Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

'What matters to me? Texts,' says English Professor Emerita Diane Middlebrook


Just 10 minutes into her talk, a mysterious light failure in the side chapel of Memorial Church left English Professor Emerita Diane Middlebrook with an ethereal glow created by a single spotlight.

As she delivered the final lecture of the year in the "What Matters to Me and Why" series, Middlebrook steered clear of her own personal narrative. Instead, the author whose writings include biographies of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton and Billy Tipton and an upcoming work on Ovid approached two of the most ubiquitous questions on campus.

After being introduced by two of her undergraduate students whose own research derived from her work on Plath, Middlebrook pointed at the young women and said simply, "What matters to me and why."

Middlebrook titled her talk "What Is Literature For?" a question posed to her by freshmen when she joined the Stanford faculty in 1966 as an assistant professor. She confronted the same question during the three years preceding her retirement when she taught freshmen in the Introduction to the Humanities program.

"Literature is based on fantasy, which is the psychological medium for experiencing images of intense emotional states," said Middlebrook, who retired in 2001. "When a literary fantasy such as a poem comes in contact with an emotional state preexisting the work, the literature can bring that emotional state into focus and comprehensibility. What I am calling the technological aspect of literary invention is a means of tapping into something equally subjective in the reader and fixing it in images."

Embodying the idea of combining emotions and images, Middlebrook focused her talk on poetic reflections on death. In her late 20s, Middlebrook said, she noticed that poets, including Whitman, Eliot and Keats, all wrote "last poems" -- often far in advance of their deaths. Middlebrook focused on Wallace Stevens' poem "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" and praised herself for not crying, a reaction she says she has had since first reading the poem and being "dumbfounded at its courage."

Explaining references like the river Styx and describing images of the afterlife, Middlebrook gave the audience a taste of what it might be like to be one of her students and showcased her talent for balancing the emotional and academic aspects of literature -- a talent shown with one of Stevens' lines: "Trees that lack the intelligence of trees." Middlebrook explained that the trees may be recognizable, but they are subjectively unavailable because they are across the river Styx. She then immediately personalized her reaction to the line and called it "one of those arrows that the poem shoots directly at my heart."

She described the poem as a paradigm of her lecture because of the use of images and the poem's reliance on subjective emotion. After her mini-lecture, she reread the poem and invited the audience into the discussion.

When a questioner asked how literature gives vibrancy to life, Middlebrook exclaimed, "If I haven't turned you on; if I haven't made you cry; if I haven't made you laugh by reading to you, then I have failed today. I have failed, I'm sure, because these things are so good and so smart."

Middlebrook also was asked why she had not taken the traditional approach to the talk and discussed more personal matters.

"I don't like first-person witness," said Middlebrook. "I don't do it well. I usually find it ethically questionable and narcissistic. I started thinking about what I really care about and texts came to mind. What matters to me? Texts.

"But if I were to go and list how much I love my husband or how fond I am of my daughter, who means everything to me, I think that would be totally banal. What I wanted to do was make you feel the way I feel about the thing that matters to me."