Tuesday, July 31, 2012
In memoriam William Whelen Biddle, 1930-2012
I read this remembrance of my friend Bill at his memorial service, St. Mark's Cathedral, July 21, 2012.
I met Bill in a way that will be instantly recognizable to all of you who know Bill as an adventurer of the mind. Bill showed up in an upper-division Romantic poetry course that I was teaching at the University of Washington in 1996 and proceeded to entrance everyone with his enthusiasm for George Gordon, Lord Byron. When we got to that part of the syllabus, I’d arrive in class, get everyone started, and then hand it over to Bill, who would stand up and declaim the day’s Byron reading to a classroom full of rapt teens and twenty-somethings. It took me about an hour after meeting him to realize that Bill was the truest enthusiast of the imagination that I would ever know.
I think one of the clearest signs of that enthusiasm was Bill’s utter authenticity. He strove to uncover and understand the heart of everything he truly loved. It wasn’t enough for him to just read Byron. Bill wanted to walk where Byron walked, striving with every step to understand the workings of the poet’s mind. Bill actually attended conferences all over the world where he delivered his own papers about Byron. That is the act of a true enthusiast, and what’s amazing is that Bill extended the very same enthusiasm to his pursuit of vintage Mustangs, single-malt scotch, wooden canoes, cross-country skiing, the weather, and, most of all, the hundreds of people in his immediate and extended circles.
I think Bill loved people–all kinds of people–more than he loved anything else beyond his family. I was constantly amazed by how instantaneously Bill could make a true friend. Everyone and everything interested him. When a friend old or new would mention a new pursuit to him, his eyes would just light up and he’d lean forward and demand to know every last detail. And then he would remember them
Because Bill truly knew how to pay attention. He missed nothing, particularly when it came to his natural surroundings and the people that he loved. John Hanron describes the way Bill saw the “incredible, infinite beauty within each tiny flower” that John brought with him on his visits. All of us know how closely Bill listened to us, how he shared our joys and sorrows. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” Mary Oliver writes in her poem “The Summer Day.” “I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle and blessed. ... Tell me, what else should I have done? ... Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Bill chose to live his wild and precious life in exploration and learning, in the company of friends and nature, in the meadows of the Methow, on the trails of the Pacific Northwest, in the streets of Paris, on the isle of Skye. He loved, he explored, he never stopped learning. He followed the vein of his wild and precious life into its very heart.
I close with the conclusion of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, Bill’s poem if ever there was one.
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.