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

Compassion furled.

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.

So Spirit!

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!

Writer, poet, philosopher