Jill Lepore, Harvard University’s David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and a staff writer for The New Yorker, delivered the keynote address, “The Courage of Conviction,” at Bowdoin’s Baccalaureate ceremony, May 22, 2015.
Congratulations to the class of 2015!
It’s so delightful to be here with you today to celebrate one kind of end, and another kind of beginning. Thinking about coming up here today, I got to thinking about the many places you’ll go from here, and what you’ll carry with you, and the many important things you’ll do in the world. And I got to thinking about another Bowdoin student who, after he graduated from Bowdoin, a very long time ago, wended his way to
Cambridge, which is where I live. His house is a museum now, and it’s only a short walk from my house. He is often on my mind.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born by the sea, in Portland, Maine in 1807. When he was sixteen, and a student here at Bowdoin, he wrote home to his mother that he was reading the eighteenth-century English poet, Thomas Gray, and that he admired the poet’s obscurity—his difficulty, his impenetrability. His mother wrote back that all she had read of Gray was his “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard”—a poem about a man wandering in a graveyard, reading epitaphs—
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay/
Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn
—but that she admired it only so far.
“Obscurity is favorable to the sublime, you think,” she wrote her son, “but I am much better pleased with those pieces that touch the feelings and improve the heart than with those that excite the imagination only and raise perhaps an indistinct admiration. That is, an admiration of we know not exactly what.” Young Henry Wadsworoth Longfellow took that advice to heart. Make your meaning clear.
Longfellow graduated from Bowdoin in 1825, traveled in Europe for three years, and came back to teach at Bowdoin. He had learned to read eighteen languages and became a scholar of great distinction, an expert, in particular, on the work of Dante. He became the Smith Professor of Modern Languages and Belles Lettres at Harvard in 1837 when he was only thirty years old. But, all his life, he wrote poems so easy that children could love them. He published his first collection of poems, Voices of the Night, in 1839. He became the best-known and best-loved poet in America. Generations of Americans could recite, from memory, dozens of his poems. He worked very hard to make poetry look very easy. He once wrote a poem, explaining why:
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.
There is a place for immortal poets—God knows, Longfellow loved Dante. But, as for what he wanted to do, with his own work, was something else:
Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;
Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music …
You’re not all going to become poets, thought I know some of you will. And you may not admire Longfellow’s poems, and you may not love them, or indeed you may. But what I love about that letter his mother sent him when he was a student here is its urgency and its wisdom: Admire what is worthy, she told him. And do work worth admiring.
You cannot do that good and worthy work alone. You are setting out on a path. You are surrounded, this weekend, by the people who have helped set you on that path, people who love you, people who know you, people who really get you. They won’t always be by your side but, all the same, they will remain. As you wander along the path you’ve chosen, you will surely, one day, lose your way. But your friends and your family and your teachers and your children, yes, your children, will always help you find it. And remember, too, that the clarity and force of language will help you find your way out of every maze of obscurity. It will give you courage in your convictions and it will make you listen to the music in your soul. And it will make you sing, and soar.
I have been thinking about Longfellow’s mother lately, because I was trying to think of what to say to you all, but also because a man named Thomas Moore sent me a letter this week. Thomas Moore is a poet who lives in Brooksville, Maine. A very long time ago, ages ago, he was my high school English teacher. Before I took his class, I had never before met anyone who cared about language, really cared. He was the hardest teacher I had ever had. He’d start each class by opening his desk drawer and rifling through it for a Poem of the Day. He’d read it out, and then he’d put it away, and then he’d yank open the drawer again, and pull out the poem all over again, and read it once more. “Every poem must be read twice!” he’d yell. Sometimes he’d throw chalk. Then he’d spin wildly in his chair and point at someone, and ask: “What did that poem say?” I was terrified of him. He was the only English teacher I ever had who simply disagreed with your answer. He’d yell. “Wrong!” Then he’d swivel in his chair and ask someone else: “What did that poem say?”
Anyway, last week Mr. Moore sent me a letter. He’d been rifling through his desk—spring cleaning—and he came across a letter my mother had written him in 1987, just after my college graduation. My mother wrote Mr. Moore a letter? I was astonished. I unfolded it, nervously. My mother died two years ago and just the sight of her handwriting makes me weep. So I was worried.
“Dear Mr. Moore, You had a great effect on my daughter Jill,” my mother began. She wanted him to know that I’d finished college, that I’d studied English, and that he’d taught me “both creativity and courage.” And of course, she was right. He taught me those things. And, of course, so did she. And she taught me more: she taught me grace. Thomas Moore had kept that letter, all these years, squirreled away in his desk. He had
been a gift to me; my mother gave that gift back to him. And then he gave it back to me. That is the force of language: the gift.
So you’ll pack your bags and you’ll find an apartment and you’ll text your mother, “What up?” And the days will begin and the days will end and you will search for meaningful work and you will wish you had a better job and you will think about applying to law school and the world will turn. But remember to do admire what is worthy and to do work worth admiring. And give to the people who love you the gift of telling them what they mean to you, and give to the people who have taught you the gift of telling them what they have taught you. Language contains conviction. So give to the world the gift of your voice: say what you mean, and mean what you say.
“Come, read to me some poem,” Longfellow wrote.
My high school English teacher Mr. Moore was a great believer in committing poems to memory. He was a great believer in recitation. So am I. So I want to end by reciting to you a poem I had to memorize in Mr. Moore’s class, all those years ago, and that I’ve never forgotten. I whisper it to myself, on days when I feel I’ve lost my way. A poem is like a cairn in the woods, a blaze on a trail, a place to stop, and get your bearings.
By Stanley Kunitz
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
Let your changes begin.