Yale’s George Fayen had a love for teaching and Chaucer

“Speak the speech trippingly on the tongue,” says Hamlet.

Few have ever done so as well as Professor George Fayen, who taught English 125 at Yale for the better part of a half-century and who passed away on June 9 at the age of 91.

I studied with many outstanding literary scholars when I was at Yale, including Benjamin Harshav and Harold Bloom and Lars Engle and Fred Robinson and Marena Fisher.

And I had many wonderful professors and teaching assistants in other fields, including John Blum, Edmund Morgan and Gaddis Smith in the history department and Ed Kaplan and Barry Nalebuff at the Yale School of Management.

But Professor Fayen will always stand out for me as the best teacher I had at Yale, perhaps the best teacher I have ever had, other than my parents, Ina and Bob Jaffee, and Barbara, my late wife.

Professor Fayen knew that Chaucer was not an easy subject for anyone.

If Shakespeare can be arduous for some people, Chaucer tends to be more so.

The archaic diction and syntax can daunt many, yet when one learns Chaucer, the Middle English poet’s verse sings with a musicality.

It certainly did for George Fayen, who, like almost all of the best English teachers and writers, had the voice of a bard, a troubadour, a cantor.

Professor Fayen had a lilt to his voice; it would rise and indeed soar to an ethereal realm.

And he was an exceptional teacher, who knew that one of the keys to teaching poetry and perhaps any subject is to go over and then go over again and again the most salient elements of the poem or the topic at hand.

In the case of Professor Fayen, he returned and returned again and again to the Prologue of Chaucer’s great epic poem, The Canterbury Tales, when he taught his students.

He reminded me of this when he and I had lunch a few days after St. Patrick’s Day earlier this year.

We spoke of his days at Oxford, where he played on the golf team, which he had also done at Yale.

And he told me about his oral exams, how he was a bit nervous and almost talked himself out of doing them, but he was in fact over-prepared for his orals and received a First in literature.

He got his B.A. and his PhD from Yale, where he taught for decades.

He did not teach only Chaucer. 

In fact, when Professor Fayen and I had lunch in March, he burst into verse at one point, but it was Milton, not Chaucer.

My favorite professor at Yale, George Fayen wore a trench coat and a Donegal cap at our March lunch, if memory serves, and he was often seen wearing caps and riding a bicycle around campus, not unlike the late Yale President Bart Giamatti.

Also like Giamatti, Professor Fayen was a sports fan as well as a literary scholar.  

Professor Fayen and I talked about Gary Fencik and Yale sports heroes almost as often as we spoke of Chaucer and Shakespeare.

My professor was a Renaissance Man, who bore a resemblance to James Cagney, except that Professor Fayen was a handsome and taller version of Jimmy the Gent.

And like Cagney, Professor Fayen had a gift with language, even if he was not per se an actor or a former vaudeville star.

He could call forth great spirits from the deep, and they would indeed come, as Shakespeare would say.

But when I think of Professor Fayen, I will think particularly of how he taught me Chaucer and how he nurtured me through the process.

Chaucerian English can be difficult; it dates from the late 1300s, 200 years before Shakespeare.

As we all should know, delayed gratification is one of the keys to life.  

And if you are going to be a writer, you need to delve deeply into our literary past.

It is fair to say that, without George Fayen, I would not have succeeded as an English major.

He nurtured me, as he nurtured our whole class, that semester in English 125, nearly 40 years ago.

Just as I might not have succeeded as an English major without George Fayen, it might be fair to say that, without Chaucer, we might not have Shakespeare.

Chaucer is the writer, perhaps more than any other, who brought back the Anglo-Saxon that had prevailed in England prior to the Norman conquest.

That is why every English major at Yale, at least when I was a student there, had to recite the opening 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales.

And few have ever taught the subject or recited it as well as Professor Fayen.

He had us listen to tapes of Middle English scholars and actors reciting the opening lines.

This helped me greatly, for, when I was in college, I was battling depression and PTSD.  And I did initially find Chaucer to be quite daunting.

Barbara, my late wife, used to talk about how listening to actors recite Shakespeare helped her first learn the verse of the Bard.

George Fayen understood how important it was for students to hear the words of Chaucer, to hear the beauty and the musicality of the language.

And Professor Fayen, more than any other teacher I had in school, knew how important it was continually to come back to the opening 18 lines of the Prologue, the opening 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales, even after we had gone on to read the Wife of Bath’s Tale and other tales in Chaucer’s poem, as well as Spenser and Donne later in the semester.

Professor Fayen wanted to reinforce the lyricism and the motifs that were set out in the opening lines of Chaucer’s epic poem.

I am reminded of that Bob Dylan line, “I’ll know my song well before I start singing.”

Professor Fayen knew his song better than just about anyone I have encountered.

Perhaps, no one could speak the speech so beautifully, so effortlessly.

Yet Professor Fayen did so with modesty as well as charm.

He never called attention to himself.

To reduce the pressure on students, he would have most of us recite the opening 18 lines privately in his office, as opposed to in the classroom.

He did not want to traumatize any of us.

As I mentioned before, he wanted to nurture us, to guide us, on this journey through English literature in a class required for all English majors.

Yes, Milton and Shakespeare and other canonical writers would follow, and Beowulf and The Wanderer would precede Chaucer.

But again it was Chaucer who may have played the greatest role among mortals and angels in restoring Anglo-Saxon from the days of the heroic code, when Alfred the Great, one of the greatest Englishmen, led his country against the invading Danes.

Sometimes, when I was an undergraduate and a graduate student, I would see Professor Fayen in the weight room on the 5th floor at Payne Whitney Gym, and sometimes I would see him on the streets of New Haven. 

No matter where we met, I would always hail him and then break into Chaucerian diphthongs, as I would recite the opening 18 lines of Chaucer’s great poem, 18 lines that Professor Fayen taught me.

Professor Fayen once said that when you learn those lines properly, when you give those lines a lot of love, they will “be genetically embedded in your DNA.”

I do not know if I will ever pass such a gift onto any offspring, but I do know that Professor Fayen was surely right.

When you give a poem a lot of love, when you hear the voices of scholars and stage actors who recite it, Chaucerian English sounds almost like Swedish, as Harold Bloom and others noted.

And when Professor Fayen recited Chaucer, he did so with that beautiful lilt, as the words soared and flowed like those of the masters, such as the Swedish actors in a Bergman film.

This was so whether George Fayen was reciting Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, or whether Professor Fayen was engaging you in an everyday conversation at lunch.

As I noted earlier, I was back East not long ago, visiting my mother, and while I was in New Haven, I had lunch with Professor Fayen a few days after St. Patrick’s Day.

A dear friend of my mother’s and mine, Pam Field, put me back in touch with Professor Fayen and his wife, Genie.

I had met one of Professor Fayen’s daughters, Hilary, when I was a French student at Hopkins, my high school in New Haven.  Professor Fayen also had two other daughters, Sarah and Alexandra.

All of the Fayens are modest and extremely gifted at language.

When Professor Fayen and I got together in March, we were supposed to meet at The Playwright, an Irish bar, in Hamden, Conn., but it was closed that day, so we met instead at Café Bravo, an Italian restaurant in New Haven.

I had not seen my dear professor in years, not since around 2004, when my dad and I met Professor Fayen at his home in Hamden, a few blocks from where the late Yale President Bart Giamatti and his wife, Toni Giamatti, my English teacher and adviser at Hopkins, once lived.

On that occasion years ago, around 2004, Professor Fayen and my dad and I had a few glasses of ale at his home, as we discussed politics and literature and George W. Bush and John Kerry, two Yale graduates, who faced off against each other in the presidential election at that time.

But when I think of Yale, I do not think of Bush or Kerry or any political figures.

When I think of Yale, I think of the English department and the writers and artists who have come out of the university.

Many of us were taught by Professor Fayen.

Paul Giamatti was in my class with Professor Fayen, who also taught Jennifer Connelly and others who speak the speech trippingly on the tongue.

When I saw Professor Fayen a few months ago, in March, at Café Bravo, we had another delightful talk.

As I mentioned earlier, he was dressed in a trench coat and a Donegal cap, and he told me about his days as a student at Oxford after he had graduated as a Scholar of the House at Yale.

He must have been one of the top two or three students in his class at Yale to graduate with such a distinction.

But typical of his modesty, Professor Fayen said that it was just some program in which he was enrolled at Yale.

Before Professor Fayen and I met, I had been told that he was not in good health.

Still, Professor Fayen was in fine spirits in March.

He drove over to the restaurant in New Haven, and he regaled me with his tales of Oxford and Yale.  In the middle of this, unprompted, Professor Fayen charmed me, as I noted earlier, when he began to recite a passage from Milton.

As always, Professor Fayen did so effortlessly.

Such effortlessness comes from love.

One might also say that it comes from vertu, one of the words and concepts that Professor Fayen emphasized when he taught us Chaucer.

Professor Fayen seemed to have an infinite supply of vertu.

When I was his student, Professor Fayen pointed out that vertu can have many meanings.

There is no doubt that vertu can mean virtue; and it likely derives from the same root as verdure, which refers to greenery.  Vertu not surprisingly also suggests growth.  And it may be linked to veritas, the Latin word for truth.

Veritas happens to be the motto of Harvard.

Lux et veritas, light and truth, happens to be the motto of Yale.

I am not the first to suggest that we need to bring light to the truth, that we need in fact to illuminate the truth.  This has always been the case, not only in our era.

Perhaps, we can best illuminate the truth with a voice like Professor Fayen’s, with a voice of the ages, with the Word, for God is the Word.

As we know from the New Testament, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

We all have elements of the Holy Spirit within us.

Not everyone believes in God.

Not everyone believes in Jesus.

But I do.

God blesses all of us with the Holy Spirit, which is the spirit of love.

Barbara, my late wife, a former kindergarten teacher, often said to me that God is love.

When I think of Professor Fayen, I will always come back to how he nurtured us, how he nurtured me.

Yes, God is love, and love can perhaps be manifested at its most sublime or divine level by a beautiful voice, like that of George Fayen, a voice of light and truth, one that flows effortlessly, with love, with modesty, with the Word, with the Holy Spirit.

God bless you, Professor Fayen!