Florence G. Marsh was my teacher and thesis adviser at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Florence’s Ph.D was from Yale and she was the departmental specialist in Romantic Literature. I had no intention of specializing in Romanticism when I signed up to take her course on that subject. I wanted to become a Medievalist, but the only teacher of medieval literature on the faculty was on sabbatical in 1966, my first year of courses toward the Ph.D, so I was just hunting around for a specialty and accidentally lighted on Florence’s Romanticism course.
The English Department at CWRU surely knew I had just recently left the Catholic religious order known as the Jesuits because it would have had to select me if I was to receive one of two United States Steel Fellowships in English available in the USA (the other was at Yale), and not only was I proud of my Jesuit education but I made a good deal of it in my application for that fellowship. Florence Marsh was never overly impressed by a student’s background, however, though she had some appreciation for mine. She immediately spotted in a paper I wrote for her on the Romantic poet and religious philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the familiarity with pre-modern philosophy that I had picked up from the Jesuits and that was also familiar to Coleridge. But only the best Coleridge scholars had that advantage then, and Florence encouraged my interest in Coleridge for that reason. The encouragement paid off for me in an essay I published in the prestigious scholarly journal, Studies in Romanticism, which originated in the paper I wrote for Florence.
But as my thesis adviser Florence also headed up the faculty committee that administered the oral examination I had to take to verify my knowledge of British writers other than Coleridge. Florence examined me very closely on Edmund Spenser, the major non-dramatic poet of the Renaissance, and on Lord Byron, a Romantic poet in the generation after Coleridge. I think she selected those two because she suspected that Spenser’s anti-Roman Catholicism and Byron’s notorious sexual affairs, especially with other men’s wives, would not be high on the list of authors taught by the Jesuits, and she was dead right about that. So she gave me three weeks from the date of my oral exam to familiarize myself with Spenser and Byron and told me to come back and see the committee then. Nowadays I suppose I could have accused her of discrimination against Catholics but instead I did what she told me.
And was I ever glad! I owe to the part of those three weeks I devoted to Spenser an idea of Christian humanism in the Renaissance that I used in my courses for years afterwards. And to the part I devoted to Byron I owe my continuing fondness (not for his sexual behavior) but for his world view, not so much in his early career as in the Byron of Don Juan, who insisted on the fraudulence of living as though we were all spirit and no body. My attachment to Byron rather surprised students in the courses in second generation Romanticism I taught at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Had it not been for Florence Marsh those students, most of them Catholic, would probably never have grown acquainted with two of the greatest (and in Byron’s case the most enjoyable) poets in the history of British literature.
Florence was not what you would call a popular teacher. Neither did she have a winning personality. But she was a careful scholar-teacher and an honest woman who did not coddle her students with unearned A’s and B’s. I, my students, and I believe the vast majority of her students, were all in the long run better off for having met up with her. I sent her a copy of my own book on Coleridge (Coleridge’s Progress to Christianity), but that was ten years after she retired from Case Western Reserve, and I I’m not sure the book ever found its way to her doorstep. I do know that her online obituary still exists, and in the place reserved for leaving memories of her there simply are none. Maybe this post will get there, but even if it doesn’t, for me her life demonstrates a Scriptural truth she would not have believed in: that God’s ways are not our ways.