Robert Fagles, Doctor of Humane Letters, Honorary Degree Recipient
Saturday, May 27, 2000
Story posted May 27, 2000
Commencement day is a day of memories, of gathering up the past and gearing for the future. On of the clearest memories I have of college days -- Amherst College, in my time -- is the sight of Robert Frost, already up in years, reciting his unforgettable poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay":
"Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden Sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay."
As he said the poem, he used to wag his finger, not only to mark the cadence of the words, but to stress the warning that they hold for all of us. A warning of approaching change, inevitable as the Fall in the Garden, a warning that everything is falling off, we lose perfection, and paradise itself.
You are about to undergo that sort of change, to lose a world of gold. But let me encourage you to think that for every paradise lost, there is a paradise regained -- or at least the everlasting effort to regain it, and the effort leads in a thousand and one directions. Fulfilling directions, so long as they are filled with risks as well as then chances of rewards. You may be led to the courts of law, or the hospital wards, or the university, or the concert stage, or the hearth and home, your parents, your partners, and your children. That effort to regain a paradise or a version of it led me home to my family, I'm glad to say, and it led me to the classics too, especially to the world of ancient Greece, "the realms of gold" that Keats beheld in wonder. Here I, like many others, thought to reclaim a world in its perfection. And so we did, perhaps, but in ways that caught me off my guard. For here was Achilles, here was Hector, here Odysseus and Penelope. Heroes all, awesome, larger than life (my life at least), larger in their energies, their drives, their brave achievement, the language which they spoke yet larger in their suffering too, their capacity to endure. That, I suppose, is why I wanted to translate the Iliad and the Odyssey -- to enter into the joys and the rigor that Homer's people know so well.
Indeed the truest words I know about the Odyssey are those by Virginia Woolf, in an essay called " On Not Knowing Greek." "With the sound of the sea in their ears," she writes about the men and women in Homer, "vines, meadows, rivulets about them, they are even more aware than we are of a ruthless fate. There is sadness at the back of life which they do not attempt to mitigate. Entirely aware of their own standing in the shadow, and yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence, there they endure."
A perfect world it is, that ancient world, yet perfect with an unexpected twist. Perfect, that is, because it summons all our fortitude, our hunger for struggle, and in return that world provides the greatest gift of all. It ensure that we will be as Virginia Woolf put it "alive to every tremor and gleam of existence." And that vitality, even in the face of mortality -- especially in the face of mortality 00 is what the heroes to a man and to a woman, what the heroes savor, and they would have us savor it as well.
And you don't have to be an ancient Greek to hear them calling. Listen to Oliver Wendell Holmes, grateful, on Memorial Day in Keene, New Hampshire in 1884, for the fiery crucible of the Civil War in which he'd fought: "Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. IT was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing." And given its profundity, given the passion breathing in our lives, we should pursue our goals with all our hearts. Listen to Ecclesiastes saying in the line that Rev. Gomes quoted so eloquently yesterday "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."
Yes, the original golden world recedes -- as it did for Odysseus and Penelope, and for Virginia Woolf and Robert Frost -- but in some sense the gleam of your new existence is just about to dawn. True enough, nothing will ever be quite the same as it is today, but it isn't all downhill from here, believe me -- believe your teachers, believe your parents, believe yourselves. I will not resort to the old clichŽ, 'the best is yet to come,' but if not the best then surely a bracing, vibrant sort of life should life before you, one you may embrace as warmly as you've embraced the magic you have known at Bowdoin College.
Just listen to Edgar in King Lear, encouraging his old father, Gloucester, even in his blindness, with those great words of Shakespeare: "Thy life's a miracle. " The words I would pass along to you today, this day of leaving some shining things behind, yet also this day of bright beginnings -- looking fore and aft, this brilliant day of gold.
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