Mark Van Doren was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose considerable writing output included some twenty volumes of original verse. His first collection, Spring Thunder, was not published until he was aged 30. He was also a literary critic and anthologist and one of his most celebrated pieces of work was originally called The Noble Voice, published in 1946. In it he reviewed ten long, classic poems from the likes of Virgil, Milton, Byron, Homer and Wordsworth. A graduate of Columbia University he also held a Professor of English post there between 1942 and 1959 and became known by generations of students as a “quintessentially great teacher”.
He was born in June 1894 in the small town of Hope, Illinois. His father was a country doctor and he spent most of his young life on the family owned farm in eastern Illinois. The Van Doren family could trace their roots back to early Dutch settlers and Van Doren’s father decided to move the family to Urbana, ostensibly for the better opportunities for schooling for his children. It was clear at an early age that both Mark and his brother Carl were destined for academic careers.
Mark was a prolific writer of poetry and he was influenced a great deal by the work of William Wordsworth. A lot of his poems were of a pastoral nature. A good example of this would be the book length poem A Winter Diary, which outlined life on a Connecticut farm, and was written in 1935. His collection in 1940, simply called Collected Poems, won the Pulitzer Prize. Another notable piece of work was The Last Days of Lincoln which was a play written in verse form, published in 1959.
A good example of the way that he could describe the power of nature was the poem After the Drought and it is reproduced here:
At this time he was coming to the end of his long spell teaching at Columbia and, when interviewed by Newsweek magazine he demonstrated the fine attitude to this work that had gained him so many admirers over the years in both the student and teaching fraternities. The following quote is worth repeating:
He successfully managed, across four decades, to inspire his students to appreciate the finer points of Western literature and many saw him as more of a trusted friend as well as their professor. The same goes for his teaching colleagues. Despite retiring from full time teaching Van Doren continued in the profession, giving lectures as a visiting professor to students at Harvard University. Fellow poet and famous American Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, wrote to him to congratulate him on his successful career and included the following tribute:
He was always close to his older brother Carl and, in fact, he followed Carl into the faculty at Columbia. The pair collaborated on a substantial piece of work called American and British Literature since 1890, published in 1939. Although he was primarily a poet, he also wrote novels, short stories and critical studies of authors such as John Dryden, in 1920, and Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1949.
Mark Van Doren died on the 10th December 1972, only two days after he had an operation to correct circulatory problems. He was 78.