Why did Dr. Fredericks plagiarise Trumbull Stickney's poem?
January 2, 2010 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand a poetry conundrum thrown up by the film The Good Shepherd.

I've seen the film The Good Shepherd a few times, which I think is necessary to get a full grasp of the plot. I'm fairly confident that I understand most of the story, but there's one glaring exception that I remembered when I happened to see part of the film yesterday.

To remind you of the context, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is studying literature at Yale university under Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon). After a poetry reading, Wilson is kept behind for a brief conversation with Dr. Fredericks. After what appears to be a sexual advance from Fredericks, Wilson goes to leave, but pauses momentarily before doing so after being asked to listen to a poem Fredericks claims to have begun writing. He recites the first stanza of the following poem:
A bud has burst on the upper bough
(The linnet sang in my heart today);
I know where the pale green grasses show
By a tiny runnel, off the way,
And the earth is wet.
(A cuckoo said in my brain: “Not yet.”)

I nabbed the fly in a briar rose
(The linnet to-day in my heart did sing);
Last night, my head tucked under my wing,
I dreamed of a green moon-moth that glows
Thro’ ferns of June.
(A cuckoo said in my brain: “So soon?”)

Good-bye, for the pretty leaves are down
(The linnet sang in my heart today);
The last gold bit of upland’s mown,
And most of summer has blown away
Thro’ the garden gate.
(A cuckoo said in my brain: “Too late.”)
He ends by saying the poem is unfinished. Wilson, whose curiosity implies familiarity with the poem, discovers it in his university library, and after helping to expose Fredericks' apparent status as a German agent responds to his asking why Wilson betrayed him with "You know and I know Trumbull Stickney wrote that poem in 1902. You were my teacher. You betrayed me.".

While Fredericks' artistic 'betrayal' perhaps provided some impetus for Damon's decision to assist in his exposure, what I don't understand is why Fredericks' character did such a thing. Was it an attempt to deflect from the tension resulting from his advances? A message of some kind? Or an accidental betrayal of his cover resulting from him not actually being an expert in literature, and thus ignorant of the realities of academia and the dangers of plagiarism? I don't see how you could be planted inside an Ivy League university and be ignorant of some of the most basic tenets of any academic discipline.

I really can't figure it out, and if any of you have an answer or could just give your take on it I'd really appreciate it. Thanks!
posted by jaffacakerhubarb to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think the betrayal was accidental. Think of the plagiarism scandals we've had in the last 20 years, when it's easy to search electronically. In the 30s, you had to do what Matt Damon did, search through the library, which is hard enough for a scholar, but a really laborious process for a student who knows much less about the field (and so where to look). It was a calculated gamble by Fredericks to establish academic credibility, and it failed, largely because he was already under suspicion and because Damon went much further than another student would to expose him.
posted by fatbird at 8:40 AM on January 2, 2010

This is rampant speculation since I haven't seen the film but from your description it seems like a desperate attempt by Fredericks to impress Wilson in hopes of seducing him. That said, your description makes me interested in watching The Good Shepherd, which I wasn't before.
posted by Kattullus at 10:37 AM on January 2, 2010

I love this movie, and I agree with fatbird. The poem was part of the professor's fake oeuvre -- not obscure enough, obviously.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:28 AM on January 2, 2010

Best answer: The reason that this poem may have been picked as the plagiarized one is that it's about a cuckoo, which is a brood parasite. In other words, cuckoos' offspring are (sort of) spies and undercover agents in the other bird species' nests, but the other birds raising them don't realize that. The term "cuckolding", where a woman has a child who is biologically not her husband's but does not tell him the child's true paternity, comes from this trait. Perhaps the professor was unintentionally giving Damon's character a hint that he too was an interloper in the nest.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:20 PM on January 2, 2010

Best answer: I think the point of the scene was more about Damon's character than about Fredericks--showing how Damon views loyalty and betrayal, and the extent to which he'll go to expose it. It's the first indication of how he'll fit into the world of espionage.
posted by fatbird at 12:26 PM on January 2, 2010

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