Theobald as coxswain. Theobald became prominent in one of Oxford’s traditional sports, rowing, while also being published in Oxford Poetry, the literary magazine.
  • Theobald as coxswain. Theobald became prominent in one of Oxford’s traditional sports, rowing, while also being published in Oxford Poetry, the literary magazine.
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

A few months back, John Theobald, the former chairman of the English department at San Diego State University, went out to campus with a clipboard and a pen to solicit signatures for a nuclear-freeze petition. He’d taught for twenty-three years at the school, but having retired in 1969, was unknown to the present mass of students. White-haired, tall, bespectacled, thin as a rake, and with an Englishman’s natural shyness in approaching strangers, he worked his way from the art store toward the dining commons, where he expected to find receptive students at every table.

John Theobald listened to Frost talk about his apple crop in Vermont, and later, inevitably, about rival poets: Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

John Theobald listened to Frost talk about his apple crop in Vermont, and later, inevitably, about rival poets: Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The morning, heaven knows, had not gone well. He’d started out at the FedMart not far from his hillside house on Merritt Drive in El Cajon, only to find the turf staked out by the anti-handgun people, who shooed him away. Then he’d climbed the hill to the university, which he visits infrequently now, except to withdraw books from the library or to visit his daughter, Jill, a painter who manages the store in the art department. Beginning there, he’d made his way from student to student, crossing the older part of the campus that he’d known so well.

There was the library that he’d visited in 1946, to appraise its collection of classics, poetry, and D.H. Lawrence, before deciding to apply for a teaching job. There was the courtyard of grass and whitewashed benches, bordered on three sides by buildings that looked more properly to belong to a church, as indeed universities once did. There was the building by the entrance of the courtyard, now named for Walter Hepner, former president of the university, whom Theobald had called on that day after visiting the library. Hepner had looked him over, heard his qualifications — graduate of Oxford, seven years teaching at Amherst — and asked of his special interests. “Poetry and religion,” Theobald said, “in that order.”

Family portrait, John on right (ca. 1911). Theobald became a classmate of Eric Liddell, the champion sprinter portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire.

Family portrait, John on right (ca. 1911). Theobald became a classmate of Eric Liddell, the champion sprinter portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire.

Hepner said that was an interesting combination, then picked up the phone and asked the chairman of the English department if he had room for a man with an interest in poetry.

He did. What the university got, however, was a man with an interest in poetry and religion — as Theobald had said. Like his father and three uncles before him, Theobald had been trained for the ministry. As a boy, at boarding school in England, he’d knelt by his bed each night to pray, while the other boys flung their slippers at him. Later he’d discovered Shelley, and had taken to reciting long passages aloud as he walked on the Sussex downs, near Brighton, the southern beach resort.

Thereafter religion and poetry had crowded his interest. In some ways they fused into a single way of thinking, in which poetry was religious, and religion poetic. Shelley and Keats, the romantic poets who dominated his imagination, held out the ideal of finding God everywhere, in nature, in one’s self, in everyday life; in modem terms it is the idea that one is more likely to find some manifestation of God while riding a bus, rather than sitting in church.

The trouble is, these romantic poets, in spite of their ideas, presented themselves in forms that now look orthodox. Their sonnets, elegies, and odes have been abandoned in this century. A fashionable poet would sooner join the priesthood than write in quatrains or pentameter. But Theobald, even while his religious views are avant-garde, prefers the old forms of poetry. As a young poet, instead of experimenting with forms, of trying on fashions for one that fit, he imitated Shelley and Keats, to his present regret. “I finally came to the realization,” he told me some weeks ago, “that the poetry I was writing was never going to improve significantly. I was never going to make the great leap. And the poetry I was writing was not significantly better than the stuff that had already been written. So there I was.” Unwilling as a preacher, unripe as a poet, he eventually came to teaching, and after teaching, to the publication this month of his most ambitious work, The Lost Wine: Seven Centuries of French into English Lyrical Poetry, a 613-page anthology that Richard Wilbur, the eminent poet and translator, has called “an heroic undertaking, full of remarkable successes.”

The spirit of the book is love for controlled, unified, harmonious poetry — for songs that scan and rhyme. Of the modem poet-songwriters, Theobald admires John Lennon, but the admiration does not extend to Lennon’s kind of music. When Theobald finally reached the dining commons with his petition, a rock band started to play nearby. “My God,” he said, recalling the day, “the noise. I wondered how the students could stand the vibrations and the shaking. I looked with frank astonishment at their faces — and they went on eating, eating, showing no discomfort whatsoever — while I bravely made my way from one table to another, until at last my nerves got the better of me, I suppose, and I was forced to retreat to my car. ” At which time, the parson of poetry withdrew from the pencil case in his pocket an unusual number of nitroglycerin tablets, which helped to settle the consternation in his stout, enlarged heart.

He was born at Naina Tal in the foothills of the Himalayas, in what was still the India of Empire. Naina Tal was a summer resort where British colonials had built hotels to face the temples of an enchanted lake. Theobald’s father served at a not-so-successful mission at Mangari, near present Varonasi in northeastern India, in the plain of the Ganges River. The mission consisted mostly of a church, a white bungalow, and a central well that watered mangoes and oranges. Beyond the compound were fields of sugar cane crossed by footpaths for elephants, the swiftest form of transport in the countryside, apart from the railroad. Each year from May to August, in the hottest time before the monsoon, the family summered in Almora, a mountain resort to which they journeyed by rail and by foot. It was an ordinary European train with commonplace sensations — the wheels clacketing below on the rails, the telephone wire rising and falling outside the window — but from time to time it presented a sight that an English boy could never forget. Theobald remembers first seeing the Ganges. As the train was crossing a trestle, he looked down and saw not a river but a finely moving cluster of humans — bathers, thousands and thousands of people, the blackness of their heads prominent against the brown water, like a cloth that had been laid in the river and was tailing downstream.

At the terminus of the rail, the family hired porters to carry them the last thirty steep miles. These coolies (to use the Hindi word) bore the family in open carriages with poles fore and aft, progressing about ten miles a day. At night all slept in dak bungalows, which were wayside hostels provided by the government. They were loathsomely unclean. Alice Theobald protected her-six children as best she could, boiling their water and milk, but nonetheless lost an infant to dysentery, and her first-born, a three-year-old boy, to typhoid.

Notwithstanding that childhood death was common in that time, the Theobalds braved the journey for more than escape from the lowland heat. For their mission house in Almora was akin to heaven, at least the heaven that Theobald imagined in remembering that place. He wrote that if he could arrange for a never-ending dream, it would be of that house called Snowview.

The color red is central to this memory. Almost every evening his mother summoned him and the other children to the veranda to see the sunset spreading on the high snows. Red rhododendrons grew around the house, and on the slope below it, apple trees. In the hills nearby, Gurkha soldiers employed by the British practiced their maneuvers, signaling across the valleys with flags that stood out against the pines and black-green deodars.

Most important to Theobald was a red-related incident that occurred when he was four or five. He was sitting on a stone slab and watching a tiny red insect, a spider perhaps, making its way across. He wondered how lightly he could touch the creature without killing it. Carefully, with his right hand, watching as closely as he could, he lowered his little finger and raised it again The insect was gone. It had been crushed — as if only by his wanting to touch it.

He told himself that he would remember the incident when he was forty, and he did, and much beyond. In his sixties he returned to Almora to study with a Buddhist master at a temple nearby. One day he set out to find Snowview but failed before nightfall, and only by luck and hunches found the temple again in the dark. On another day, at Naina Tal, he tried to find a record of the hour of his birth, for without it he had no fix on his sign in astrology. He failed at this as well. In the end, all he had from the highlands was a set of remembrances joined by a color, and the fact of his own birth.

At six years old he was sent to England for schooling. This was the practice of the colonial British, who believed that Indian weather stunted growth between the ages of roughly seven and seventeen. Although the family was by no means well-to-do, it belonged by profession to the class that sent its children to “public” school — really a private school as we know it, but “public” in the sense of being outside the home.

After an unsuccessful tryout at Eltham, the school for the sons of missionaries, Theobald was sent to another school near London, Winterdyne, which had an enrollment of only three dozen boys. The headmistress, Miss Clough, one day placed a Bible in his hands and said that just as she was giving him this Bible, so he must give his heart to Jesus, which he obligingly did. Not only did he rise from bed at night to pray, he began to exhort the other boys in the school to come to Jesus too, and at last secured a pledge from every one.

When Miss Clough got wind of this she may have feared that Theobald was stepping beyond his bounds. In any case she soon found fault with his behavior. One day while the boys were marching double file to the seashore, Theobald broke for the ocean before the signal had been given. That night Miss Clough came to the dormitory, stripped the blanket from his back, and beat him with her slipper. It was not a bad beating; it was almost merry compared to those he would soon have at Eltham. But still, it dimmed the shine for Jesus, or rather for exhorting in his name.

Back at Eltham, in southeast London, Theobald became a classmate of Eric Liddell, the champion sprinter portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire. At thirteen years old, Liddell was not particularly religious for a boy would become a missionary (and die in China as a prisoner of war). He was one boy who avoided the school’s ritual bullying. Without being a bully himself, he could hold his own in a fight, or if he needed to (which he did not) he could outrun any boy who was capable of pushing him around. Theobald remembers that even then he sprinted in his own funny way: head back, grimacing, legs in a scramble. Moreover, Theobald remembers his being uncommonly dignified, possessing a “powerful stillness” when he wasn't running that “put him in a class above the overt Christians.”

Liddell was the highlight of Theobald’s years at Eltham. All else was classes and beatings. Homework was on the order of memorizing the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew, chapter one, verses one through seventeen, or of learning the future tense of verbs in the third paragraph, book one, of Caesar's Gallic Wars. Beatings usually consisted of ten whacks to the pants, although a boy could get by with fewer by howling for mercy at the right time. “Blubbing” after only three whacks was considered unmanly as well as ineffective, but holding quiet after eight might signal the whacker that he was loafing. Theobald found six was about right. He could take more if he had padded his back pockets with gloves, but the trick never worked on the prefects, or student monitors, who whacked the hardest, being just out of school themselves.

Finally Theobald escaped Eltham by the grace of his mother, who returned from India with a dangerous form of diarrhea and recovered as soon as her children were with her in Hove. There, on the seaside three miles west of Brighton, the family made a permanent residence. Theobald bicycled to the Brighton Grammar School, passing low, open countryside that Shelley had known as a boy, having been born in the district. The downs were quite a change from schoolish London. This new setting was at first idyllic, and for Theobald remained that way, for soon he found poetry that matched his surroundings, that captured and fixed the place in his mind.

I have seen this country and can say it isn't much to the passerby. It is the land's equivalent of a quiet ocean, rolling, changing color with the slant of the light. It can be pretty if the weather is nice. But to one who knows the place, and is learning the best way to describe it, by hearing it described in verse that speaks to him, then the details come forth — thistle, cardoon, and grass; beech groves; the smell of moss; larksong; the chalk beneath the thin turf.

The years that Theobald spend in Hove before going up to Oxford were those that formed his education. Whatever he learned in school was just that — schooling. In Hove he was impressed by more than the countryside and poetry; preaching sunk in too. Not so much the messages of preaching — the moral points expounded from Biblical texts — but the manner of preaching, the art of it.

“I wish I could convey what those sermons were like,” said Theobald more than once in his interviews with me. Once he made a gesture, as if sweeping his hand toward an audience. For that was one way that the sermons in his youth were unusual: they were given to a full house. Sunday after Sunday a thousand people crowded the wide galleries of Union Congregational Church in Brighton to hear the minister, a Welshman named Rhondda Williams, deliver his sermon-lectures. His favorite topic was world peace. Without a microphone, and dressed in a simple black surplice, he would begin his talk with quiet simplicity and swell it into a passionate assault on war.

“We have nothing anymore to compare these sermons to, ’’ said Theobald, “not in churches, anyway.” He said the sermons were marked by intellect and power — by which he meant vocal power as well as eloquence. He emulated Williams, and may have become like him if the tradition for that kind of speaking had lasted. He had the voice and the desire for it. While still in his teens, he caught the attention of Williams himself, who took him aside for coaching. He taught him how to catch his listeners' attention with a gesture that would make them look away from his hands while he moved from one page of text to the next, thus giving the impression of speaking without notes. It was a technique that Theobald would use later in university lectures. For though he had a talent for preaching, he was not in truth a preacher, a fact he might never have discovered if not for divinity school.

A scholarship permitted him entrance to Oxford and the Mansfield Theological College. He entered in 1921 at eighteen years of age and left seven years later. In the stratified society of Oxford, Theobald's place was somewhere the bottom. He was neither rich nor well connected, and belonged to a college that was not, properly speaking, a part of the university, having not been established there until 1886. He was a “noncollegiate’’ who attended the university but roomed in town.

Where he was distinctive, though, was the ground he occupied between the poles of students. On one side were the “hearties,” the students who went in for athletics and who were traditionally heterosexual; on the other were the “aesthetes,” who were artistic and homosexual, to the point where those who were not homosexual pretended to be. Theobald became prominent in one of Oxford’s traditional sports, rowing, while also being published in Oxford Poetry, the literary magazine, and in Oxford Outlook, an annual book of poems. Remaining heterosexual, he was closer to the hearties than the aesthetes, but was known in both circles.

Because of this mixability, Dari McLeod Boyle, a Californian at Mansfield, undertook to introduce Theobald to the undergraduate whom many students believed to be the most promising poet at the university, W. H. Auden. Boyle himself was an exaggerated aesthete, as Theobald remembers him, adding a flourish to his natural limp to be more like Lord Byron. Boyle arranged the meeting one night after dinner at his rooms in town. Theobald was flattered to be brought into company with Auden, who was well aware of his reputation. One student remembered calling on Auden at Christ Church College and finding him seated in a darkened room with the curtains drawn — which was usual, as Auden believed he could only work by artificial light — and then hearing Auden begin a terse interrogation. He asked which poets the visitor liked. The visitor mentioned a name. “Not bad,” said Auden. “Who else?’’ And so on until the visitor — Stephen Spender in this case—had revealed his quality of taste.

Boyle’s meeting was not nearly so direct. “He probably wanted to flatter everyone with a great occasion,” said Theobald, “and so he set about making it theatrical, with wine and candles and a vase of narcissus. Auden came in and didn’t say much. I think he was embarrassed by it all . . . and I was rather tongue-tied, which made it a dull affair.”

The plan was to raise a toast, and then to have each poet read one of his works. Auden, who always recited his poems from memory, delivered an epithalamium—a wedding song, inspired by the recent marriage of a friend. “It was lovely,” said Theobald, “simple and beautifully arranged. I was quite moved by it, and oddly enough I never heard of it again, and never saw it again, try as I might to find it.”

When it came his turn to recite, Theobald’s large memory for poetry failed him, and he managed only to remember some of his lines about Almora. Afterward, Auden thanked his host politely and left without comment. Thus ended their acquaintance.

Oxford contributed little to Theobald’s development as a poet, and if anything, diminished his enthusiasm for the ministry. A poet has little use for scholarship anyway, as Auden proved. Despite his reputation for learning, he astonished his friends by barely passing his final examinations in English language and literature. Auden’s classmate and biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, found him to have written, “It is hardly surprising if a young poet seldom does well in examinations. . . . There is nothing a would-be poet knows he has to know. “ But for the ministry, erudition is important; the religious skeptic respects nothing if not intellect. Yet no attainments in Coptic or formal logic could persuade Theobald that he could make a life’s work of serving deity through a church.

His problem was, he appeared to be good at it. He did well in theological college, he was popular (his classmates elected him their president), and when in his final year he revealed to the president of the college that he was thinking of dropping out, that he was not at all right for the ministry, his suggestion was not only rejected, he received a scholarship for a crowning year of study at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Alas, it was a plum — $1200 plus a room in the seminary, the equivalent today of a rent-free stipend of $8000. He took it with a sigh.

In 1929, at the onset of the Great Depression, the Union Theological Seminary was coming into its own as the center for the Social Gospel movement that pulled theology away from its quest for the historical Jesus and pushed it toward the historical dialectic. Socialism, social reforms — these were topics in the lecture rooms around the chapel. Theobald could not help noticing that even the chapel of this seminary was right on Broadway. There was no retreating from the worldliness of the city, not that he knew anybody who tried. In the evenings he and some fellow seminarians might slip away to a Prohibition speakeasy in the Village. Once he stood by while a classmate stole a gold-leaf statuette of Buddha from the seminary’s museum. He attended lectures and wrote a long paper. A school year passed.

When his student visa expired, he went to Canada, hoping to find work while applying for a permanent visa to the United States. He presented himself to the United Church of Canada and said that he preferred to work in the countryside, which was agreeable, as the church had plenty of countryside for him to work in. He was immediately sent to Kasubasua, north of Ottawa, in a region of meadows and rivers. He arrived in early autumn, toward the end of the lumbering season when timber still floated downstream from the logging areas to the north. On his second day in the parish he was summoned to the house of a rancher, or possibly a farmer — he doesn’t remember which. He does remember being ushered to the bedroom to behold a dying man, the first he had ever seen.

It was like an enactment from a story by D. H. Lawrence: the living set apart from themselves by an emblem of mortality, in this case a large, impressive man (“magnificent,” as Theobald remembers him), breathing weakly in his bed. But nothing that Theobald had read and nothing that he had learned in school or in his student preaching had prepared him for this. In a room with the fatally sick, he did not know what to do. He brought from memory the forty-sixth Psalm, “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble....” And when he had finished, the family looked at him silently, and he led them in the Lord’s Prayer, then received their thanks and left.

Five days later a telegram arrived from Queens University at Kingston, Ontario, offering him a lectureship in English. The school had obtained his name from the ministry of education, which Theobald had contacted several weeks before. Given the choice of remaining in Kasubasua and delivering sermons, or returning to school and delivering lectures, possibly lectures on poetry, Theobald did not hesitate. He took the job at Queens and taught there for one year then emigrated permanently to the United States, returning briefly to the Union Theological Seminary to apologize to the president for having turned “something of a renegade.” Theobald remembers the president’s reply. “Well, you didn’t know your own mind very well when you came here, did you?”

“Perhaps not,” said Theobald. “I’ve been teaching English literature in Canada. You see, I always worshipped the poets. ”

The president pointed upward and said, “Worship through the poets,” then turned and hurried toward a lecture.

A year later Theobald was teaching at Amherst College in Massachusetts. In the interim he'd lived on a farm in Connecticut, where he had intended to write poems but had caught and fried fish instead, and in South Carolina had tutored the children of a wealthy family. He'd won the position at Amherst, he suspected, through the good word of Robert Frost, who had liked him at the interview. Frost was a member of the faculty and was then at the height of his career — a career that owed much to England for encouragement and success.

Theobald settled into the top floor of a house on Amity Street, about 200 yards from the Frost residence. Soon Frost took him up as a late-night companion, dropping by around 11:00 p.m., often with an apple in hand and staying till one in the morning. Theobald listened to the poet talk about his apple crop in Vermont, and later, inevitably, about rival poets: Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay. It is well known that Frost did not waste praise on other writers. As he often told Theobald, “I’m the top of the heap. ’’

He once invited the young teacher to visit him at his farm upcountry. Some years before, after sitting up at night to write an unsuccessful poem called “New Hampshire,” Frost had been astonished to see the dawn outside his cottage. He had never written all night before. He went outside for a moment to take in the summer morning, then returned to his writing chair with another poem in mind, which he wrote at once. It was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” his favorite lyric, and the one he expected to be remembered by.

He told Theobald that it had sprung full blown into his head, and although scholars know now that the poem proceeded through early workings. Frost’s official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, affirms that the poet did write the first draft in one sitting and without much trouble.

Theobald heard the poet recite it once. He said he spoke it gruffly, as though he were reading a shopping list. Theobald complemented the casual treatment by writing this parody:

Whose drink this is I think I know.

My own is nearly finished though.

He will not notice me come near

If I can make it quickly go.

My little host must think it queer

For me to drink another's beer

Between two sentences that make

The meaning of them both half clear.

He gives his empty glass a shake

To ask if there is some mistake

The only other sound's the cheap

Excuse of drowsiness I make.

The room is growing dark and deep

But I’ve appearances to keep

And stairs to climb before I sleep.

And stairs to climb before I sleep.

After someone had shown this to Frost, the poet invited Theobald to lunch. As though he weren’t in enough trouble already, Theobald forgot the engagement while thinking of strategies to date a student at Smith College across the river. When Frost renewed the invitation, Theobald took heart at the poet’s forgiving attitude, and presented himself with full apologies.

During the meal. Frost told the story of an obscure American poet who on his deathbed had asked him to see that his poems got published. “Said it was his bequest to the world,” Frost recalled.

“And no publisher would take them?” asked Theobald.

“Afraid I didn’t try, “Frost said. “They were terrible.”

The poet was Darl Boyle — the same who’d arranged the candlelit meeting between Theobald and Auden. When Frost had finished the anecdote, he fell silent for a moment, causing Theobald to wonder if the poet were thinking of anyone he had helped to get published, as he himself had been helped most generously by Ezra Pound and others in England, twenty years before.

Also during the meal. Frost asked his guest if anyone had stolen his drink. Theobald caught the reference and assured him that his drink was still in front of him. The lunch ended amicably, but Frost never resumed his late-night visits.

In the next ten years, Theobald published some poems in Poetry, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times, but this was no mark of his becoming a professional poet. He had produced no book’s worth of poems. All he seemed to have done as a college instructor was grade English papers. He had measured out his life in English papers. Dissatisfied, he moved to Iowa City to earn a Ph.D. at the state university, which granted that a dissertation could be submitted in creative writing.

From faraway Iowa he sent back to Amherst for a woman he’d fallen in love with, asking her to join him in the Midwest. To his surprise, she accepted, and they were married for a time. It was one of those relationships that seem to be based on physical attraction, but really are based on conceptions. He liked her because she was not from Bennington or Smith or another of the women’s colleges; she was a waitress who saw him as a man. She liked him because he was not another of the men she waited on; he was a professor. After some months of marriage, she moved to Florida and found work in a restaurant. He retrieved her; she left again, pregnant this time, and had a basement abortion that nearly killed her. They managed a long-range divorce.

He was now thirty-eight years old, with assets of a Ph.D. and a used car. He took another teaching job, this time at Grinnell College in Iowa, which he found as stimulating as tundra. The U.S. had entered World War II, and Theobald, who had become an American citizen, failed the draft examination on account of arthritis. His part in the war fell to teaching English to recruits of the officers’ candidate school at the college.

One day his class of recruits took control of the room — that is, they got so playful that they took to doing whatever they pleased. One erased the blackboard, another was shoved out the window. Theobald tried his usual ploys of sarcasm and wisecracks to establish identity with the students and go from there, but nothing worked. Finally, in a temper that he had never known before, he picked up an eraser and threw it at one of them, hitting him square in the mouth. There was silence, and slowly teaching resumed.

Theobald remembers the incident as a turning point, not just in the behavior of the students that day, but in his own sense of spirit. He had known of the idea, common to Christianity and Zen, that holiness derives from seeing one’s self in others, from connecting with others in a way that is palpable to spirit. And now he had experienced it. For a moment, he said later, I was he. Theobald had become the student he’d hit; the distinction between them was gone. He called it an epiphany — being in the presence of something divine.

Many years later at San Diego State, he would often challenge his students to remember their own epiphanies, which he called “peak experiences.” He said no student was obliged to tell what the experience had been, but most of them did, as though they couldn’t help explaining the moments that had changed their lives.

Eventually Theobald’s friendships at Grinnell grew wider and he managed to enjoy his work. In the spring he met a student with whom he quickly fell in love. She was Mary Lee Nugent, a Phi Beta Kappa who wrote poetry. When she went to California that summer, he hired himself out as a cornpicker to have enough money to visit her in Burbank. Their courtship was sweet. They were married the following year in her grandmother’s home, before the fireplace, on Christmas day.

At college again, Theobald received a telegram from Norman Johnson at the University of California’s Division of War Research in La Jolla. It offered him a job as a research associate handling classified material. Theobald found out later that a friend from Grinnell had met Johnson at a party in La Jolla. Johnson had said he was looking for an especially literate engineer to sort out some technical documents, and the friend had mentioned Theobald’s name. Johnson said he wanted an engineer, not an English professor, but wrote the name in his notebook, and beside it the abbreviation “ENG.” A few days later Johnson sent the telegram, thinking he was offering the job to an engineer. It was all straightened out by the time Theobald reported for work.

In La Jolla he prepared summaries of the work done by several research teams on antisubmarine warfare. After the war, he stayed to write the final report. Midway through this, he applied for the job at San Diego State, and there began the career that blended all of his interests.

“He was truly one of the better teachers at the school,” said Daniel McLeod, chairman of the department of English and comparative literature, who attended classes at the college while still in high school and heard Theobald lecture in 1949. “Unquestionably his greatest asset was his voice,” he said. “Great range and feeling, but not overdone. I learned more about why poetry exists from his readings than I had ever done in reading on my own.”

Not long after joining the college, Theobald met Alan Watts, who popularized Zen Buddhism in the West. They were introduced in La Jolla, at a beach house belonging to friends of the Theobalds. The two had much in common. Watts, an Englishman, had been raised in Kent County, not far east of the Sussex downs, and as a boy had been enraptured of nature. Theobald’s acquaintance with Buddhism had begun in India, and had grown ever more as his interest in Christianity waned.

Watts was then in his early forties, ten years younger than Theobald, and still wore his hair in a crewcut. He was also voluble and hard-drinking — traits that fed off each other. He was gifted to reduce Eastern abstractions into lively English, but was likewise intent on getting his listeners’ attention, even if he had to tug at their lapels. He was not only Zen’s translator, but its salesman, and alcohol seemed to loosen him up for the pitch. That night in La Jolla, while Watts was talking, his wife (his third wife) fell asleep.

When they had become better acquainted, Watts asked Theobald to join him in a series of radio talks on pop philosophy. Theobald knew he was no match for Watts in his own field, and declined. Theobald did, however, write his own series of radio talks called “The Nine Ultimate Questions,” dealing with such topics as man, God, beauty, peace, and lastly, “What Then Should We Do?” Produced for public radio, the series was re-broadcast at some stations around the country, one of them in Los Angeles.

In poetry, his readings and comments were collected this year for a fourteen-part series called “The Spoken Word,” on KPBS-FM. He treated poets from Chaucer to Wallace Stevens, including with the modem poetry his impressions of the poets he knew himself — Ezra Pound, for example. While collecting poems for a teaching anthology, he opened a correspondence with Pound that lasted for years. Throughout this time, the poet was an inmate at St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, D.C., having been convicted of treason for radio broadcasts from Mussolini’s Italy. The correspondence consisted of practically nothing but gossip, literate though it was, but Theobald traded the letters to Laurence McGilvery of La Jolla, in exchange for the typesetting of his culminating book, The Lost Wine.

“I am sure that Pound would have approved,” said Theobald the other day in his living room, with a photograph of Pound in the bookcase by the hearth. “He himself was very keen on translation. I almost felt as though I owed it to him.”

And one last debt has also been paid. Theobald sent his favorite statuette of Buddha, together with a check, to the president of the Union Theological Seminary, confessing his part in the theft of the gold-leaf god, and asking forgiveness. The busy executive replied in a month with a letter that ended, “…shanti, Shalom, pax.”

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment