GEB’s Memorial, Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Alumni Hall, Victoria University in the University of Toronto
Good afternoon everyone.
Jerry’s daughters Sarah and Julia asked me to speak for a few minutes about GEB as a teacher.
I met Jerry Bentley, aka GEB, in the fall of 1973 and it is hard for me to condense more than 43 years as my mentor into five minutes.
Much of what GEB was for me was what one expects from one’s graduate teachers. He was an authority, in fact a leading authority in his field. He was continuously productive, even to his final days, and he taught us all that you always look again and keep on looking. Always be prepared to re-evaluate. Figures in Blake’s illuminations, for example, might wear one colour in one iteration and another in illustration of the same poem. So colour to which we are used to attributing certain values is not a sure guide—you can only know this by looking at all the examples. Look, look again, and in E.M. Forster’s words, “Only connect.”
In the period in which I began to work with GEB, Blake studies were shifting from highly symbolic readings of Blake’s work, as pioneered by Northrop Frye, to material-historical analysis, political events, kinds of paper and type, printing techniques and the like. GEB was a pathfinder in these new areas of investigation.
Last week I received a brief email from Martin Butlin, former Keeper of the Historic British Collection, at Tate Briton, and the author, among many other works, of the great catalogue raisonné, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (1981). Martin and his wife Frances reminded me of several of Jerry’s qualities, his ability to make “personal friends from a circle of scholars” , his “exceptional warmth” in welcoming one into his family and the “team that he and Beth made together”. Although Jerry’s scholarship will be sorely missed, much more to be “missed will be the warmth of his friendship”.
When I was a young graduate student, Jerry immediately encouraged me to reach out to other Blake scholars. Wherever I travelled he made sure I contacted other Blakeans. It was not just a thesis which he directed— it was a life.
One anecdote alone will serve. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Blake quickly while I was teaching full-time, and the load sometimes became overwhelming. One day I went to his office at University College to discuss something with him. I did not tell him I was depressed and unable to work well. We spoke in his office and he asked what I was doing next. Well, I said, I am going to go down to a book-seller on College Street. And then I will go home.
I went to the bookstore on the second floor of an old building and was looking at a rare and perfect 18th century collection of the works of Edward Young. The binding was perfect, and it was a three volume octavo set. I decide to buy it, as I was building my own 18th century library at that time, although very slowly.
It was a lovely Toronto fall afternoon. I looked up from the books and there was a handsome tall bearded man in a glorious wool cape. (You have just seen that picture on the screen beside me.) Jerry had decided I needed some support and he had come down to look at books with me.
These books along with my entire 18th century library are now joining GEB’s own great collection in the Victoria University Libraries.
His care and his warmth, his sense of humour, even about materials like copper plates, which in an article he called Blake’s Heavy Metals, and his endless searching, will be not be replaced.
Thinking about him over these past few months, some lines from— of all things— Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice popped into my head. Let me paraphrase here:
The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven …it is twice blest…it blesses him who gives and him who receives.
Thank you Jerry for all your gifts to each of us.