Helms’s Attack on Marvell’s “Coy Mistress”

Jesse Helms (R)

Sen. Jesse Helms (R)


Last week, when I was telling an old family friend, Zell Hoole, about an assignment I give my students in my “Theories of the Reader” class, Zell responded with a fascinating account of a Jesse Helms (R) attack in 1966 on Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Zell heard about the attack while at the University of North Carolina Medical School.

In my class I instruct my students to choose a literary work that has become an “event.” They are to describe what happened and figure out what the episode teaches us about literature and society. I once had a student explore why Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was loved by teenagers and hated by their parents in 18th century Germany. Another explored why Catcher in the Rye is banned by many school systems around the country.

A 17th century carpé diem poem getting attached by a 20th century political commentator is just the kind of “event” I want my students exploring. That this diatribe helped Helms launch his political career makes it more interesting.

The story of Helms’s attack was recounted by an exhibit at the University of North Carolina entitled “A Right To Speak and To Hear: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression at UNC.” According to the exhibit, Helms’s radio commentary targeted a student literary magazine for exposing students to “filth” and “unadulterated trash.” Here’s what happened next:

His 13 October commentary prompted a viewer to telephone WRAL-TV on 14 October and complain that her child, a student in a freshman English class at UNC, had been assigned to write an essay on how to seduce a member of the opposite sex. The station contacted UNC administrators, who then questioned several instructors. None confirmed having made such an assignment. The station persisted in its claim, identifying Michael Paull as the instructor. Shortly thereafter Chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson removed Paull from the classroom and assigned him to other duties in the English Department.

A subsequent investigation determined that Paull had not made such an assignment. Instead, the investigation concluded, he had asked students to use Andrew Marvell’s seventeenth-century poem “To His Coy Mistress” as the basis for an assignment using imagery and several figures of speech. A few students misunderstood the assignment, according to the investigation. Paull was eventually reinstated as an instructor.

The incident led to a Life Magazine article, which included the poem and also the following account. I particularly like how the article ends with lines from “The Garden”:

The course is freshman English, the poet Andrew Marvell, and the poem one of the finest and most quoted in English literature, “To His Coy Mistress.” The subject is seduction, a lover’s plea that his mistress yield to him. “Had we but world enough, and time,” Marvell wrote, “This coyness, Lady, were no crime,” and pointed out that “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace…let us sport us while we may…” This is mild stuff compared with some things freshmen read. But at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a sophisticated center of the South, the poem started a campus to-do with no rhyme and not much reason.

 Instructor Michael Paull had told his class to rephrase Marvell’s 17th Century poem in 20th Century prose. Some of the themes turned in showed an expectable enthusiasm for the poet’s felicitous arguments, but the rephrasing was sometimes pretty blunt. After several papers were read aloud in class, somebody snitched to a local TV commentator, Jesse Helms, an ultraconservative who things academic freedom has gone too far. “No doubt,” he stormed in a telecast, “the boys enjoyed the vicarious frolic of talking about erotic matters in the presence of girl students.” Nobody was surprised at Helms’s reaction. But almost everybody was astonished at the university’s. The chancellor relieved Instructor Paull of his teaching duties pending a “full investigation.” Perhaps the investigators would find the best answer to the whole fuss in lines from another Marvell poem, “The Garden”: “The Mind, that Ocean where each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find.”

While I am (of course) on the university’s side here, I think Helms is closer to the truth about what occurred in Professor Paull’s classroom. To be sure, Paull may well have wanted his student to uncover images and figures of speech. Formalism, after all, ruled English departments at the time, and the authorities certainly could tell themselves that the students had misinterpreted the assignment.

However, by asking the students to rephrase the poem, Paull unleashed its scandalous power. His assignment was better than he imagined. Helms probably was right that “the boys enjoyed the vicarious frolic of talking about erotic matters in the presence of girl students.

 I think of Professor Keating explaing to his students in Dead Poets Society why poets write poetry. They do it, he tells them, “to woo women,” and once of his students start experimenting with it, they discover does indeed have such power.

I’m not constrained by 1960s formalism when I teach such poems as “To His Coy Mistress,” Robert Herrick’s “To Virgins To Make Most of Time,” and John Donne’s “The Flea” and therefore can be more direct. I ask my students whether such wooing poems actually work. After all, what kind of argument is the following?

     But at my back I always hear 
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; 
And yonder all before us lie 
Deserts of vast eternity. 
Thy beauty shall no more be found; 
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound 
My echoing song; then worms shall try 
That long-preserved virginity, 
And your quaint honour turn to dust, 
And into ashes all my lust; 
The grave’s a fine and private place, 
But none, I think, do there embrace. 

I usually get two responses. The initial one is that such an argument couldn’t possibly work thanks to its gross-out factor. Upon further reflection, however, some conclude that Marvell’s use of humor is actually pretty effective. The lady knows that Marvell isn’t being serious and that helps break the ice.

Whether the two would then go on to become “amorous birds of prey” and “tear [their] pleasure with rough strife/Thorough the iron gates of life” is another matter. But at least they’re talking and she’s probably allowed him to buy her a drink.

But back to Helms. He actually accords the poem far more power than a dry formalist reading. His objections make “To His Coy Mistress” fresh again, even though most of us probably disagree with him about the propriety of young men talking about erotic matters before young women.

Too often we regard classic poems as dry and dusty museum relics. Exploring controversies like this reminds us that great poetry packs a punch.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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