attention-conservation notice: Taking poetry seriously. Wholehearted, uncynical, unapologetic Harvardiana.
Today's the first time that many of Harvard's graduands will hear the little-known final verse of "Fair Harvard". So it seems as good a time as any to muse on the administration's decision to change that verse's final lyric.
It would be pretty natural to be outraged at the prospect, but after trying to start that blog post and failing for a while, I realized that I'm actually in favor of the change.
"Fair Harvard", as far as almae matres go, is actually quite good. Here are a few others for comparison:
Notre Dame, our Mother tender, strong, and true, proudly in the heavens, gleams thy gold and blue. Glory’s mantle cloaks thee; golden is thy fame and our hearts forever praise thee Notre Dame.
MSU, we love thy shadows When twilight silence falls, glushing deep and softly paling o’er ivy covered halls; beneath the pines we'll gather to give our faith so true, sing our love for Alma Mater and thy praises, MSU. When from these scenes we wander and twilight shadows fade, our mem’ry still will linger where light and shadows played; in the evening oft we’ll gather and pledge our faith anew, sing our love for Alma Mater and thy praise, MSU.
Where the rolling foothills rise up t’wards mountains higher, where at eve the Coast Range lies, in the sunset fire, flushing deep and paling; here we raise our voices hailing thee, our Alma Mater. Tender vistas ever new thru’the arches meet the eyes, where the red roofs rim the blue of the sun-steeped skies, fleck’d with cloudlets sailing, here we raise our voices hailing thee, our Alma Mater. When the moonlight-bathed arcade stands in evening calms, when the light wind half afraid whispers in the palms, far off swelling failing, student voices glad are hailing thee, our Alma Mater. From the foothills to the bay, it shall ring as we sing--- it shall ring and float away--- Hail, Stanford, Hail!
Bright college years, with pleasure rife, the shortest, gladdest years of life; how swiftly are ye gliding by! oh, why doth time so quickly fly? The seasons come, the seasons go, the earth is green or white with snow, but time and change shall naught avail to break the friendships formed at Yale. In after years, should troubles rise to cloud the blue of sunny skies, how bright will seem, through mem’ry’s haze those happy, golden, bygone days! Oh, let us strive that ever we may let these words our watch-cry be, where’er upon life’s sea we sail: “For God, for Country and for Yale!”
Bright college days, oh, carefree days that fly, to thee we sing with our glasses raised on high. Let's drink a toast as each of us recalls ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls. To the tables down at Morey’s, let us drink a toast to all we love the best. We will sleep through all the lectures, and cheat on the exams, and we'll pass, and be forgotten with the rest! Oh, soon we’ll be out amid the cold world's strife. Soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life. But as we go our sordid sep’rate ways, we shall ne’er forget thee, thou golden college days.
Mother, stay’d on rock eternal, crown’d and set upon a height, glorified by light supernal in thy radiance we see light, torch thy children’s lamps to kindle, beacon-star to cheer and guide, stand, Columbia! Alma Mater, through the storms of time abide! Honor, love, and veneration crown forevermore thy brow! Many a grateful generation hail thee as we hail thee now! ’till the lordly Hudson seaward cease to roll his heaving tide, stand, Columbia! Alma Mater, through the storms of time abide!
I wish I were making these up, but five out of six of them are real, official, almae matres from real schools. (One is a Tom Lehrer parody, just to break up the monotony.) Compare Fair Harvard (the first and fourth verses):
Fair Harvard! we join in thy Jubilee throng and with blessings surrender thee o’er, by these festival-rites, from the age that is past to the age that is waiting before. O relic and type of our ancestors’ worth, that hast long kept their memory warm, first flow’r of their wilderness! Star of their night! Calm rising thro' change and through storm. Farewell! Be thy destinies onward and bright! To thy children the lesson still give, with freedom to think—and with patience to bear— and for right ever bravely to live. Let not moss-covered error moor thee at its side, as the world on truth’s current glides by. Be the herald of light, and the bearer of love, ’till the stock of the Puritans die.
Besides rank partisanship, why do I claim that "Fair Harvard" is superior to these other anthems (and the many, many other that follow them in what has become the conventional style of the American alma mater)?
It's an address to the University, and archaic and respectful, but is not cringeworthily sycophantic. And -- rather than praising a celestial caricature of the school ("Mother, stay'd on rock eternal, / crown'd and set upon a height, / glorified by light supernal / in thy radiance we see light"), or recycled pastoral cliches ("beneath the pines we'll gather / to give our faith so true..."), or the unbreakable bonds of youthful friendship ("time and change shall naught avail / to break the friendships formed at Yale.") -- the verse narrates in poetic but plain and honest language the ceremony of Commencement Exercises ("we join in thy Jubilee throng / and with blessings surrender thee o’er, / by these festival-rites, from the age that is past / to the age that is waiting before.").
And where other songs heap the addressed school with generic -- and rhetorically empty -- metaphysical praise ("Glory’s mantle cloaks thee; / golden is thy fame..." | "Honor, love, and veneration / crown forevermore thy brow!"), "Fair Harvard" gives an explicit moral charge to the University, which the school must do (if it is to remain "relic and type of our ancestors’ worth, / that hast long kept their memory warm, / first flow’r of their wilderness, star of their night..."):
To thy children the lesson still give, with freedom to think—and with patience to bear—and for right ever bravely to live.
Let not moss-covered error moor thee at its side, as the world on truth’s current glides by! Be the herald of light, and the bearer of love...
"Fair Harvard" praises Harvard -- but also calls it to be praiseworthy. And not praiseworthy by right, but praiseworthy for its actions. The Crimson's "[s]tudents do not engage with the alma mater on a regular basis" be damned, I choose to read meaning into the fact that one of Harvard's deepest-seated traditions is -- not a contentless veneration of the coronated University -- but rather at its core a demand, repeated by each generation of graduands, that the school live up to its legacy as the herald of light and the bearer of love.
The easy answer is that the school should remain the herald of light forever. But I think that, much like the meaninglessness of Columbia's unearned "light supernal", anointing the school the perpetual bearer of love hollows the moral significance of the University's mandate. It is far from assured -- we are reminded -- that the school continues to bring either light or love to the world. And so, "Be the herald of light and the bearer of love, ’till the last star burns out in the sky" would ring empty; there's no moral argument there -- merely a plaintive wish that it be so.
At this task, "’till the stock of the Puritans die" does quite an excellent job. It's not merely a figure of speech, the humanist's \([t\to\infty]\) -- rather, while it does evoke a permanence to wish Harvard continued light and love, it also introduces a clear non-inevitability to its definition of the University's calling. The endowment of light and love -- endowed, the original lyric argues, by the stock of the Puritans -- is not infinite. And the University, if it squanders that endowment, may well run bankrupt from both light and love.
So, after all that, why do I support changing the lyric?
Because the moral core of Harvard is no longer endowed by the stock of the Puritans, and hasn't been for years. So whatever meaning the line might once have held has now decayed to a sterile, hollow token of history remembered solely for the sake of historicism.
Trawling through Harvard's history for inspiration for a replacement lyric, I was reading a speech by President Eliot on Google Books, which rudely cut off the end with a "Page 702 is not part of this book preview." But that missing page spliced me into the beginning of another speech, which turned out to be quite a propos:
[A]ccepting, for the moment, the terms Puritan and Cavalier in the sense an effete sectionalism once sought to ascribe to them -- descriptive labels at once classifying and separating North and South -- verbal redoubts along that mythical line called Mason and Dixon, over which there were supposed by the extremists of other days to be no bridges -- I am much disposed to say, "A plague o' both your houses!"
Each was good enough and bad enough in its way, whilst they lasted; each in its turn filled the English-speaking world with mourning; and each, if either could have resisted the infection of the soil and climate they found here, would be today striving at the sword's point to square life by the iron rule of Theocracy, or to round it by the dizzy whirl of a petticoat! It is very pretty to read about the Maypole in Virginia and very edifying and inspiring to celebrate the deeds of the Pilgrim Fathers.
But there is not Cavalier blood enough left in the Old Dominion to produce a single crop of first families, whilst out in Nebraska and Iowa they claim that they have so stripped New England of her Puritan stock as to spare her hardly enough for farm hands. This I do know, from personal experience, that it is impossible for the stranger-guest, sitting beneath a bower of roses in the Palmetto Club at Charleston, or by a mimic log-heap in the Algonquin Club at Boston, to tell the assembled company apart, particularly after ten o'clock in the evening!
Why, in that great, final struggle between the Puritans and the Cavaliers -- which we still hear sometimes casually mentioned -- although it ended nearly thirty years ago, there had been such a mixing up of Puritan babies and Cavalier babies during the two or three generations preceding it, that the surviving grandmothers of the combatants could not, except for their uniforms, have picked out their own on any field of battle! (...)
That's Henry Watterson, in his speech "The Puritan and the Cavalier" -- in 1897, merely 61 years after "Fair Harvard" was dedicated.
So I appeal from the men in silken hose who danced to music made by slaves and called it freedom, from the men in bell-crown hats who led Hester Prynne to her shame and called it religion, to that Americanism which reaches forth its arms to smite wrong with reason and truth, secure in the power of both.
I appeal from the patriarchs of New England to the poets of New England; from Endicott to Lowell; from Winthrop to Longfellow; from Norton to Holmes; and I appeal in the name and by the rights of that common citizenship -- of that common origin, back both of the Puritan and the Cavalier, to which all of us owe our being.
Let the dead past, consecrated by the blood of its martyrs, not by its savage hatreds, darkened alike by kingcraft and priestcraft -- let the dead past bury its dead. Let the present and the future ring with the song of the singers. Blessed be the lessons they teach, the laws they make. Blessed be the eye to see, the light to reveal... as blessed be all that brings us nearer the goal of true religion, true republicanism, and true patriotism, distrust of watchwords and labels, shams and heroes, belief in our country and ourselves. (...)
The stock of the Puritans is dead, and has been for some hundred and twenty years. Yet Harvard stands. Our anthem should not yoke fair Harvard to their now-contentless legacy.
And, at the end of the day, I'm sold by the argument President Faust made to the Crimson in April:
As for the last line of "Fair Harvard,"... I do have a certain sympathy with the notion that one’s alma mater should not end with the word 'die.' (...)
There's no one more surprised than me that I'm actually in support of changing the line. But the alternative is to accept that "Fair Harvard" trails off into a traditional-sounding irrelevancy.
Still, the replacement had better be actually good.
The Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging is collecting suggestions for an alternate final lyric from alumni and other members of the Harvard community:
We can imagine a final line that both celebrates Harvard’s Puritan origins and conjures a future open to all. We can imagine other sorts of final lines too. The question is how to convey that our valued inheritance has passed on to all of us. We suspect that the quality of what we can imagine will not reach the heights of what members of our community will submit. We therefore look forward to your submissions. (...)
Submissions are open until September, after which there will be a comment period, shortlist selection by a panel of judges, and an official selection by the PTFIB. But since I don't yet have a submission of my own to plug, I'll just provide some musings on what the line should and shouldn't be:
- First and foremost, it should be good poetry. This is the whole of the criteria; the rest of this list is commentary.
- It should actually finish the sentence that begins "Be the herald of light and the bearer of love..." (counterexample: "Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / we'll remember these years ’till we die.") It should be addressed to Harvard, not to the graduands. ("Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / to serve better thy country and kind.") (I expect a sizeable fraction of submissions -- though hopefully not longlisted ones -- to fail this grammatical criterion.)
- It shouldn't be celestial ("Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / and on shining wings take to the sky."), pastoral ("Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / and may peace grace the Yard for all time."), saccharine ("Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / and touch hearts as thou surely touched mine."), or shallowly mystical ("Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / as thou sail on the currents of time."). It shouldn't exalt the unbreakable bonds of youthful friendship. ("Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / for the bonds forged here last for all time.")
- It shouldn't be a mere poetic device for eternity or longetivity. ("Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / ’till the last star burns out in the sky." | "Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / ’till the sea of all knowledge runs dry.") It shouldn't suggest that Harvard is somehow invincible.
- It should demand something concrete and explicit of Harvard. ("Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / lift the golden lamp of learning high.") A moral charge vague enough to be impossible to fail is toothless, whereas one that Harvard can be seen as delinquent on carries weight when we demand it of the school. ("Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / bringing life to the whole world wide.")
- Empty praise is worse still. ("Be the herald of light and the bearer of love, / Alma Mater we hail thee with pride.")
- Faust is right; it's probably best, aesthetically speaking, to avoid ending the alma mater on the word 'die'.
It should anchor the song's poetic integrity and not cheapen the moral demand it represents. It should not skew anachronistically out of the language of the verse, though it should be more than a tired cliche. It should be expected to last for sixty years, though it need not be so conservative as to last for two hundred.
It should be a line that haunts the conscience -- of the graduands, of the Faculty, and of the President, Overseers, and the Corporation -- at least slightly when it echoes into silence across Tercentenary at Commencement Exercises.
The (officially-deprecated) second and third verses are weaker -- both in poetry and in moral argument -- though I've recently caught myself dwelling on the third, especially when I'm visiting Harvard and wandering through old, familiar places:
When as pilgrims we come to revisit thy halls, to what kindlings the season gives birth! Thy shades are more soothing, thy sunlight more dear than descend on less-privileged earth. For the good and the great, in their beautiful prime, thro’ thy precincts have lovingly trod, as they girded their spirits or deepen’d the streams that make glad the fair city of God.
Happy Commencement Exercises to all, and good luck to the Class of 2017!