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Helen Vendler's Commencement Address
Thank you President Adams. No one could follow a speech by Evan McGee. Ive never had ferrets as a prop before, but happy birthday Mrs. McGee. I am honored to be here today with the other honorary members of the Class of 2003 and it is nice to become a Colby alumna because Ive had connections with the College over the years through the English Department.
But to all of you graduating today I would say that commencement in America is a public rite, as you can see: it's your declaration of independence from childhood and adolescence. You, as graduates, encounter the privilegeand difficultyof the enormous effort which is coming up for you to situate yourself in private and public life. Theres a mood at such a moment of exhilaration and fervor: Wordsworth said when he was young: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!" That was Wordsworth's declaration, but there are other more hesitant and more doubtful moods that may overcome this moment of independence: the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, thinking of his own youth, speaks of "all that toil of growing up; / The ignominy of boyhood; the distress / Of boyhood changing into man. . .; / The unfinished man and his pain / Brought face to face with his own clumsiness."
No one can forget the awkwardness, the ignorance, and the embarrassment of being young: there was everything to learn for the poets as for you, and no clear sign to point the way. Robert Frost as you know spent years disconsolately farming and dairy before he had enough confidence in his own writing to light out for England, publish his first book there, and come back home to evolve into an American institution. Wallace Stevens autobiographical hero Crispin had, like Frost and like Elliott and Pound and Fitzgerald and others, to try Europe--and also Yucatan and Havana--before he could settle in the American South. Finding ones place in the world as these poets tell us is always a slow and chancy process; but then again, it eventually happens, whereupon it comes to seem as one looks back eternally foretold.
Here at Colby you have had the luck to be educated both in looking inward--to your own nature, your own interests, your plan of study--but also in facing outward to the larger world. It used to be in peaceful times possible to postpone looking outward; but you have been shocked into awareness of the larger world over the last couple of years by terrorism here and war abroad. I recall in my twenties as a provincial girl being dumbfounded when one of my teachers, the great English critic, I. A. Richards, said to us sitting rather stupidly in our classroom, "Think of the planet!" America in my adolescence was a far more provincial country than it is today: we scarcely thought of our own city or state, let alone the planet. Television hadn't yet arrived to bring the world to our threshold. But today, you are often reminded you form part of the planet as well as of the United States. I myself learned and took an example about de-provincializing oneself from the example of W. B. Yeats, on whom I wrote my first book. Yeats began by writing in the traditional English poetry in which he had been schooled; but he took pains, in an amazing way, to create himself first as an Irish poet and then to widen his scope till he became a European poet and to end up as a world poet interested in Japanese drama and Zen Buddhism while never forsaking his native obligation to invent a national Irish literature written in English.
It is that sort of life-long and enlarging self-creation that a college education encourages in its students. In becoming citizens of the world, you represent a new and promising stage in American education, which for a long time remained a provincial one. Each of you, by giving yourselves wholeheartedly to some genuine endeavor, will contribute "the gift outright" of yourselves to the world's unknown, as yet unrealized, future. Robert Frost's poem "The Gift Outright" speaks not only to citizenship but to the broader question of any human commitment:
Such as we were (says Frost) we gave ourselves outright . . .
The life of the world in the twenty-first century is still "unstoried, artless, unenhanced," and it is up to your generation to give it its history, its arts, and its human enhancement in knowledge and development.
To those of you in the sciences I say (as one whose own first degree was in a science), that I admire your joining yourself to others in those arduous attempts to understand the material universe, attempts that have already brought us so much good. No woman would willingly have lived in any century before the twentieth, when science so reduced both the hazards of childbearing and the toll of disease on infants. The occasional misuse of technology for destructive ends does not, for me, blot out the many glories of recent scientific discovery, whether the unraveling of the structure of DNA, the investigation into the existence and functions of subatomic particles, the understanding of ecological interdependence, the synthesis of new curative drugs or the development of new theories. The poet William Carlos Williams feared that America might become a place where there was "no one to witness or adjust / no one to drive the car." You are in science not only to make and extend discoveries but also, because of your understanding of scientific issues, to witness, to adjust, to drive the car of technology in responsible ways.
To those of you in the social sciences, I remind you that you are to be our guides not only to certain aspects of the human past, but also to more generous relations to the human other. Walt Whitman said that "Many long dumb voices" would speak through his poetry, thinking of all those who have not yet had a voice in American literature; and the long-silent voices of the disregarded speak not only through poets but also, in a different way, through social scientists--historians, psychologists, economists, sociologists, anthropologists. You are and will be the investigators and workers who can replace prejudices with facts, tribal suspicion with sympathetic exchange. You can give a human face and a living name to the statistics we otherwise become.
To those of you in the humanities and the arts, it falls to create our American culture. Because we've been an established nation for less than three hundred years, we have only begun to invent American literature, art, music, dance, photography, television, and film. We've only begun, as well, to create the explanatory critical words to describe these arts. In a despairing moment, describing Americans, the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers said:
We are easy to manage, a gregarious people,
Our gregariousness and sentiment and cleverness--even our love of luxuries--have their good results, but they need to be completed by a sense of life that is in Yeats' words "high, and solitary, and most stern." You must be not only the creators of the arts and the humanities; you must also be the welcoming audience for those aspects of our culture. "His country absorbs him," said Whitman of the American poet, "as affectionately as he has absorbed it." Whitman added that "To have great poets, there must be great audiences too." Our hope is that you, all of you, will absorb, reflect, embody, and eventually be absorbed by, the America that you encounter.
In speaking of your professional futures as scientists, social scientists, humanists, or artists, I don't mean to ignore your private futures as lovers, parents, and friends. "I believe in nothing," Keats wrote at your age, "but the holiness of the heart's affections." From the taproot of private commitment in love and affection springs the flowering energy for public work. We hope that whether you are gay or straight or lesbian, you will gain that affectional happiness with a partner that is at least as important as fulfillment in work; and that those of you who become parents, whether biologically or by adoption, will be as proud of your own children as your parents are today of you. We especially hope that the sustaining and deep friendships that you have made during your years at Colby will remain with you for a lifetime. Friends are one of the glories of college; for those of you who haven't found satisfying friends here, don't despair; you will find them in your subsequent specialized track at school or at work.
And now let me say a word to the parents who are here today. What you confront today, in the life-choices of your adult children, is another version of what you confronted years agothe mystery of birth. This second birth into independence is as arbitrary and as startling as the original physical emergence. There is something novel, raw, and unfinished in your newborn adult children--the untried dancer, the inexperienced physicist, the novice journalist. "Are they even employable?" we wonder as parents. "Will I be supporting them when they are 40?" we wonder. The consoling fact is that every elder generation dies, and every younger generation gets to run the world. Yes, they are employable; no, they will not be on your hands--and your bank account--forever.
But more seriously, in today's rite of passage, you mark the dignity of their entrance into the adult community, as, led by their gifts, they search out their destinations. In spite of the pain, estrangement, and sadness endemic in family life, you have given your children the quickening of those gifts. You can today borrow the words of the prophet Isaiah (with the parents of daughters making the appropriate revision of pronouns): "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor." In handing on the world to our children, we say to them, "The government shall be upon your shoulder, and you will be the Counselor." We hope that as they go out to govern and enrich the world with their cultivated understanding, they will from time to time turn home, to their teachers and families, and bring us news of their creations, inventions, and scholarly productions.
Congratulations from all of us are due first of all, to the families who have created, and sacrificed for, these beautiful young people; second, to the devoted teachers and mentors who have been the midwives of their intellectual, artistic, and moral birth into adult independence; and most of all, to the graduates themselves, who have become ready to leave the nest and display their plumage in far flight. We hope they will in the years to come be spared the sight of war, the sorrow of Rachel weeping for her lost children; surely the largest task they inherit in the new century is learning to wage peace. Large cultural revolutions are made, after all, of millions of small gesturespoems, laws, teaching, conversations, services to others, imaginations of possibility.
In an extraordinary poem called "The Season of Phantasmal Peace," the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott imagines a flock of swallows rising soundlessly above the earth in a "passage of phantasmal light / that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever." For a moment as he says, the nations of birds," uniting their "multitudinous dialects," create a moment of reconciling peace, which takes on, in the poets lines, a spectral actuality:
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
To enlarge the moment of peace to lengthen it so that it lasts longer than before is an undertaking shared by parents, teachers, and graduates alike: no effort could be worthier or more essential for our common future, if we are to think, as my old teacher urged, of the planet.
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