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Richard Eberhart

By William Jay Smith

The life of Richard Ghormley Eberhart literally spanned a century. Born in 1904 in Austin, Minnesota, he died in 2005, at the age of 101, in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he had long before retired as professor of English at Dartmouth, his alma mater. After receiving his B.A. there, he signed on as an ordinary seaman on a freighter and worked his way across the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, ending up finally in England where he remained to study for another B.A. and an M.A. from St John’s College, Cambridge. Under the supervision of I. A. Richards, and greatly influenced by contemporary British poetry, he published his first collection of poems, A Bravery of Earth, in 1930 at the age of twenty-six. On his return to the United States, while engaged in further graduate work at Harvard, he became the first and only American poet to receive from Siam (now Thailand) the Order of the Royal Elephant, Third Class, and with it the key to the city of Bangkok. This distinction was accorded him in appreciation of his having tutored the son of King Prajadhipok, who had come to Boston for an eye operation. His other awards—too many to list in full—the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the National Book Award—all came later, placing him among the most honored American poets of the 20th century.

After Harvard, Richard Eberhart taught English for nine years at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts. One of his pupils was the poet Robert Lowell. Another was Charles Butcher, who introduced Richard to his sister Elizabeth. Dick and Betty were married in 1941, and when Charles succeeded his father as president of the family firm, The Butcher Polish Company, Dick became the vice-president. He took to the road soon afterward to master the sales side of the business, and when he arrived at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company to persuade that organization to polish its floors with Butcher Wax, he was directed to see its vice-president. Delighted to welcome a fellow poet-executive, Wallace Stevens took Dick out to lunch and Dick recorded the occasion for him and for us in the poem “At the Canoe Club.”

During World War II, Eberhart became a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy and an instructor in aerial gunnery. He did not take part in actual combat but wrote brilliantly of those he prepared to do so. He names two of them at the conclusion of his poem “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment,” one of the most memorable poems to come out of the war:


You would think the fury of aerial bombardment
Would rouse God to relent; the infinite spaces
Are still silent. He looks on shock-pried faces.
History, even, does not know what is meant.

You would feel that after so many centuries
God would give man to repent; yet he can kill
As Cain could, but with multitudinous will,
No farther advanced than in his ancient furies.

Was man made stupid to see his own stupidity?
Is God by definition indifferent, beyond us all?
Is the eternal truth man’s fighting soul
Wherein the Beast ravens in its own avidity?

Of Van Wettering I speak, and Averill,
Names on a list, whose faces I do not recall
But they are gone to early death, who late in school
Distinguished the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl.

After the war, he returned to his position with Butcher Polish in Boston and it was there I first met him in 1950. For the next thirty years I saw him and Betty regularly in Boston, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, and in Florida. He abandoned business for the academy and became, like Robert Frost, a Poet in Residence at several major universities. Throughout the country thousands of students benefited from his encouragement and inspiration. In 1968 he was appointed to a permanent chair at Dartmouth, and after he retired from teaching he continued to live in Hanover, New Hampshire, near the college, until his death in June 2005.

Few poets have held such a variety of jobs during their lives, but whether on shipboard, in department store, slaughterhouse, or business boardroom, he never for one moment lost sight of the real focus and central passion of his life, which was poetry. “I have a theory of poetry,” Eberhart wrote, “it is that poetry is a gift, a gift of nature… not something that can be achieved by the utmost study…. I believe in extraordinary states of being… that are states of extreme intuition, and that they descend on one unannounced.”

The poet Daniel Hoffman, who was Eberhart’s neighbor in Maine for forty years, has called this the statement of a romantic poet, deeply influenced by Wordsworth, Blake, and Emerson, one engaged in a “constant search for a pure poetry that will grant the poet and reader the refreshment of spiritual truth. The man who held these conceptions was a hearty, gregarious, seemingly outgoing fellow who, if one didn’t know he was actually one of our most original poets, might have been taken, on first meeting, to be a member of the local Lions or Rotary Club.”

My first view of him was indeed a shock. A roly-poly figure, he looked utterly cherubic, but odd-ball that he was—and prided himself, I believe, on being—he was a cherub puffing on a pipe, a pipe that he kept biting on, I am told, until his last day on Earth. Dick had approved, in a review he had written of a book of my poems that had appeared shortly before we met, of my description of a bishop on a South Pacific island who “like a fat persimmon sat under a green palmetto in the afternoon.” Dick had something of that fat persimmon about him, but it was a lively, energetic, ebullient one, so overflowing with life that it seemed absolutely impossible that it could ever explore, as it did with such brilliance, death and decay.

“I tend to philosophize about everything, to conclude nothing,” he said. Often when he philosophized unduly in his poems, his German antecedents—the dukes of Württemberg—seemed to take over, and his work descended into pure bathos. When, on the other hand, his Irish ancestors and his Jewish mother’s forebearers perhaps came forward, he produced poetry of what Lowell called his “stately, jagged innocence.” It was poetry of a rhapsodic intensity and a startling clarity akin to that of Blake.

In 1984, to honor Dick on his eightieth birthday, I attempted to recall my impressions of him and his work. I remembered that in June 1942, shortly after the ballet of Midway, as a young Naval officer myself on my first assignment, I had purchased in a Honolulu bookstore a copy of Dick’s first book, A Bravery of Earth. I took it with me shortly afterward a thousand miles southwest of Honolulu to the tiny atoll of Palmyra, where I spent several months. Lines from that book kept me company there, as did the lines from his poem “The Groundhog,” which I had learned by heart and which remains for me one of the most remarkable poems of the entire 20th century. I remember seeing photographs of him taken beside the huge kites that he had learned to fly as part of his Naval duty. I had at hand there in New York these words that I used as an epigraph for my poem “A Flier of Kites,” that I dedicated to him:

To be a flier of kites is not the least of my desires;
In this you see the symbol of your relation to the universe….

–Richard Eberhart

I read your poems in the early ’40s on a Pacific
Atoll; and they cut through all the rubble
and the cruel waste of war; they cleared the mind
and let the spirit soar high in the blue air
above the coral reef, where breakers broke
on an intricate white encrustation
rising from the ocean floor around a still lagoon.

You were a flier of kites, I read,
and I pictured you beside me there
holding firmly in your hand the linen thread
that rose through flocks of booby birds and terns
to where a delicate painted
paper triangle rode the waves of air,
curveting through the clouds while
tufted palm trees along the reef
trailed behind it off into space.

Your poems returned to me this afternoon
when in Manhattan from the twentieth floor
of this white building I watched a storm
encircle the city; thick, rolling clouds
massing in the south, driven, huge black scales
cut from a monster’s hide, around my head
and out over the East River
until they burst above grey water
as from a dragon’s pink mouth on a Chinese kite,
its tail looped in and out among the chimneys,
balconies, and tilting aerials:
It was as if you flew again your mythical kite,
the world in your hand, attached by one thin string
and said: Poetry, if it is anything,
can never be earthbound;
it must through time, controlled, control the columned air;
its nature is to fly, its purpose is to soar.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 9, 2006.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters