Poem of the Colleges
A long time ago, on a giant hill, once nameless, known in these days as East Rock, lined the fourteen great households of Yale before the founding preacher of that famous college-town. An urgent call had been sent; and an urgent summons they responded.
So arrived Berkeley in his red and white ermine gown, holding a mirror and wearing spectacles, followed closely by the green robes of Branford, and her majestic laurel. Next galloped, without horse, Davenport in his austere ash black-white minister’s robes; and trotting in his wake tired Pierson, bearing nothing but an umbrella against the ravages of the sun. Then barged in the philistines Ezra Stiles and Morse, reluctantly joint by the hip, well-fed of cheesed bread, and longing for the beauty which they lacked. Now sprouted Silliman from her acorn, with her trusty compass in hand; and now roared the red lion of Timothy Dwight, whom the rest were quite surprised he showed up, and even more so that he was invited. Onto the hill walked the masked Grace Hopper, who, when grumpy old men complained could show one face, and when grumpy younglings complained another. In a mighty, overdone carriage arrived boisterous Jonathan Edwards, recently returned from Italy, to loud snorts of justified derision. Then bland Trumbull, of whom many learnt his name for the first time in this meeting, slogged into line like an exhausted yoked ox. Out of nowhere popped the gemini twins Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray, whom many confused for the other, and spent days circling their labyrinthine haunts on the edges of civilization. Although many remembered the shock of Franklin’s rich uncle, who overtook the boy’s christening and deprived his progressive parents of the name. Lastly, as always, shuffled humble Saybrook with his golden cloak, and lion shield. His head bowed, burdened by the curse of a long history.
The houses gathered,the founding preacher paused, baffled, before giving his speech. He realized the immense anachronism before his eyes, that there was a college before him, not only named after him, but that there were colleges at all; this being in ancient times. He, unexpectedly, was determined to continue, compelled both by the linear nature of language and the author’s pen; leaving such a paradox to the scrutiny of future historians and critical theorists.
The preacher delivered this speech of tragedy and Herculean labor to the anxious fourteen gathered:
“The sand-glass of my life empties ever quicker;
The wintry leaves of our town fall browner and blacker;
The sun is lost behind looming clouds
I sense the lonely journey approaching, and rejoice with tears.
But before I embark on that last, and first, pilgrimage into the unknown beauty,
I must demand something of you my children, and tell you a secret.
That grand college, that holy seat of god’s mind, was endowed at birth,
of a glory far surpassing that which strikes the eye, or the ear.
A spirit, a guardian, an angel of delight, of light-hearted mischief, protects these lands.
It whispered in my drowsy mind dreams of a college when I was just a sapling boy.
It lead me here; lead us here.
Held steady the leaking ship,
as Atlantic waves and winds challenged the brave venture.
It scorned me for the unfair treatment of the natives,
with whom I was commanded to live peacefully
But in my haste and greed, resorted to violence.
Cursed me for this injustice against the soul of man
With the knowledge of certain death and a certain infamy
And even now commands me to speak, and consummate this last task.
The Great Spirit, the life and joy of the world,
The raucous uncontainable energy,
Who drinks to happiness
And cheers for goodwill
Requests a new champion, a new place to rest, among you.
Step forward, one at a time, and prove yourself to the spirit.
Tell of your history and your glory.
The. households, jaws-dropped, and feet unsteady gazed speechlessly, except for one who quietly stood firm.
First stepped forward boisterous Jonathan Edwards:
“ I came of age in a redbrick house, on a vast field.
Where the stars adorned the arch of youthful experience.
How often I lounged on a comfy bench near my door!
In the winter did we letters hang,
Not because we liked them,
But because we disliked everyone else.
I was once humble, perhaps.
But don’t you know, it’s oh so hard to be oh so rich
My parents often leave me gifts
The Great Awakening came when I popped a ball
And that irritated the whole lot
The despised rabble say I suck,
But don’t they know, I sometimes…
The Spirit made him silent, and cursed his name eternally. He was not worthy.
Then stepped forward bespectacled Berkley:
“Perception is reality I say
And I was first to talk of spirits in my day
But of this one I’ll have nothing to do
My lands are split in two,
And much have I still to accrue
In my youth I craved more space
Stuffed in tiny rooms, barely given a place.
I prayed and prayed and prayed
for my fortune to change
Lo and behold! My salvation arrived
Beyond an Elm tree, the next year I thrived.
So leave me alone in peace,
No joy, or happiness is mine,
Unless I increase the acreage of my vine
My leader left me for a better job
And now all I do is sob and sob
The Spirit pitied Berkeley and let him homeward go. He was not worthy.
Next arose Pierson.
“ My bunk-brother I see you’ve met
With whom I struggled to fit my cushion-set
But now I’ll tell you of my family
Who are too, too dear to me
My father is a pious man from Italy
Who declared holy war against etymology
My mother was a bitter coward
Whose hate in her notes flowered
Until we sent her packing,
To apologize for the white garbage she was tracking
O Spirit I am too weak
Have you not heard my chant meek
King of redundancy am I,
I am the eye of tower’d sky
Without style or grace or flair
Please leave me without despair
The Spirit quickly acquiesced. He was not worthy
Defiantly stood masked Grace Hopper:
“ I grew up under shadowy tower
Books from across the world I scoured
A strapping taxman loved me rudely
A serpentine path, his “Stairway to Booty”
From tower I moved to torture-house
Uncalm moon stained my rosy blouse
Until a coral man who was free
Smashed the glass of infamy
A new beginning I was given
Though Dad and Mom are unforgiving
And while many more bugs to fix
I’ll be wary of the insider’s tricks
The Spirit looked intrigued. But still found her lacking. She was not worthy.
Bland Trumbull, barely able to stand, crawled to give these words:
“ An introduction, I think, is needed
By the strange looks you all conceded
I am Trumbull; hermit of these parts
Caves and grottos are my haunts
A moment ago you met my sister
More popular she than this mister
At the bottom of that tower I peaked
Met three people, then cave-ward sneaked
I came here just for jest
For some sun on my pale chest
And to see humans in the flesh!
So bland Trumbull stumbled away, and disappeared into the earth. His unworthiness. self-evident.
Next marched imperiously Davenport:
“ Gruff, and bitter am I
To engage in such whimsicalities,
To address my anachronistic vanity,
I have a town and a university to decree.
But O author! I will play your foolish activity.
My house stands guarded by two moats,
To Witt, none may break the defence and gloat
Within my hallowed walls, a view to win them all
The trinity of towers, lined like perfect dominoes
The garden is of Euclidean symmetry;
A patron of my court knows freezing weaponry
My hall sparkles with one grand chandelier
Art himself writes on my walls, cavalier.
I would wager the Spirit like my comrades.
But that would the story ruin, a mere charades
The Spirit nodded, impressed with the character’s insightful understanding of the plot in which he was enmeshed.
Laurel-woven Branford leaped up, a faery spright and whispered breathlessly this speech:
“ I was raised in a magnetic home
Though I left it all for fertile loam
On the far side of a field I grazed
And much walking, and talking I was amazed.
I am now master of a lovely, large lawn
Whose vastness of life darts like a fawn
Once, I swung, angelic, from my trees
Until a traveler, careless, nearly broke his knees
And to cover my back from medieval contract
Resorted to extremes, and had the swing sacked.
Interminable conflict divides me and little brother ‘Brook
High gates have we to stop that accursed rook
Yet Spirit I must confess, the energy you possess
Frightens one like me, made for leaves to caress.
And so adieu! I will here no longer tarry
Rather to the shadows, with sprights parry!
The Spirit admired such goodwill. And bid laurel-woven Branford good cheer. But he was not worthy.
Then Silliman quietly, weeping took the stage:
“I came from a family once united, then bitterly divided.
My father and mother, good people, were orators.
A happy household full of happy children.
An academy we once were; a school of disagreement by nature
But, sadly peace ebbed out for war.
Two schools of thought, bitterly fought
And instead of marking common ground
As parley with a rival is meant to sound
Chose to label, chase and hound.
An infamous battle ensued in the garden.
The shouts heard ‘round the world
A mob, and a man, their hearts harden
Now we live in shadow
Debate dies where fear resides
And none is willing to ask
What the other side confides
Even out of goodwill and curiosity
Since they might be labeled atrocity.
Go on your way Spirit
I am one too drowned in misery.
The Spirit cried, knowing deep down that if her children did not learn disagreement on her holy, safe grounds, they would never learn so in the wide, scary world. Silliman’s sorrow was too great to be the resting place.
Shy Timothy Dwight segued the previous plight:
“ Ah poor sister Silliman I feel your pain
We are linked; homeschooled in the same vein
A long, long way have I journeyed, from furthest fields
To catch a glimpse of friends; some social yields.
I am sired of a noble family
Two prexies and one mentioned before
Bricks are the things I hold in store
And ceilings often crash to the floor.
I have no regrets, so far from friends
At least I tell myself this, over again,
So Spirit let me the placeholder be
Of your immense generosity
The Spirit was amused Timothy Dwight tried. He was not only exceedingly dull, but as the others suspected, not invited.
Then the rope-tied Morse and Ezra Stiles jointly rose:
“Our homes are wrought of rubbish masonry
Our architect hoped they would be hidden in a lee
That eery seer in his bed passed
Before finishing his monstrous cask
I, Ezra Stiles, moose of the West!
Dress in viking gear and pillage the rest
Tell me spirit-fool, what is more manly and best
Than to feign strength in an ancient vest
I, Morse, axe of some sort!
Should “Lipstick” drag to court
Or strike down the arse
Who created that farce
Together we split a grand hall
Athletic throngs feast all night long
And blessed are the stickered few
A counterfeit some tried;
A sanction they replied
So Spirit we demand your esteem
To look over fires of wooden beam
And bless our cheesy bread
From now, until we’re dead.
The Spirit openly laughed, at this extravagance. They were, in her considered opinion, babbling idiots.
Then the swaddling babes Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray wriggled to the fore:
“ What can we report;
Our history is short
Except. a comedy
Scaffolds sauntered, late, and slowly
A school hundreds strong
Outside in the cold could have belong.
That was all the babes could muster before drifting into a snoreless sleep.
So the Spirit seemed disappointed. Not one of the great households gathered deserved the spirit, and all the candidates had their credentials blurted. Crestfallen, the spirit began to walk away from the failed group. But all of a sudden the pitter-patter of light feet behind his back sparked a curious, insurmountable welling of fantastical hope in his heart. Could this be? Was this possible? Dare he do it? Before his eyes, before his very eyes, humble Saybrook, usually quiet and withdrawn, hunched over and forlorn, seemed to grow several inches, as he rose to the fore, his lion shield lifted up high, glinting in the blazing sun, and his golden cloak burning envy, and fear, in the eyes of his failed peers. And so once-little Saybrook roared these words:
“ When I say, I seal coward’s lip
Mighty am I, even my naked hip
Fiends were my founders
And fiendish are my minors!
I came of age by dumb old Bradford
He in lesser wing confin’d
Thought himself lord of lords
Cover up for tiny sword of swords
Celestial light was my delight
A young dashing spright
An idealist of keen might
Granted idylls of mystic sight
Friends of the king of all
Met a girl and had a fall
More hit, — sear’d knee
Not so fine a cosmic decree
Dodecagonal was my second dwelling
Me and eleven knights, Dionysian smelling
Caroused the night away, and away, and away
And lit the tower for weary nomads
A beacon of green for future old dads.
My father is a merry man,
Both far and near,
And here’s the ‘ting,
We love him dear
A beloved hawk my hall defends
The weak and unruly, away, she sends
Dutiful, faithful and unbending
A truest soul, in need of no mending.
Though a jinx hovers over my tribe:
Abandoned room, and killing scribe.
Dirty clothes which only get dirtier,
Bat an eye, and things get quirkier.
Though all this be true and more,
Here’s the teachings from my core
Have fun, be free, make friends
Everything all too soon ends
By these words I’ll make you proud
Naked as the babe, I’ll be rude and loud
Spur the lame, and roast the tame
I swear to live up your name!
The Spirit burst into triumphant tears, and decided instantly that in Saybrook’s breast she would eternally rest. Here was the champion she had sought all these years, and aeons!
And so, dear friends, it came to be that little, little, Saybrook the supposed mighty rest outbest. Good and nobility can be found in the tiniest of chests. Heed, heed the story. Open your heart, and love. And then you’ll never be the underdog!