House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, published in 1971, was Helen’s third volume of memoirs, covering the period from 1942 to 1956. It picks up where the preceding book, A Book and a Love Affair, ended: with the arrival of the Bevingtons at Duke University, where Helen’s husband Merle was joining the English faculty.
Helen, too, was soon recruited into teaching, and she was to remain with the department for over thirty years. Part of House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm–and one of the more interesting parts it is–relates her experiences in teaching poetry to several generations of undergraduates. She quickly realized that “The great and abiding danger, without doubt, lay in talking too much.” More than a few teachers never learn that lesson.
Among her first students were former servicemen enjoying the benefits of the G. I. Bill, and she had mixed success in getting these veterans to appreciate Wordsworth and Cummings. Of one in particular, she admits she fell short: “I wanted to make sense, teach without hypocrisy or rectitude. But what did I in this cloistered world insulated from war know of Iwo Jima?”
She also witnessed how quickly poetry underwent a transformation from which it has yet to fully recover:
In past centuries, from Chaucer to Thomas Hardy, the poet seldom would be caught teaching. I suppose it didn’t occur to him as his vocation, or that he had words to spare or anything pedantic to say. Now his audience consisted of a row of college students plus a few loyal professors. Like most poets on the lecture platform (Auden, Lowell, Wilbur, Eberhart, Jarrell, Roethke, Shapiro, Dickey), he was pretty sure to be a professor himself, or a librarian like Philip Larkin, a frightening state of affairs. Poetry was being written by teachers and taught by poets. It had become, of all things, academic.
She herself struggled and had, perhaps, greater success in managing to be a poet herself. She published three collections–Doctor Johnson’s Waterfall and Other Poems (1946); Nineteen Million Elephants (1950); and A Change of Sky, and other poems (1956)–during this period, and saw dozens of her verses published in The New Yorker. She decided to follow a middle path between “the Mrs. Roosevelt complex–the urge to rush out and mill around twenty-four hours by the clock fulfilling oneself in the marketplace” and that of one of her favorite writers, Montaigne, retired to his tower. “My solution,” she writes, “was to live three lives: the domestic, the professional, and in an (insubstantial) tower the private.
Now after a quarter of a century, fully aware of the vanity and overweening of tripling oneself in a multiple choice of existence, I can highly recommend it to anybody who wants it. The only rule is to remember it won’t work, not with scandalous serenity. Each separate life constantly demands its rights in the matter. Each self cries out, “Pity me.”
This passage demonstrates one of the things I love about Helen Bevington’s perspective: her wonderful balance of romantic idealism and working-mother practicality. She would never have accepted the pablum advice to “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.” As she tells in Charley Smith’s Girl, her account of growing up the child of divorce in a time when such things were not spoken of, she had early on come to see how hard such simple things as a roof over the head and food on the table can be to come by and never took them for granted–at least not after she had children of her own. You can have it all, she might say–but not with “scandalous serenity.”
House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm is an account of her middle age. During this time, her sons went off to college, married, and starting teaching careers of their own. She and her husband (still known just as B.) had the chance to travel and enjoy each other’s company. She taught and wrote and enjoyed friendships. And she went through a soul-shaking crisis after a malignant lump is removed from under her shoulder and her doctor advises further surgery. Fearing a bleak end of pain and invalidism, she considers taking her own life.
Books, however, ultimately come to her rescue: “For bolstering the hours I read books as sustainers: Montaigne, who said we are all novices at this business of death. ‘My art and my profession is to live.’ They were curative words, written unfortunately by a dead man.” And, sharing the inspiration for the book’s title, she read “Wallace Stevens, who had died six months before”:
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm.
The house and the world were the same thing. And they were not quiet after all, and they were not really calm. It was only that they had to be.
I’m grateful for Helen Bevington’s decision, as she stuck around for another forty-some years, during which she gave us this and her other memoirs and journals, all of which display her remarkable insight, wit and wisdom.