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An essay by George William Curtis


Title:     Commencement
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

It is a changed college world since Nat. Willis's Philip Slingsby was the hero of many a maiden's dream, and the stories of Willis reflected the modest gayety of the society of his time. Nahant was then a summer resort of importance, and had not become, as one of its denizens said in later years, only "cold Boston." Willis's heroes, like Byron's, were largely himself, and it was but a thin veil that covered in them persons familiar in the society that he knew, and incidents drawn from his own experience.

He was the college hero of his time. But his Scripture poems, which had great vogue and were printed in all the "classbooks" and "readers," and his "Burial of Arnold," a young and brilliant Senior at Yale, and his bright and blithe "Saturday Afternoon," are quite passed out of current knowledge. They are not the kind of verse which is produced in college now. Their Byronic sentimentality is not to the taste of the college club and Greek Letter Society man of to-day; and Charles Coldstream, who looks on listlessly at the college athletic games, leaves enthusiasm to "the Fresh," and has "really never read those things of Willis's."

Yet the dominant emotions of Commencement this year were very much what they were when Philip Slingsby dared the waltz, and even the more emancipated belles shuddered a little as they slid into the charmed circle. Youth and hope and the passion which "is not all a dream" are forever renewed, and if the fashion changes, the substance remains. In the crowded church at Commencement this year, with the gay dresses and the flowers and the music and the soft summer air breathing in at the open doors and windows, there are still palpitating bosoms, and a color that comes and goes, and glances that meet and mingle--"read the language of those wandering eye-beams--the heart knoweth."

It was "Nat. Willis" yesterday, in a high-collared coat and an ample cravat such as Brummel wore, and even D'Orsay. It is a quaint and a droll costume, as you see it in those old Fraser pictures of English authors "'tis sixty years since." But in that guise it is you, sir, of to-day, and if your oration is spoken to one auditor, in all that lovely throng in the gallery, whose heart answers "pity Zekle" to your pitapat, do you think that the divine Una's grandmother was never young, and that the droll high-collared coats did not cover hearts as sensitive and hopes as high as the faultless summer attire of Nameless, Jun., class of '90? The actors change, but the spectacle is the same. Even the members of the reverend and venerable the corporation, those bald and white-haired worthies who seem vaguely always to have been sitting unchanged in the front pews, like those austere senators of Rome of whom the tradition tells us that they sat motionless although the invader came--even they are living monuments, and on their hearts, as on tablets, the story of the wandering eye-beams is engraved.

There is not one of the young heroes of the Commencement hour whom those elders do not scan with knowledge. These wise young judges carry no secrets which the elders do not share. Is it a strange world that of Willis and his Philip Slingsby? It is the world of the moment and of this Commencement.

But there is something else in Commencement besides this romance of feeling and tradition. It is the celebration of the intellectual life. The eloquence, indeed, is sometimes rather copious. An oration in the morning before one literary society; in the afternoon before another; and a sermon in the evening before the Missionary Association, is good measure heaped up and running over. There is some jealousy also even in academic groves. In the older day, if the Melpomene had its oration in the morning and the Euterpe in the afternoon, and you read on the following Sunday, scrawled on the blank page of the hymn-book in the pew, "Words, words, words, oration of Cicero," and "Genius, eloquence, common-sense, oration of Demosthenes," you knew that you read the comment upon the rival orator of a Melpomenean or a Euterpean, as the case might be. But if the orator was not always wise or eloquent, there were also discourses which have profoundly influenced the lives of those who heard or read them, giving a direction and inspiring a fidelity which, like Wordsworth's thoughts of his past years, breed perpetual benediction.

It is a recollection blended of many feelings, that which the recurring Commencement brings to the alumnus. But the deep and permanent charm is the consciousness of the infinite worth and consolation of letters. Theoretically the college course was a series of years devoted to making acquaintance with the treasures of human genius. Possibly there was in fact some divergence from the theory. But that was the opportunity. The gates were set ajar, and if the neophyte did not choose to enter, he lost--as the teacher said to his pupil who went fishing rather than to hear Webster's eulogy on Adams and Jefferson--he lost what he can never regain.

Is there some fatality which makes the pen that treats of Commencement hortatory and didactic? Is there some secret charm which still allies the college to the pulpit, so that to talk about it is presently to begin to preach? The Easy Chair asks because it feels that it is about to take the sacerdotal tone, and remind the youth who is leaving or entering college that, like every other epoch in life, college is an opportunity. It is what you make it. Fate, as the older times would have said--life, as we prefer to say--gives us a chance. But the improvement of it we give ourselves. The tragedy of the refrain, "Too late, too late; ye cannot enter now," is that of the man who, in our simple phrase, wasted his college years. The tender spell of Whittier's "Maud Muller" lies in its saddest words of tongue or pen. But the memory of what might have been is so profoundly pathetic because it might not have been, and we were the arbiters of fate and did not choose to turn upward.

Kind sir of the college, who lend to the preacher of the moment your listening ear, the preacher himself may be a wearisome chaplain, but you are the young judge of the summer afternoon, smelling the meadows sweet with hay, and stopping at the cool spring where Maud Muller hands you the refreshing draught. Do you follow the allegory, and see in that maid what really she is? To you she is a maiden who rakes the hay; to Numa she was Egeria by the other fountain. It is a sweet illusion, for the maid is not Egeria nor Maud Muller, but under those gentle forms she is the nymph of opportunity. Woo her and win her, and all the happiness that might have been will be yours.

There is nothing more touching than the inability of the chooser to comprehend the choice. Why did not the judge yield to the soft persuasion of that simple loveliness? Why did he not embrace the opportunity, and fold his happiness to his heart? Well, sir, that is always the question. But if he did not know that in that fair figure opportunity stood before him, you do know it. Don't be satisfied to hum "in court an old love tune." You remember the legend of the Sibyl's books. Was it interpreted to you in the class-room? Do you interpret it to yourself?

The most inspiring tradition in every college is not that of the boat or the ball, of copious gold and flowing wine, of Milo or Sardanapalus or Midas; it is not that of the "dig" or the "prig," of Dryasdust or Casaubon; but it is that of the youth, by whatever name he was called in your college, who did not, like the judge, "closing his heart," ride on--who knew that four such years as yours in college would never return, and that they offered him the golden keys which, polished by his labor, would open the heaped treasures of genius in all ages and lands. It is he who in taking the keys did not grudge the labor, and to whose life those treasures have been wide open.

No, the inspiring personal tradition of college was not the pleasant Philip Slingsby; it was rather Philip Sidney, who rode with the best and was a man in every manly enterprise, but who had so used his opportunities in study and affairs that Hubert Languet, most accomplished of scholars, called him friend, and William of Orange called him master.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Commencement