Delivered by Louis Petrich, Tutor, May 4, 2015, at the Graduate Institute Commencement Reception
Dear students, graduates, and guests of the Graduate Institute–on behalf of my colleagues on the faculty of St. John’s College, I shall propose a toast with the help of several authors I happen to have been reading and pondering these last days. A classical origin for our words is, of course, a tribute to our inner resources, but also (as Nietzsche says) to our poverty of creation, our spiritual ungainliness, if this is how we must quench our thirst, as humped camels do, from storage, surrounded all the while by much that has become desert in this noisy world. It is my hope, therefore, that you may discover, time and again, as thoughtful camels, something I recently experienced to my wonder, when I re-encountered a very famous English poem that I assigned to my senior language students, written by Matthew Arnold around 1851, called “Dover Beach.” In it, a man stands by an open window, while looking out over the beach at Dover, England, and talking all the while to a silent woman present in the room with him. I remembered quite liking this poem when I first studied it as an English major in college over 30 years ago, at that time having seen next to nothing of the world, though the poem is in fact about the world and how to live in its turmoil. By the way, although I have been teaching for many years, here and around the world, I still ask myself how great literature should be taught to college kids who know so little yet of life in this world. Mathematics, science, metaphysics even, I can teach to novices, but literature?–which spans life and death, heaven and hell? I am satisfied if they store up its beauties for later uses; and therefore I proceed now with my toast in the confidence that you folks, being older, are perhaps readier to hear some hard things.
As I was saying, I had not had occasion to return to this fondly remembered poem, “Dover Beach,” until I reread it in the good company of my seniors, with whom I had pleasurably shared many old, lettered friends, but this time I found to my surprise that I disliked the experience at once. I felt somehow sickened by the poem, and immediately I sought relief in a parody written by Anthony Hecht in 1967 called (pardon me), “The Dover Bitch.” This parody is written from the point of view of the silent woman in Arnold’s poem, who cannot stand being treated as a “cosmic last resort” by a nervous, classically educated man who would rather ruminate on the sonorous sufferings in Sophocles and over the terrors unleashed by the ignorant armies in Thucydides, than to make simple, proper love to a pretty girl on a romantic, moonlit beach. Who can blame her? I felt guilty to perhaps spoil my students’ opportunity to like this poem, by impressing upon them my newfound dislike. But I asked them, as I do you, to lay this up for consideration: why is it that of the works we had loved as readers in youth, some retain or augment their power to transport and we love them the more, but others are found to disappoint or even to become repulsive in age? Is it that our more mature and refined tastes now detect better what is truly fine or disgusting in things? Or, is it that our chastened enthusiasms no longer catch at the surface beauties and miracles that formerly took hold of the eager heart, the depths and heights instead having become the lonely anchorages of our advanced journeys?
In any case, my friends, as you grow older in the company of undying literature, I hope that you may experience these questions upon returning to a poem or book that you remember liking, or, I hasten to add, one that you did not like or did not take time to know, but may later find to be indispensable, like a new friend among enemies. Though the latter experiences are puzzling, because why would you return to a book that you did not like, or turn to one you know not? Well, maybe the book, if I may speak of books as friends, has a loyal liking for you. Besides, if the soul is immortal, as we may dare to suppose from our unquenchable thirst, or even if the soul is but a follower of the gay philosophy that promises jungles beyond deserts and playgrounds after jungles, then there will be time for those unread or disliked books, too; there will be time “for a hundred visions and revisions,” as another poet of this modern desert landscape has put it, in another love song worthy of parody, of liking and disliking over time, because it is that good and deserving of a home in us. (T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”).
Now there is something I had forgotten about Matthew Arnold that I rediscovered upon questioning my altered feelings towards his poem, for I was not resigned to lose an old friend, and I should like to share this singular fact with you. Matthew Arnold was, by profession, a life-long school inspector. He believed that education was the only way to rescue the souls of the vast, rising middle classes from a sickness and evil that his contemporary, Baudelaire, named “ennui,” and whose type Arnold himself was the first to label, “the philistine”: a person of utilitarian dullness, comfort-seeking, security-mongering, media-minded, easy-going, always nice and inoffensive, therefore anemic, slavish, and trivial. I wonder what this Victorian school inspector would have to report of our cultural practices and their human types today. Perhaps, mindful of this fact, I should face “Dover Beach” again, with your help. Which behavior do you think is better: to look out a window at a moonlit beach, to hear the pebbles being thrown up and drawn back by the murmuring waves, and to invite your beloved to think of Sophocles, who made tragic poetry out of such sights and sounds?–Or, to register your satisfaction that this pleasant sea-side resort is rated, by the mass clicking of browsers under the moonlight–click, click, click– one of the top twelve places to go for a convenient weekend get-away (discounted in the off-season), which earns points towards a free stay and partner points if you switch your life insurance? Indeed, I would like to ask the silent woman of Arnold’s poem, or you ladies in the audience, what kind of man you would prefer as a lover. The man of the poem appeals to his lady-friend in these words: “Ah, love, let us be true/ To one another!” What does his appeal to “be true” mean, sandwiched as it is between references to Sophocles and Thucydides? In view of Arnold’s professional concerns for the life of the middling soul in a “darkling plain,” I think it means this: “let us keep in our possession the light, joy, love, and help that we find in the creative works of our predecessors, who poured their lives into making this world a place where we would want to be born. A place we strive to be able to call ‘home’.” This, I think, is essentially the appeal that Winston Churchill made in 1940, as he looked across the Channel from Dover Beach and saw what Arnold foresaw–the “alarums,” the “struggle and flight” from barbarism—and he rallied the English classes, one and all, to be true to one another as keepers of the light. So, at the inspiration of this poem, which once I liked in innocence, recently disliked with experience, and upon present consideration begin to like again, I now make this same appeal to the graduates—“let us be true to one another.” Rich in gratitude for the hours we have spent hearing together the murmuring sea of remembered voices sweet and bitter, the full tide of humanity right at our Chesapeake home shores, and with boldness to keep that tide from withdrawing over the edge of the world, let us, the faculty of St. John’s College, raise our glasses to toast the graduates of this Institute, masters of the arts that make this world fit for poor human souls.