SHELDON PAUL ZITNER 1924-2005
Sheldon Zitner died on Tuesday April 26, 2005. He was 81 years old and had been in poor health for some time, though his mind was as sharp as ever. Born and raised in New York, he taught literature at the Hampton Institute in Virginia and at Grinnell College in Iowa from 1957 to before becoming a professor at the University of Toronto in 1969. Though I never took a course from the man universally revered and feared as “the great and terrible Zitner”, he agreed to supervise my doctoral dissertation on Shakespeare’s dramaturgy. Through the process, I grew to respect his capacious knowledge not only of literature, but of art (including Japanese prints, Chinese porcelain and African sculpture) and music (from music hall to opera), wine and food. I cherished his sardonic wit, admired his perspicacity, and was inspired by his eloquence. In recent years, as we went to chamber music concerts together and read each other’s poems, as he saw my children grow up and I saw his beloved daughter Julia marry and move to England, our relationship moved from that of student and teacher into a profound friendship which meant more to me than I can say.
Sheldon Zitner began as a poet, publishing works in Poetry and The Nation at an early age, but in the context of an academic life his writing was to become more often analytical and interpretive than creative. His first publications were essentially manuals – A Preface to Literary Analysis (1964), The Practice of Criticism (1966), and The Practice of Modern Literary Scholarship (1969) – but he soon found his way to those elegant and highly original interpretations of Elizabethan literature that were to make his reputation. These included editions of The Mutabilitie Cantos of Edmund Spenser (1968), Francis Beaumont’s comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1984), and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1998). He also produced a groundbreaking introduction to All’s Well that Ends Well for the Twayne critical series (1989), and many articles which, like his piece on Aumerle’s Conspiracy, have become classics. (I once taught a second-year Shakespeare course at U of T in which a student plagiarized this last essay, perhaps thinking that the observations that Zitner made so persuasively were already common knowledge and not the original contributions they were to the field!)
Only with his retirement from the University of Toronto was Sheldon Zitner to return to his first love, poetry, with all the passionate commitment he had brought to his teaching career. His first collection, The Asparagus Feast, was published by the Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series of McGill-Queen’s University Press in 1999. It was an immediate success, earning responses such as:
“A wise and learned voice … accomplished, beautiful, and moving poems.” The Globe and Mail
“A feast indeed it is: rich in language and imagery, delicately flavoured with allusions gleaned from extensive reading and travel, peppered with a mischievous wit.” The Malahat Review
At 75 years old, the author was amused to find himself the focus of media attention, including a CBC radio interview with Michael Enright on the topic of “Aging Dangerously”. He was particularly proud of a newspaper photograph of his own bearded visage posed next to an African mask as though he were the village shaman – which, in a way, he was.
The Asparagus Feast went into a second edition, a rare event indeed for a first book of poetry, and McGill-Queen’s was happy to publish Zitner’s next volume, Before We Had Words, in 2002. Books in Canada greeted the event with the comment that:
“The emergence of Sheldon Zitner as a major figure in Canadian poetry is itself a matter for rejoicing. Before We Had Words is a work of wit, passion, and discipline. He deserves all the honour we can give him,”
and his colleague A.F. Moritz remarked that
“Sheldon Zitner’s writing combines energy and wisdom, vigour and experience. In one poem he speaks of an art that, distrusting show, ‘achieves elegance without forgetting beginnings and their frugal joys.’ His own work delivers just this mixture of gusto and refinement, memory and activity. Staying close to things of the earth and early loves, it lives in the here and now, thinking and dreaming … This new book grapples with our ‘thought-encumbered images’ in a poetry that ‘means to cherish not to awe.’ Its success is our enlightenment and pleasure.”
At the time of his death, Zitner had just finished a new manuscript of poems called The Hunt on the Lagoon and a volume of translations from the Chinese, which he made in collaboration with Herbert Batt. Also among his papers is a set of wonderful lyrics he wrote for a never-produced musical on life in Toronto. His most recent publication was a chapbook from Junction Books entitled Missing Persons (2003).
He himself will be sorely missed.
© copyright Susan Glickman 2005