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Harold McCurdy

Harold Grier McCurdy, Kenan Professor Emeritus of psychology, spent virtually his entire life and career in North Carolina. Born in Salisbury in 1909, he earned his AB degree in 1930 and his PhD degree in psychology in 1938 at Duke University. After a brief period on the faculty of Milligan College in eastern Tennessee, he accepted an appointment as professor of psychology and philosophy at Meredith College in Raleigh. In 1949 McCurdy joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Department of Psychology. He was awarded a Kenan professorship in July, 1963.

McCurdy was an inspiring teacher and a published poet. He authored basic textbooks in the area of personality. Early in his career at UNC-CH he carried out a series of detailed, statistical analyses on the texts of William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser in an effort to resolve several puzzling issues of authorship involving these two poets. His data led him to conclude that these works were in fact the product of two different writers. Following up on these analyses, McCurdy carried out a more extensive investigation of the personality of Shakespeare that was published by Yale University Press in 1953. This work was followed by similar studies of D. H. Lawrence through his fiction and by extensive statistical analyses of the various characters appearing in the writings of two of the Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte.

His involvement with these outstandingly creative individuals led McCurdy to try to understand better the sources of creativity by studying the childhoods of individuals who later displayed unquestioned genius. He summarized his findings in terms of two features common to the backgrounds of these persons: social isolation from their age-peers through physical separation or physical handicap, and immersion in the activities and interests of the adults in their environments. These findings were published in the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society in 1957. He tested these hypotheses further in a detailed study of a young girl who had already demonstrated her genius in her teenage years. He published the results of this psychobiography in collaboration with the young girl’s mother in 1966.

Professor McCurdy retired from the faculty of UNC-CH in 1971 but continued writing poetry and an occasional article for the New Yorker. He published at least two books of poems, The Chastening of Narcissus and Oblation. He died at his home in Chapel Hill in November, 1999, and is greatly missed by his many admirers.


When softly and slowly fell the other night
That meteor flaring through my screen of trees,
Maybe I only was privy to the sight.

Eastward it fell of great Orion's knees
And his dog Sirius; southward of Jupiter;
And it was very bright, brighter than these.

If others glimpsed it (as, say, Lucifer,
Or some dull chunk of matter being consumed),
Let their view of it be as they prefer.

To me it was a miracle, subsumed
Within the ancient mystery and profound
From which the whole starred universe once bloomed.

For look! I was alone on private ground
Awed by the starry heavens at Christmas Eve,
Yet sorrowful, and in self-pity drowned,

Pleading, as one who clamors to believe,
"Oh God, whom none can see and live, do you
Care in the least for us? Did you conceive

Us and this world and come incarnate too
To lodge here? "Me, Lord, have you loved? Me, heard?"
And then, abruptly, silently, fell and grew

That flare of light, that bright, that lordly word.


Next to our windows, in the tall grass
Dotted with daisies and a few irises,
Two slender trees, as the days pass,
Unfold their secrets and their silences.

We linger at breakfast to watch the small birds
Bend down the foliage with their hovering
(So tender it is) and we grope for words
To match the delicacy of the trees' flowering.

Their gracious bending and their pale greenness
Compose an airy heaven, their flowers hail us
With a salutation of exquisite sweetness;
And we prepare to take up our lives again, though our
hearts fail us.

June 21, 1958
Woods Hole                            


A boat with rainbow-colored sail
Rocks on its image in the sea.
The craft is slight, the craft is frail,
But tacks and dances prettily.

You, by a fountain's pattering fall
Lulled, and drifting off to sleep,
Imagine a butterfly in thrall
To its own gorgeousness in the deep,

Or that the sea's a dancing floor
Varnished and waxed and glassy blue
Where boats becalmed ten rods offshore
Might bob for hours yet keep in view.

So would you have it this afternoon,
The carefree sail reflected there
Gaily taunting the pale moon
That slowly and sadly climbs the air.

An idle wish! The fickle boat,
Charmed by a mere breath, inches on
Past your gray gables. Yearning you note
Its flashing tackle till it's gone.

Wine and Water

I have had wine but sweeter is water,
Sweeter than white wine or rose wine or red;
I have known banqueting, I have known feasting,
But better is water with plain wheaten bread.

I have had honor but kindness is better,
Kindness and candor and gentle intent;
Sweetest and best is to find in another
An innocent mind and the smile of content.

The Catbird

At end of day a catbird sang
Four sweet notes in drizzling rain
From somewhere down my neighbor's lane
That pines and roses overhang.

Unnerved by watching hours of pain
In one I love, I had stepped out
Loaded with self-reproach and doubt,
To turn blind eyes toward God again.

Only his thunder rumbling about
In clouds confirming my worst fears,
And a few droplets of His tears,
Checked a blasphemous angry shout.

Then under thorns and leaves like spears
Four sweet notes the catbird sang,
And echoing chimes concordant rang
Beyond the nine concentric spheres.

The Hound of Heaven

In quest of joy, I found a face
Ravaged by pain, and from that place
Beat a retreat, to my disgrace.

The face pursued me, and I fled
Into the country of the dead,
Where everything filled me with dread.

Cornered at last, I could not flee.
The ravaged face looked down at me
And seemed to share my agony.

With tears, it sighed: "We both must go
Together now; but take it slow,
The way is rough, the sun is low."

The way was rough, the sun sank lower,
Of running there would be no more.
The shadowy face fared on before.

I followed it as one who must,
But then as one resigned to trust
A deity in league with dust.

The Still Season

Music has fallen, from the high branch has fallen,
Into the grass;
Cricket and grasshopper slowly, slowly
Chant the earth's mass.
At night there's a thin piping, as southing
The birds pass.

Pride has forsaken us, pride has forsaken
The shame-colored leaves;
The tall corn is shocked, the mouse and the rabbit
House in the sheaves.
In the frayed marsh-grass and the cattails
The wind grieves.

For consolation, the late scattered flowers,
Liatrus, aster,
Coiled morning-glories pale on the bean-poles.
But the heart's disaster
Is plain, is written in blood on the dogwood;
And slain is the Master.

At Nobska

Sea-tumble, under the sea-ploughing wind,
green, blue, blue-green, amethyst, white,
Snow-snarl over the pig-backed rocks;
And the terns plunging; and the long, low, hazy-finned
Blue islands, and the clear ascending height
Of the sky; and I, here where the surf knocks,

Contemplatingnot, by any means, the face of man,
Or any work of man's, or any delight
Comprehensible by man, or any power
Within the control of man, but merelya man's span
Of the infinite ingenuity of the supreme Light,
A jot of the logos, a split-second of the towering

Billions of light-years of God's artifice!
Yet even the hairs of my head are numbered, and the fall
Of a single sparrow is noticed, and the diving tern
And the captured fish, and every blow and kiss,
Bounding or broken heart, slapped kelp, spray, star, all,
Inconceivably conceived by him, are His minute concern.

The Field

Something's astir in me. Is it a sparrow that perches
Alert on a swinging wire to deliver a pebbly trill,
Along the burdocky field's edge, above the twinkling birches,
Near its nest in the plum bush, under the clean-plowed hill?

Is it a pink-billed field sparrow? And is there a rusty wire
Swinging somewhere inside me, blessed by its tiny feet,
Where the wind gets under its feathers and its blood surges up in desire,
And its song spills over, is scattered, is suddenly awkward and sweet?

I have been proud and silent, shut mouth and love up, darling,
Up in an idiot silence, when you were familiar and near.
I pay in tears for that folly; and think how the winds will be hurling
The yellow leaves from the birches at the ruined end of the year,

And nowhere a perch for the sparrow, no singing at all then, but only
The sighing of withered grasses under the bush and the wire,
And the yellow dank leaves settling, and all that region lonely
Where now the field sparrow sings, dear, the blossom is white on the brier.


The apple that I bite
Was once a bee in flight
In the sunlight.

A bee gave it its power,
Wallowing in a flower
One sixtieth of an hour.

Is that not why it stings
The spectre of thought, which clings
Around dead things?

My fiery thoughts now run
Like wild colts in the sun
And will have none

Of that which passes for
Thought, and which breaks the poor
Heart at its core,

Saying that apples, colts,
Flesh-virtues and soul-faults
Are mineral salts.

Death is the luxury
Such ghost-thought craves: no bee,
No colt, no tree.

Let then none bite this fruit
Who fears the violent brute
At his life's root.

Jacob's Ladder

The wind has skimmed the gray scum off the sky.
It is as blue and wide now as an angel's eye.
The swordfish weathervane on the church's steeple
Points steadily northwest.  At last the maple
That has for two days strained with every leaf
Stands like the Tree of Knowledge before The Thief.

I have no talent, am no William Blake,
Not even a Gulley Jimson splashing lake
And arsenic green and cobalt with a rope's end
On a twenty-foot spread of canvas.  But I can ascend
By splintery rungs of prayer up Jacob's Ladder
And see the world as it was before the Adder.

Up Jacob's Ladder!  A snapshot flashes there:
Me, playing a recorder over a girl's hair.
A four-year-old, as confident in my lap
As in the Almighty's.  Doubtless the silver tap-
Tap-tap of my wandering fingers on the recorder
Was stumbling to find that tune so made to order

For a beginning woodwind: We ARE! climbING!
JaCOB'S ladDER!  Slowly.  Slowly.  The timing
Is important.―And she there, relaxed
Against my chest, under the woodwind, taxed
Me with no fault, no weakness.  I was the Rock
From which the sweet music sprang at four o'clock. 

Too much of luck and Eden!  It could not last.
Time and the fall of Adam sent a blast
That ripped the woodwind out and broke my teeth
And carried the girl away and left a wreath,
And left a desert where my shadow alone
Crawled lame and small and ashamed on the sunstruck stone.

And I am still ashamed my shadow exists
Here where the lovely trees and creeping mists
Have clothed the stone with mercy.  In despair
I climb three rungs, or less, up the ladder of prayer.
Under the angel's calm blue pitiless eye
I climb three rungs, or less, and fall with a sigh.



Upon one focus we live.
The sun, or, dim in shrine,
Some image fugitive
From vulgar touch, is divine.

But not because common, nor
Because unique and hid
Does image or sun count more
Than the roof over one's head.

Its preciousness comes about
From being in fact the center,
The final sure redoubt
No enemy can enter.

Outward the self expands
Its sphere of influence,
Draws chattels, house, and lands
Within its circumference,

Demands the universe.
Defeated, frightened at last,
Retreats, crying for mercy,
And finds the forgotten guest―

Ra, or Apollo, say,
Or, by some private name
Hearth-fire or star whose ray
Counters the threatening gloom.

So Socrates at the end,
Not noted for pious fraud,
A skeptic mind did bend
To hymn a primitive god;

Admitted that in his ears
The mystic illogical flute
Hummed louder than his fears
And terminated dispute.


Lord, for all those who too heroically live
Relying on themselves and not on you,
Who cannot trust, who cannot yield or forgive,
But hold out stiffly till they break in two,
Have you prepared a suitable mansion, too?

Always there was the one thing he could not do:
He could not weep.  Whether as fugitive
Or locked in mortal combat, he withdrew
Into a numbness nothing could relieve,
Coldly controlled, unable to rage or grieve.

Lord, how can an unweeping mortal live?
Or how from dry rock can your mercy hew
A fit cave out, a hermitage in a cliff,
Remote but kingly, and around it strew
A garden of sweet pansies, rosemary, and rue?

Whatever is necessary, Lord, that do!
I loved, and weeping into your keeping give,
This broken hero who has broken through
All ramparts into your kingdom.  Let him live.
Teach him at last to weep, and to forgive.

To Mary Playing "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"

As Back and you together go
With variations to and fro
Over the keyboard, I commit
My words to paper bit by bit.

Advancing at a steady pace
You blend the treble with the bass;
I, haltingly, with many a pause,
Bend thought to stiff syntactic laws.

Unstumblingly your fingers climb
Ivory, ebony, while my rhyme
On blundering feet wavers toward that
Elusive concord I aim at.

Music is music through and through,
Its body is its spirit too;
But verse is dual, sense and sound
Entwining each other round and round.

Within that bondage, sound and sense
Unite, but as distinct events:
One spectral, colorless, abstract,
The other a helix of carnal fact.

Greek Aristotle taught that soul
Is body's form, the twain one whole;
Christian St. Paul laid greater stress
On the conflicting doubleness.

Dual, in any case, is man,
And dual his verse, though it may scan.
Not so with angels: they are pure
Spirit and their oneness sure.

Two once was reckoned more than one
When Eve picked apples; but we run
Into a different audit when
We balance angels against men.

I'll not contend my verse is more
By one dimension than Bach's score,
Resorting, like all lunatics,
To logical Cartesian tricks.

Compared to music, all verse is less,
As men than angels; and I bless
Bach for his chorale, you that you
Are woman, and an angel, too.

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