A Letter to Charles Townsend Copeland

CHARLES, shall we haunt a while that minor Heaven,
Named, more than numbered, Hollis Hall Eleven;
Affright the freshmen, then in turn rejoice
Their ears with echoes of your tempered voice?
Unthinking, as I pass the place at night,
My gaze roves upward to observe your light,
And halts, bedazzled by electric streams
Where in my memory your lamp still gleams.
What a brave host your memory could call
To that dim lighted room in Hollis Hall.
I see the two lamps glowing on the shelves
And books that have become your other selves.
In glimmering ranks, their wit and wisdom spread, —
Friends of your heart, familiars of your head;
And — what to me was more important still —
Musicians of your voice in joinëd skill.
And then I see, as face by face appears —
Some kin to laughter, some aloof from tears —
Your young apprentices of other years.
Some, able to perform as well as learn,
From high entablatures of fame return;
More, though of equal promise, doomed to lose
Their gift in banking, salesmanship, or booze.
Yet even these, when bank directors meet,
Hear echoes from the ‘Ballad of the Fleet.’
Or suddenly, through smoke and doubtful stories,
Remember that the Azores are Azorës.
Or quote, and quote it as their own, your line:
To eat is human, to digest divine.
And others come, without reproach or stain,
The ever young, who died — and died in vain;
Yet proved, while shaming Europe’s vile pretense,
America’s high heart, and innocence.
It is a common error to behold
In every previous age the age of gold.
When Norton quit his chair — which was a throne —
Young Wendell knew that Harvard’s day was done.
He mourned the passing of all learned grace
Of which he found not one remaining trace
Among his colleagues, — and his colleagues were
Young Briggs, young Kittredge, and young Copeland, Sir,
And many others whose retirement left
My later age of learned grace bereft.
Had I not Wendell’s letter as a warning,
I too should don epistolary mourning;
For, of a truth, the Harvard that I knew
Needed no distance to enchant the view.
And memory, that sometimes may enhance,
But dims the vistas of my backward glance.
As dusk comes on, I almost hope to meet
Dean Briggs once more in the familiar street,
His head thrown back, his amiable walk
Timed equally to progress or to talk.
I, whom life changes with its every whim,
Remember now his steadfastness. In him
Was a perfection, an unworldly grace,
Life could not mar and death can not efface.
I know the wrinkled smile, the kindly eyes,
Keen with a wit both humorous and wise, —
These I remember, and remembering, see
The Dean walk home toward immortality.
The Dean walks home, his cheerful task complete;
He walks at dusk down the familiar street,
Stopping to share some story with a friend,
Or murmur words of counsel. At the end
He pauses for a moment, and with shy
Farewell looks back, looks back and says Good-bye;
Then rounds the corner of his shining days,
His smile at parting bright through April haze.
By whom shall brilliant minds — and dull — be fired
(In double sense) now Kittredge has retired?
The Beowulf was no book on a shelf,
There stood the veteran Beowulf himself!
The Viking beard, a sail; the nose, a prow;
Blue eyes the riding lights from here-and-now.
He’d cruise, head down, hands clasped behind his back,
With changing winds of thought in veering tack;
Then jibing suddenly full-face, stop short
And bring his cargo of ideas to port.
Daring the doubters, how he would expound
That day-long dive of Beowulf— undrowned.
Belief in this unscientific story
Was, to a science-hater, mandatory.
‘They say the Middle Ages were priest-ridden,
That fantasy was taught, and fact forbidden.
This may be true, but how much more unpleasant
A world by science ridden, as at present.
I’d rather far be ridden, I insist,
By any priest than by a scientist.’
A Beowulf in mien, but I miscall
The scholar who is Shakespeare to them all.
No doubt when Adam delved and Evë span,
Wendell already was the gentleman,
The embodied form of that elusive term,
Its foibles clear, its virtues deep and firm.
New Englander, with British elegance,
The culture and the courtesy of France,
He claimed our so neglected right to use
The good of Europe, and the bad refuse.
The while his discourse edified his classes,
Their frightened gaze pursued his whirling glasses;
Taut on the string in shortening whorls they flew
Faster and faster as his interest grew,
Till on his forefinger completely wound,
They paused, then whirled the other way around.
And to this day, of Wendell I recall
A jeopardy, a voice with dying fall,
A ducal face, urbane beyond surprise,
And of all eyes I’ve seen, the saddest eyes.
It is the function of the truly great
To fix the letters on time’s dimming slate.
Hence, kings make history we con by rote;
Republics are mere records of a vote.
Facts are forgotten soon, unless they can
Be attributes of a remembered man.
Subjects too often overweigh the thought,
The teacher matters more than what is taught.
And all, the theories and the facts, must be
Shaped to their place in vast philosophy.
Bliss Perry gave me more than Tennyson,
And Spaulding, more than melody and tone;
Had I not studied Bonaparte’s campaign
With Johnston, I had studied it in vain.
Music I courted, Greek philosophies,
The Parthenon, exclusive of the frieze, —
A furious medley, logic put to rout,
And not one item I could do without.
Painters of Florence, poets of Japan,
Course after course, — but more, man after man;
For fields of interest were not drawn so fine, —
I moved about, I did not toe the line.
Thus, Thaxter, the great botanist, with whom
I never took a course, yet brought to bloom
Far fairer plants than liverworts or palms, —
Two charming daughters and a taste for Brahms.
And Taussig, economics put aside,
In hospitable plenitude applied
The theory of supply and of demand
When freshman appetites got out of hand.
And Briggs, how did he teach? I can’t conjecture;
Was it example, talk, or formal lecture?
From minds like these how rich has been my yield,
However foreign may have seemed the field.
The human mind, of various fibres blent,
Draws from variety its nourishment,
Lest it be shrunken inly to a very
Anatomy of mental dysentery.
Much narrow learning is but hocus-pocus
Compared with wars in Spain or the first crocus;
For men, if education be not vain,
Must rise with crocuses, not fall with Spain.
All needful knowledge to the mind impart,
But better, understanding to the heart.
The little learning that is dangerous may
Be having all our learning go one way.
Toilers by midnight oil will scarce be drawn
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn,
And those who hunt mere sources always bungle
Through literature itself, which is their jungle.
I know an unknown Restoration drama,
And whence, verbatim, Emerson got ‘Brahma,’
Whence Pope his ‘taste not the Pierian spring,’
And I can guess what song the sirens sing.
These learned contributions must, however,
Await some far more serious endeavor, —
Till in the Modern Language Notes they cumber
Page after page of the Greek Kalends’ number.
Charles, you’re not listening, and I shall creep
Tiptoe away down corridors of sleep.
I shall go home, and for a penance, mark
A score of themes at random in the dark.
I shall put out the street lamps as I go,
Wrap up the city in a hush of snow,
Turn off all motors, smooth the wind with grease,
Lest you be wakened and reread this piece.
Before your eyelids closed, I saw despair
Flow out and freeze to resignation there;
Bored by the poet, kindly to the friend,
And wishing both of them would make an end.
What! wide awake? ‘And watching, Bob. I hope
You are not practising to tread a rope.
Your exit would leave nothing to be said
For burying a man before he’s dead.
’Tis not the man I’d pity, but the mourners
Mincing such circumvolutory corners.
This poem — so to speak — leaves me aghast
By your preoccupation with the past.
Why are the young so old? have they not learned
No chicken’s ever to the egg returned?
Let’s have no more of that. Let’s look ahead.
We can look back a long while when we’re dead.
After us, not the deluge, but the sun.
All things must pass, and when good things are done,
It’s time that something better were begun.’