What’s a Norn Mother?

The art of poetry is to touch the passions, and its duty to lead them on the side of virtue. — Cowper

Lincoln, the Man of the People
By Edward Markham

WHEN the Norn Mother saw the Whirlwind Hour
Greatening and darkening as it hurried on,
She left the Heaven of Heroes and came down
To make a man to meet the mortal need.
She took the tried clay of the common road�
Clay warm yet with the genial heat of earth,
Dashed through it all a strain of prophecy;
Tempered the heap with thrill of human tears;
Then mixed a laughter with the serious stuff.
Into the shape she breathed a flame to light
That tender, tragic, ever-changing face.
Here was a man to hold against the world,
A man to match the mountains and the sea.

My brother-in-law said he memorized this poem for “declamation” back in the 1950’s, back when schoolchildren memorized poems about heroes. My urchins all thought he was making up the “Norn Mother.” Read the entire poem here.

Dr. Lloyd Huff was a professor at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas when I was an undergraduate student there. He taught English, was unabashedly sentimental, and at the same time inspiring and intelligent. He taught a Shakespeare class in which he told the students that every time he read Romeo and Juliet he hoped that somehow everything would turn out right for the “star-crost lovers.” He also invented something called “The Six Hundred Club.” Any freshman who memorized six hundred lines of selected poetry or any Shakespeare student who memorized six hundred selected lines from the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare could become a member of “The Noble Six Hundred.’ The mimeographed lines of poetry Dr. Huff gave out to all the freshmen in his English classes began with this note:

Because one of the fringe thrills of your life will be your ability to recall the magic of some literature’s greatest lines long after your college years, the following selections are offered for you to commit to memory. Successful completion of this endeavor entitles you to membership in that exclusive and august society,

Happy thoughts,
Lloyd Huff

The “selections” were poems like The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, America For Me by Henry van Dyke, and The Picture That is Turned Toward the Wall by Charles Graham. There’s also a couple of poems by Emily Dickinson, a portion of Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant, and The Last Leaf by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Some freshmen and some fellow English professors may have looked with disdain and superiority at Dr. Huff’s selections, but I’d wager he brought more magic and joy to more students than many an erudite explainer of T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. (Don’t shoot; I like T.S. Eliot, sometimes.)
As far as I can tell, Dr. Huff is retired and still lives in Abilene. And purely bragging, I am a member of “The Six Hundred Club.” (I memorized Shakespeare, not general poetry.)

29 thoughts on “What’s a Norn Mother?

  1. I think Norn means Northern. Maybe.

  2. Aw, you’re making me homesick. I grew up in Abilene (went to ACU, and always thought HSU was prettier, with its red brick buildings).

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  4. Dr. Huff’s classes were the best. I hope he still teaches now and then.

  5. Tamara Harless

    If you’ve not met his wife than you missed one of the finest High Scholl English teachers in the world. I am 48 years old and still remember everything she taught me. She could make the most boring lesson come alive —

  6. Amy

    How could I have missed this post, Sherry? This reminds me of my dear, departed grandmother who at almost 92 could still recite poems (nothing highbrow, mind you) she learned in during her seven or eight years of public education. I think I shall start such a club for my own children when they are old enough.

  7. Linda

    I, too, had Dr. Huff as a freshman English Composition teacher. His work load was horrific, but every class was amazing. I still laugh about his descriptions of active and passive verbs. He kicked his desk to describe them, and kicked a hole in it by accident.

    I later became an English major had took him for Shakespeare (“got” to read the ENTIRE works of William Shakespeare, sonnets included).

    I became his on-campus secretary for college work-study, and graded his papers from his other classes.

    I am also a member of the “Six Hundred Club”.

    I had hoped to see him at my 30th college reunion this last October, but he didn’t attend. He was retired, and still listed in the Clyde phone book. He must be close to 100 now.

    I’ve heard wonderful things about his wife who is/was a high school drama teacher.

    On the way back from our reunion, we stopped in some of the little towns between Abilene and Fort Worth. There were murals in the Eastland town square that I recognized as being famous paintings. The local high school art teacher had gotten her students to paint them. The art teacher’s name? Huff. Daughter, maybe? I wouldn’t be surprised.

  8. Robyn

    Enjoyed your anecdote about Dr. Huff. I had him for grammar in grad school. Dear, dear man! I was googling him to be sure I spelled his name correctly in a mention when I found your blog. I’d love a copy of the Six-Hundred Club poetry if you see this and are so inclined. I still have my copy of the project he gave my class to find dozens of grammatical examples in the KJV Bible. Awesome!

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