Fetching Chaucer On Newfangled Computers

SEVERAL months ago I made a pleasurable courtesy call on one of my many favorite librarians (I never knew a librarian I didn't like) and I made a delightful discovery that may change the whole scholastic attitude toward English letters.

This librarian was proud and pleased that her catalog of books had at last been computerized. Now, she told me, I wouldn't need to stand at the long cabinet of index cards and grope, as it were, for information vital to my odd desires - all I need do is push a button, and lo!

``Here,'' she said, ``Let me show you!''

I am an old fogy. I like it my way. I was a grown man before anybody told me about milking machines. Blackie, the heifer of my lactic adolescence, and I had operated in congenial ignorance of that kind of progress and were about to grow old together in happy bliss. The epoch of marvels was upon us, but was not intruding.

Fact was, from our point of view, about everything then popping up in the way of new devices didn't work too well. When Perley Blethen did install milking machines, the pump would skip and Perley would finish milking by hand. Quite so, quite so - nobody today remembers that a Sunday afternoon ride about the countryside included patching six inner tubes and leading a borrowed horse by the bridle to tow the Model T home when the timer shorted.

Big stuff as computers already are, we still sit around waiting for the computer muddle, and then wait for an expert to come from MIT to fix it. Don't bother to tell me - I've been there. When L.L. Bean got his first Christmas delivery computerized, didn't the thing split a switch and send 33,000 goose-down gunning-float hand-warmers to a piano tuner in Hot Springs, Ark.?

My librarian friend was now saying, ``You see - nothing to it, all I need is your date of birth.''

My date of birth, inserted, caused the foolish machine to yield everything it knew about me, which seemed to be inclusive except for my date of birth. Are you with me? Then let us turn and amble slowly back 63 years to the afternoon I was in a hall across the way from this library, surrounded by the entire faculty of the English department, taking my ``oral'' exam to find if I would be graduated or would return for one more try at composition and rhetoric.

I'm told colleges don't give such exams nowadays. Each candidate for a degree not only endured the four-hour written comprehensive, but had to appear at a dignified inquisition when all the professors and associates and assistants and instructors ganged up on him and made his apprehensions reasonable.

Professor Chase, the head of the department, presided and by protocol was expected to inquire where the others didn't.

I arrived in pressed suit and careful tie to find the erudite congregation, like Milton's ``bright-harnest'' angels, sitting in order serviceable. Professor Chase brought the grueling to order with comforting words and assured me there would be no ``trick'' questions.

Professor Chase was an acknowledged world authority on Chaucer; batted over 400 in Shakespeare, Milton, and Donne; and had read the entire ``Faery Queen.'' He asked if anybody would like to start the questions, or should he, and as his flunkies deferred he turned abruptly to ask me, ``When was Chaucer born?''

I was fond of Professor Chase. Behind a sort of stilted front, which I felt he cultivated as the proper pose for a distinguished decent, he had a sense of humor worth attention. I turned to look at him, and the twinkle in his eyes had a meaning. He had just told me there would be no trick questions, and here I was with one as tricky as you'll find.

When was Chaucer born?

As I hesitated, I could see that the professor's twinkle did not falter, did not diminish. I remembered the day in class when he repeated ``The Hunting of the Snark'' from memory that he twinkled that way right up to the ``Boojum.''

``Sir,'' I said, ``I don't know.''

A pause can be the making of a well-timed jest. I paused just long enough. Then I said, ``Sir, neither do you.''

The rest of that exam was a breeze. You might have thought we were a bunch of Jack Bennys rehearsing a turn. The turn took but a few minutes.

Afterward several underling professors told me Professor Chase was never in better form. He sparked them all. He was straight man for a couple of yuks I was glad to supply.

We all had such a lovely time. And as the chimes in our chapel tower signaled that the ordeal was over, Professor Chase thanked me for my good effort, and he said, ``Permit me to be the first to welcome you into our fellowship of scholars!''

``Thank you,'' I said. ``I have found it a pleasure.''

That moment lives with me, and so does another. On graduation day, as our senior class stood before the chapel entrance in a double line to let the college faculty pass between us, Professor Chase hesitated as he stepped in front of me, reached inside his academic robe, removed his mortarboard and bowed, and handed me his gift - an anthology of bad verse called ``The Stuffed Owl.''

Chaucer, of course, never wrote a bad line. If it doesn't come out right - you're reading it wrong. And since nobody knows when Chaucer was born, here we are, 63 years later, wondering what you feed into the library computer to fetch him forth.

Curious, I have just spent a fruitful hour or so conferring with Chaucer's various remarks and find nothing suitable for computerized consideration. We can only wish somebody might come up with his birthday.

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