In Memoriam

In Memoriam, Professor Bertram Jenkins

I remember the old fool — even if he could remember little.

From the steps on the portico, slung with stone, you could see quite easily into the library. He slumped in a high-backed wooden chair, the good Professor Jenkins, spectacles and ruffled papers strewn across his bulbous belly. A tortured fire hissed behind him, flames just occasionally stretching to the edge of the hearth. And in the faint light surrounding, a cavrenous theater of books, some 20, 30 shelves high.

It was all very Rockwellian, save for this minor detail: Our Jenkins had gone mad.

Not strut-about-the-lawn-naked sort of mad, no. In plain sight, he was the same vaunted academic the world had known for decades. A man in love with intellect, inquisitive to a fault, a cherished and charismatic pillar of scholarly circles. Even his mannerisms were unstopped: When students asked this or that about his experience and seemingly boundless knowledge, his lips curled just so, just slightly in satisfaction. What a coup to light up the young!

It should be said that while these attributes remained the same, his words were … different. His diatribes meandering — lost in fantasy and non-sequitors. When asked about his favorite author, the great John Keats (he often thought himself a kindred spirit, though Keats had died quite too young and the great Professor Jenkins had made it to his seventh decade), he would wax eloquent about grocery lists and the way the cobblestones in the streets pop up when you least expect them and why cannons should be installed on public beaches to avoid enemy landfall, and why beer is so frothy.

This last one was a common refrain, indeed the climax of many monologues.Oh, our poor students. Most would nod after a few incomprehensible assertions, then slink away into the maze of university halls or rush away to a fictitious class. Jenkins would keep talking to himself, his voice slowly fading to a hush. Then a whisper. Then he would stop, hundreds of yards from campus, and realize not a damn thing was recognizable.

The most heartbreaking of all symptoms, however, was this: In his prime, the great Jenkins would quote from the litany of Keats’ works — often. To the blue-eyed, youthful prodigies, just occasionally in our midst: “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”; to the women who toyed with his heart, the appellation: “La belle dame sans merci”; and to many confused colleagues, strings of lines plucked from “Hyperion,” most too opaque to understand.

It was both annoying and endearing. The signature of a man who towered intellectually above others — above me, certainly. This recent Jenkins, however, could no more quote from Keats than he could solve complex mathematical equations. At one juncture, in fact, he was approached by the chancellor who asked in cheeky candor: “What has happened to my Keatsian?” To which, Prof. Jenkins replied: “Keatsian? That sounds quite like a sandwich. Sandwich. Did you know the meatball is only occasionally round? I feel we’ve been cheated.”

And so on — no need to make things awkward with a full retelling of that embarrassment. The point simply is that Jenkins had forgotten his deepest love, his greatest passion, his poet simpatico: John Keats. Some wonder (myself included) if the spark within him had not gone out as well. That we had lost an incomparable mind — and fiery soul.

Most would say that we had. All men have their day, and Jenkins’ had passed. Still, I made my way to his home every so often to check in — as I did this last Saturday. I hoped, I suppose, that God would intervene, would spare the man utter delusion. This absence of self. But when I entered the library, he sat as he always did, Keats resting on his stomach, heaps of books strewn in every corner.

“Have you read this one yet?” he asked me as I walked in, and the Saturday before, and the Saturday before that. “It’s powerful, prescient. Hopeful. I can’t believe I haven’t discovered it before!”

Only he had, of course. Every day, he made his way by some retention of memory — or perhaps the reflexes of his muscles — to the same book, on the same shelf. It was, each day, the “Collected Works of John Keats.”

You would think, in my right mind, I would tire of such repetition. That I would stop coming. But there was a joy to it for me — and, I hope, for him. I would sit, face à face, mirrored in a carved wooden chair, and listen to him gush about this and that.

It always began with Keats — “no stiff air was there,” as the old penner himself would say. A revelation in the wanderings of “The Human Season” — “Can you fathom a soul without Autumn? What is a soul? What is Autumn? What is this season?”— to infantile giggling, his whole body shaking with glee as he read me lines “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” — to the somnolent aches of “To Sleep” that often tugged a tear from his eye and left him, quite exhausted with a maelstrom of emotion, in a hazy state of dream. By the end (and I never said a word), he slumped in his chair snoring. I would stand, upright, grin a bit, stand to warm myself a little by the embers of the fire, wish the old Jenkins well in grainy whispers, and leave as quietly as I could.

I must tell you, many of you thought me mad — perhaps as mad as Jenkins himself. Why would I return, time and again, to hear the same stories, the same verses recited? I didn’t — I don’t — care much for Keats.

Though I tell you the giant of a man we knew as Professor Jenkins was nothing in comparison to the dazzling fool we’ve known of late. To live in the daily joy of discovering beauty, of swimming in its majesty, of sunning in its rays. For most of us, the shine of things in childhood and our wide-eyed youth have been blackened by life. The spark is somewhere within us, yes, but it wavers often. Each day we remember not glory but greed, not ideas but ill, not hope but hatred and angst. We struggle to be light, to find the light, to know light at all.

And dear old mad Jenkins — the very same who baffled red-faced students with his senseless diatribes, the same who lost himself outside the grounds of the university he once knew by heart, the same who quizzically compared his beloved Keats to a sandwich… this same mad man became a beacon, a bringer of light. And I relished nothing more than watching him in his giddy revelations, his childlike glee, his unadulterated joy — to sit and soak it in.

I wish you had known this Jenkins. But he was not with us long. And now I hear him whisper to me, in his final sleep, the fittingest words of his favored friend and lifetime companion:

”Turn the key deftly… and seal the hushed casket of my soul.”

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