculty colleagues but tended to mimic some of their traits. He did a devastating parody of the high-pitched accent of a foreign language professor.
I kept in touch with Jene during the years I was on the adjunct faculty teaching journalism and mass media in the seventies and eighties. My classes met on Thursday evenings and I made it a point to visit Jene each week in his tiny office. He always seemed glad to see me but it was also obvious he was intensely absorbed in lecture preparation or perhaps in the creation of a new poem. I never overstayed my welcome, but I never missed an opportunity to visit him. As time went by he allowed his hair and beard to grow long and gray and he began to look like Jerry Garcia. Also befitting a poet.
Then, sadly, we began to lose touch after he retired. I sent him birthday greetings every January on FaceBook and he would respond warmly. I didn’t hear from him for several years and one of my former students sent me a FaceBook message to ask if I knew if he was okay. I sent him a note by mail but earlier this year my student reported, “Beardsley is okay, he says his eyesight is bad and prevents him from reading the small print in social media.” I sent him a note to say how good it was to be back in touch. But that was my last message to him.
This morning I signed onto Facebook and saw a report that Jene had died July 24. He was 83.
I wish I had stayed closer to him.
Jene Beardsley leaves a treasure of memories for his students and friends.
He also bequeaths to us the many poems he left behind. Some of them as good as Yeats.
This one in particular is on my mind:
A Sudden Death in the House
How thoughtless of you to get up on that morning – unsteady
In bathrobe and slippers, with toothbrush and washcloth ready,
Breakfast frying in the kitchen, son leaving for work – merely
To die, the day in your absence resuming so queerly.
Now, us guessing the reason you rose just to go back to sleep.
This brief but formal complaint is but love in disguise:
May you who rose to die have died to rise.
(Jene Erick Beardsley, September 1968)