Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pomp and Circumstance

Randall Stephens

It's that time of year. Seniors are practicing their graduation cap toss. Parents are wondering how long their sons and daughters will grown under a burden of enormous debt. Will they get jobs? Did those courses in "Script Writing," "Daytime Serials: Family and Social Roles," or "Exopedagogies and Diacritical Phallocentric Imaginations" equip them for our new economy?

All are preparing for a long, long day. Plenty of time for daydreaming. Garry Trudeau once quipped, "Commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated."

Here in Boston today the weather is beautiful: 63 degrees and sunny. Today and in the next two weeks a series of glittery celebs and pointy-headed public intellectuals will be lined up to fill the podiums at areas schools. (See Tracy Jan, "Big Names at the Podium," Boston Globe, 14 May 2010.) A sampling:

ABC News correspondent Lynn Sherr, Wellesley College

US Attorney General Eric Holder, Boston University

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Lesley University

Rachel Maddow, Smith College

Former Supreme Court justice David H. Souter, Harvard University

Governor Deval Patrick, Framingham State College

A few who took the dais in 1950:

Harvard University: Dean Gooderham Acheson, U.S. Secretary of State

Northeastern University: Frank W. Abrams, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey

Wheaton College: Erwin D. Canham, Editor, The Christian Science Monitor

Few speeches are memorable. Many are like long, de-deified, boring sermons. (Sometimes academics get the worst rap. W. H. Auden snarked: "A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep.") Seldom do addresses rise to the level of oratorical art as did Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous "Address Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening, July 15, 1838":

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man! In its fruitful soils; in its navigable sea; in its mountains of metal and stone; in its forests of all woods; in its animals; in its chemical ingredients; in the powers and path of light, heat, attraction, and life, it is well worth the pith and heart of great men to subdue and enjoy it. The planters, the mechanics, the inventors, the astronomers, the builders of cities, and the captains, history delights to honor. . . .

And now let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering, nigh quenched fire on the altar. The evils of the church that now is are manifest. The question returns, What shall we do? I confess, all attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain. Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms. All attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason, to-day, pasteboard and fillagree, and ending to-morrow in madness and murder. Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul. A whole popedom of forms, one pulsation of virtue can uplift and vivify. Two inestimable advantages Christianity has given us; first; the Sabbath, the jubilee of the whole world; whose light dawns welcome alike into the closet of the philosopher, into the garret of toil, and into prison cells, and everywhere suggests, even to the vile, the dignity of spiritual being. Let it stand forevermore, a temple, which new love, new faith, new sight shall restore to more than its first splendor to mankind. And secondly, the institution of preaching, the speech of man to men, essentially the most flexible of all organs, of all forms. What hinders that now, everywhere, in pulpits, in lecture-rooms, in houses, in fields, wherever the invitation of men or your own occasions lead you, you speak the very truth, as your life and conscience teach it, and cheer the waiting, fainting hearts of men with new hope and new revelation?

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men, and chiefly of those Hebrews, and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.


Unknown said...

Thanks for that bracing oratory, Randall. I am cleansed and renewed by its refulgence. They certainly don't deliver commencement addresses like that anymore.

Randall said...

Don't hear many lines like this nowadays either:

"And now let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering, nigh quenched fire on the altar."

Ilyon said...

An excellent reminder of one of the best addresses ever-- though it seems that not all of Emerson's listeners were so pleased. Wasn't he not allowed back for years?