An Ode For Gentleman Scholar Ashley Halpe

Gwen Herat, courtesy of Daily News, 8 June 2016

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’……..

A prince he was;

A prince who captured the imagination of the literary world and who rose to be one of its icons.

Gone but the indelible aura remains sweeping gently over all those who met and shared his life and sprit; big and small, famous and not so famous.


From my student days, he was my Master and mentor. Someone I looked up to with deep reverence. He had such good rapport that we all, later in life, were influenced as we flew out and away from his class into the bright, big world that held promise.

I remember him also for his good humour that mellowed us. I was one girl among three in a mix-up class of about forty boys but that did not matter because he treated me like a boy.

Among them two boys who were my friends ended up at Harvard and Rhode Island. I am sure they would have been heart-broken when they heard above his death.

Professor Halpe was simple, child-like but strong in character though diminutive in physique. He could command any situation that related to his arts. Very unassuming enough to put any one at ease. One day, he reprimanded me;

‘Wither goes your tenses’

‘Past, present or future?

‘Learn to put the comma and full-stop where it matters’

Yet, he drove me towards poetry. knew Shakespeare was getting me addicted to and now I realize what he was trying tell me though at that point, I failed to understand. Decades later it dawned on me when he Foreworded my text on poetry, FROM A DISTANCE declaring ‘THE DISTANCE CALLS ALOUD, perhaps drawing her to the mystic encounter with THE BLACK SWAN OF AVON which follows bringing the book to its legend-like end’ so said Professor Halpe.

I was so elated that I hit the roof. That Foreword was the main reason that my first print of 1000 copies sold out in no time.

I had written on prose before but FROM A DISTANCE was my first book on poetry and dedicated to the Bishop of Chilaw, Dr. Valence Mendis and incidentally, reviewed by one of his students and my colleague in class, Prof, Viraj Fernando of Harvard.

He created a new impetus in English Literature as well as in fine arts, steadily improving our own competence, increasing skills that lay hidden in our hearts and minds and was able to explore into souls, searching the scope for different schools of English, made wholesome, disciplined not only in theory but in practice too.

Prof. Halpe was a stickler for perfection. He drew maximum results on any given curriculum constantly and reappraised in revision. There were no short cuts, no excuses.

If I say ha diversified English language starting from beyond elementary stage to develop at level higher competence and steered all who came under his prowess. I am right.

All of us looked at him in different perspectives. For me he was essentially a Shakespeare person. He impacted the Bard so powerfully that I ate, drznk, and slept Shakespeare. Bard’s dialogue sat easy on his voice and was colossal, structural and collaborative and amazed me with and I am still learning.

The aura with which he discussed why the young who attained literacy at substantial level, quickly fell back into illiteracy. This was long past, as he explained, was not sufficiently adaptive to the lives and surroundings of parents and pupils because of their ancestral occupations that played a vital role in the education system. He tried hard in this area for the sake of rural youth to bring about a multiple change for them to acquire academy. How far he achieved this, I am not aware, Many a time he told me about their plight.

He was also deeply involved in the academic system to envisage expansions of literacy at all levels, especially university education. Therefore, the necessity to balance all different schools of English education was an on-going journey from which he never paused.

Was he not a great man? His scope for wider spread of literature was limited in a country with the usage of her national language and rightfully, he had to fall in line in a situation like this. On and off he reversed this procedure to suit our environment. He used the stage, drama and acting and set the pace the audience to see Shakespeare and other Masters in our own language and tradition. Since then producers and directors have gone bersek turning English drama to Sinhala.

Thank You, Sir for that.

In Class He was a tyrant at times. As much as we all loved and respected him, he would scare us out of our wits. That made all of us to study him as well. The days he walked in cheerfully, everything was fine. If he avoided at looking at us straight, we were put on caution. I happened to be one of his victims on one such day when I was reading COLERIDGE…

(Mariner’s horror of zombies suddenly become a horror of himself)

‘The body and I pull’d at one rope,

But he said nought to me —

And I quak’a to think of my own voice

How frightful it would be;

Professor stopped me halfway. For a fleeting moment I saw the Ancient Mariner on his face. ‘Use your body language’ he almost screamed. I continued shivering under his glaring eyes.

‘The day-light dawn’d – they dropped their arms

And cluster’d round the mast, and then let me free.

Since then at an uncertain hour

Now of times and now fewer

That anguish come and make me tell

My ghastly adventure.

He did not leave me there but continued. ‘Ancient Mariner’ he went on ‘is supernatural, bloody, grotesque etc. but you are deemed to know that the voice and ventriloquy found in it. Otherwise, you will not be reading it out here.

I was embarrassed but kept my cool knowing it was one of his bad days. Professor taught me one solid lesson and that is; I can read The Ancient Mariner backwards. This creature still haunts me.

HUMILLITY IN HIS GENIUS Out of college, out of Uni. I met the genuine human in Professor Halpe, decades later. I was overwhelmed at his humility. His genius still sparkling, vibrant and gracious, when he asked me to review and publish on the last book he wrote, WAITING FOR THE BELLS.

It stunned me. I was shocked. Of all his learned battalion of literati.

‘Why me’ I protested but in his calm voice, he said;

‘Just do it’

I was not worthy enough to undertake such a task but it came naturally because it was a book on poetry. I was afraid I would let him down but few days later when I picked my phone, it was the Professor himself and he said.

‘You’ ve written a great review and I am absolutely happy. Thank you’ and all the time I was shivering whether I would come to his level of expectation.

Though he’s gone I rest on the assurance I was one of his closest students though I never measured up to the high-flying literati he produced.

‘Good-night, sweet prince,

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’.

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  1. Pingback: The Halpes: Amiability and Aesthetics Personified | Thuppahi's Blog

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