From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 10.2 (1990): 105-08.
Copyright © 1990, The Cervantes Society of America


In Memoriam

Alexander Augustine Parker



IN the eyes of Alec Parker's admiring students at the University of Texas at Austin, the range of knowledge he displayed on one single day of March, 1978, elevated him to the status of legend. Sadly aware that this was his last year with us, we filled his seminars to overflowing, and although I was only an auditor, I enjoyed perhaps most of all his seminar on the poetry of Góngora and Quevedo. Throughout the semester, we had been impressed by the combination of intellectual rigor and fine attention to detail in his analysis of the conceits of these two poets, as well as the clarity and concision of his explanation.
     On the morning in question, lecturing as usual from notes prepared fresh the night before despite his forty-odd years of teaching, Parker explained to us the agudeza of several poems of Góngora. The exposition that most impressed us that morning was his analysis of the enigmatic delicacy with which Góngora transmitted Baroque desengaño in the letrilla, “Aprended, flores, de mí.” Rejecting Jammes' suggestion that the letrilla had been inspired by an illness of the Marqués de Flores, Parker, an avid gardener, asserted that understanding the poem required an


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understanding of horticulture. While the flower has traditionally been held up to human beauties as an emblem of the fugacity of life, in this letrilla, it is one flower that lectures others on the topic, and the wit of the poem, said Parker, requires a precise identification of the bloom that speaks in the enigmatic refrain, “Aprended, flores, de mí / lo que va de ayer a hoy, / que ayer maravilla fui, / y hoy sombra mía no soy.”
     The “maravilla” is generally translated as “marigold,” which yields a pun on “marigold” and “marvel,” as R. O. Jones points out [Poems of Góngora, Cambridge, 1966, p. 160]; however, the marigold is a relatively long-lived flower, and is either yellow or orange, whereas the “maravilla” of the poem speaks of herself as “cárdena” and the most ephemeral of beauties, allowed but one day of life. Parker asserted that the “maravilla” is properly identified as the “Mirabilis Jalapa,” a flower discovered in Peru and Central America and brought to Spain, where people marveled both at its color and the fact that it does not open until five o'clock, lives one night and then withers (“La Aurora ayer me dio cuna, / la noche ataúd me dio; / sin luz muriera si no / me lo prestara la luna:”); the “maravilla” is the night-blooming flower known prosaically in English as the “Five O'Clock.” This delicate beauty prefers herself to the coarser alhelí,who lives a month clustered indistinguishably with its equals, and to the sunflower, whose every petal is an “ojo adulador” turned toward the sun, emblem of the king. With Parker's identification of “maravilla,” all the images of poem unite logically in an evocation of the pure, fleeting beauty that survives but one moonlit night, scorning those who endure by the reflected light of courtly power.
     After the morning performance in our seminar, Alec went in the afternoon to sit in the last rows of an auditorium for one of the regular meetings of an organization of Anglophiles in residence in Austin. The feature at this particular meeting was a panel discussion, made possible by recent declassification of secret World War II documents, on the “Enigma machine,” the supposedly unbreakable Nazi encoding machine, and “Ultra,” the primarily British intelligence operation that cracked the “Enigma” and transmitted the intercepted messages, giving the Allies a vital advantage at certain stages of the war. “Beneath the code name Ultra lay a heterogeneous collection of university dons, musicians, chess masters, amateur and professional cryptographers and professional and volunteer soldiers, sailors and

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airmen . . . .  They would have been the despair of all ‘regimental’ military had they been paraded . . . .  It is hard to think of another group of this size, except for Fighter Command in 1940, that did more to win the war” [New York Times, Feb. 18, 1979, VIII, p. 11].
     On the panel in Austin were the author of a recent book on Enigma and Ultra and assorted “experts” from the University of Texas faculty and from Washington. According to a friend who was present at this meeting, Professor Thomas F. McGann, Alec Parker listened with increasing impatience to their account of the room in which Ultra was centered, methods employed to insure secure transmission of decoded messages, and other details of this secret operation. Finally he stood up at the back of the auditorium and said in a very shaky voice that he was probably the only person in the auditorium that day who had also been present in that room in England more than 30 years ago. Saying that he had never spoken before, even to his wife, of his participation in the project, he proceeded to correct their information on a number of points. I was not present at that meeting and my friend Tom McGann has also died, so my account may not be totally accurate; what I can attest to reliably, however, is the importance of this day in the almost legendary stature which Alec Parker held for me and his many other students at Texas. We even circulated rumors that, with his fluent Spanish, he had served as a spy in Spain, an Ian-Fleming embellishment which is probably apocryphal.
     I am not sure that Alec would approve of my account today; he was sometimes distressed at former students' inaccurate renditions of ideas he had voiced in lectures. Those of us who still turn back to his lecture notes before teaching a new Golden Age course or writing on a subject we first studied with him are therefore glad that despite the enormous handicap of virtually total blindness, he was able in his retirement to publish both The Philosophy of Love [Edinburgh, 1985] and The Mind and Art of Calderón [Cambridge, 1988], in which he developed many of the concepts we learned from his lectures.
     Perhaps the most valuable thing that we learned from Alec Parker was not contained in any one class, however. He set for us a model of dedication to literature, a belief in its importance in understanding human life both intellectually and ethically, and rigorous standards of precision, logic and clarity in scholarship. He sought to transmit to us too an emotional engagement

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with the beauty of literature. He once chided me for an essay on Los nombres de Cristo that focused exclusively on explicating the logical structure of its metaphors, voicing no appreciation of their aesthetic merit. Finally, we learned from him that in the constant balancing act of academic demands, the first priority of a professor is good teaching. Although he always yearned for more time to develop and publish the interpretations of Golden Age literature in which he believed so strongly, he always put the needs of his students first. He and his equally vital wife Frances were good friends to many students on both sides of Atlantic. For those who learned so much both from his classes and his published work, Alec Parker was —and is— an enduring “maravilla.”


Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes