We begin our ascent of Grandfather Mountain, the highest point in the surrounding area of the Blue Ridge. I follow McClellen, who 20 years earlier read to me the first lines of Beowulf in his college English class, as he strides across a narrow creek into a ground cover of wildflowers beyond which the trail begins its ascent. “Buttercups,” he calls out.
A short distance into the woods, an updraft of cool air unhinges tiny wings of silver light in the canopy. Shadows flutter across the forest floor. Rain had extended through the week, and our hike was decided by a clearing in the clouds.
“I remember one May when it rained every single day. Fog and rain for thirty-one days. I never thought it would, but it wore me down. I thought a lot about those Anglo-Saxon poems then. The world shrouded in a veil of clouds,” I recall as the temperature noticeably drops.
Professor McClellen intones, “…dark comes then, night shadows deepen, drives hailstorms out of the north to try us sorely.” He spoke the words heavy on the consonants like so many of his classroom readings. It is one of the reasons I came on the hike, to hear his voice speak these old words again.
I had seen McClellen several times since my undergraduate days in his Old English Literature class. After graduating from the university, I stayed on in this area of Appalachia, as many do after experiencing the connection to nature and simple community of mountain life. Before he retired from academic life, he invited me to his office and offered from his shelves several volumes of the Sagas—Völsunga, Orkneyinga, Icelandic—as well as a few editions of Beowulf.
Years pass. Yet it happens every time I reread an Anglo-Saxon poem; I am back in ENG 4880, whose front-of-class was stage-like, with McClellen animating a world of battlements, shield walls and toasting halls. Attuned to poetry that was written to be performed, McClellen inflected the meter and accentuated the alliterations of the untranslated Old English. I was an easy convert. My imagination was unsettled by the portent of a foggy morning. My circle of friends became my comitatus. Today, in the cadence of our steady ascent, part of me is ready to be a student again.
In the forest shade, we stop at a switchback for a short rest. “I hike all the time now. Almost every day. Along all these trails. Why I didn’t, back when I was fit enough for these climbs, I just don’t understand,” McClellen wonders aloud.
“Well, you’re doing it now,” I offer.“It’s never too late.” McClellen nodded.
Some loss is sudden. More often, it is slow. It was not the heroic ethos the resonated most with me in the old poems, although the fate-sealing boast and full-throated vow echoed loudly enough; it was the elegiac mood that settled into my readings. Loss in Old English poetry was immediate, visceral: the death of the ring-giver, the thane without his chieftain. The oath among the warrior-band was reciprocal, an ordering device based on allegiance, a sort of connective tissue among vow-sharers. Sever the bond, the world falls apart. Without order, fragmentation: the lone warrior adrift where cold peripheries abide.
The power of these poems for me has always been their lesson of transience. This was clear in McClellen’s lectures. “Ubi sunt?” he asked, his hands, palms up, rising and reaching. “Ubi sunt?” he repeated, offering the possibility that no answer availed the question. “Where are they? This sentiment of loss, of mortality, permeates these poems. Beowulf. “The Seafarer.” “The Wanderer.” “Doer.” Where are they? Gone,” McClellen answered, then paused, “Forever.”
At a makeshift bench, McClellen sits and takes several long draughts from his canteen. I bite into an apple. “I’m still trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do now that I’m retired,” McClellen says as he pulls his walking stick between his knees, grips it between both hands. “It takes some sorting out. I’ve traveled a bit, learned some Irish, and of course, I take my walks almost every day.”
“Do you ever see any of the old guard from the department?” I ask.
“I encountered Lewis once jogging off the Parkway. Same red shorts. Shirtless. Same long hair, just gray now. I thought I was having a vision until he passed by, said “Hello, Bill,” never breaking his stride as he disappeared down the road,” McClellen laughs. “Maybe it was an apparition.”
I too had experienced a diminished contact with my old comitatus. Absent now was the clarity of those uncomplicated allegiances, the spontaneity of our early adventures. Whenever you organize your life around your passions—a new book, the long trail, an overseas journey, and especially, old friends—the rhythms of your life fall into sync. Vigor, the constant unfolding of the mind, the elasticity of time is, sadly, too often recognized and cherished only after the moment of losing it.
“I just didn’t think it would be this hard to get a bearing,” McClellen added.
I half expected coming on the hike to hear of some allegorical Bower of Bliss that transforms one’s retirement years into proverbs fulfilled, a readerly Valhalla of latter-day determinacy. In fact, I needed it; some signal from beyond that years of reading texts predicts a fully annotated and reliable, if dog-eared, life.
McClellen’s passion and analytical acumen were embedded in his ability to teach our young minds the vicissitudes of the warrior-class in Beowulf, the relegations to transience in “Doer.” For me, his explications were always spot-on; had life now offered up a riddle?
In the poem, “The Wanderer,” the warrior in exile longs for what is not: fidelity to a life (and oftentimes death)-affirming code of conduct among his kinsmen. For the speaker in “The Seafarer,” his wind-hewn life is a path that can never lead back to earlier glories. Time, in every direction, is a sword that wounds.
English majors experience the world through symbol, archetype and narrative arc. When in doubt, we reach for metaphors. McClellen’s retirement now seemed to be a time-hounded life-road upon which he wandered; a steep going through the wolf-woods.
Anglo-Saxon analogies aside, McClellens frequent pathways were not really fraught with existential peril. He had home and family upon his returns. While the weather gods bring down wind and rain and snow enough among these Blue Ridge Mountains, his woodland walks are not winterscapes spiked with ice. But twilights bode darkness, especially in exile from the homeland of our prior professional life.
“You know, when I was teaching those old poems….” McClellen’s voice trails off. “You understand it differently, the elegiac, in a way that only a long life can teach you.”
I suspect a teacher, especially one of McClellen’s full-bodied approach, could not easily walk away from academia. His classroom was his mead hall, his lectures a word-hoard, his ring-giving one of knowledge. In his classroom’s occasions of truth and beauty, a bond was made strong—between teacher, student, and the interpreted world that awaited our meaning-making.
Years ago, McClellen introduced me to these old poems. On our walk twenty years later, he extended those lessons. Still the teacher, he availed to me how loss heavies a heart in longing. There was also a sense that McClellen’s wistfulness was a measure of abundance lost, that his yearning for the past revealed a life deeply and deliberately experienced. McClellen’s decades of academic discourse, of collegial camaraderie, echoed a lost territory of professorial way-making. To the question, “Where are they?” the wanderer knows. Into hail and hoar-frost, he gathers his share of winters, holds fast.
At an opening, we gaze out at a rock outcropping that suggests the profile of an old man for which the mountain is named. We decide to make our way back down given the possibility of rain. These trails through the Blue Ridge have authored many experiences of my young adulthood into my middle years. These days the well-heeled trail outpaces time and eases, for a moment, the fatigue that often settles into my bones. This gift these hikes offer, I suspect, McClellen knows, as he keeps to the path that winds and narrows, his shadow cast ahead like a bearing.
Philip Arnold’s essays and poems have appeared in Rattle, The Iowa Review, Midwest Quarterly, Sou’wester, apt, Adventure Cyclist and are forthcoming in Sequestrum, The Hollins Critic, and The Tusculum Review. Arnold’s piece, “Stereoscopic Paris,” was a Notable Essay in the 2017 Best American Essays anthology.