George Birkbeck Norman Hill.

Harvard college, by an Oxonian; online

. (page 8 of 26)
Online LibraryGeorge Birkbeck Norman HillHarvard college, by an Oxonian; → online text (page 8 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

outside the gates, but the Staff accompanied the Governor as
he drove in. One of these gorgeous citizens, anxious for the
honour of Boston and Harvard, and unwilling that it should
be thought that all this state was a mere passing compliment
to the foreign naval officers, assured them that every year
there was the same pomp. As they entered the College
grounds there was indeed an unwonted sight for the subjects
of a despot, — a great crowd and not a single soldier or police-
man in sight. As, led by a brass band, we slowly marched
in a long procession through the Yard and across the public
road beyond to Memorial Hall, the throng of undergraduates
and strangers opened of itself to let us pass, lining both sides
of the way. At certain points, where there was any "coign
of vantage " they gathered together and cheered the popular
men as they went by. The Governor seemed a great favour-
ite. Just before me in the long line was the Rev. Dr. Everett
Hale. As we passed the thronged steps of University Hall,
a young man standing at the foot, and looking up to the
undergraduates massed above him, cried out "Hale!" and
beat time for the "Harvard yell," as they all shouted: Rah-
rah-rah ; rah-rah-rah ; rah-rah-rah! — Hale, or rather,
Ha-al, for they prolonged the note. Dr. Hale lifted his hat
in acknowledgment. Just beyond, an absurdly drunken fel-
low bestowed on me as deep and as formal a bow as his un-
steady legs allowed. He meant well no doubt, and it was a
flattering attention to a stranger; but I did not think it need-
ful to reply to the compliment. As we drew near Sanders
Theatre — the Harvard Sheldonian — we passed between the
graduating Bachelors who, in cap and gown, lined both sides


of the way. They fell in at the end of the procession. In
the theatre they occupied the area, and, far better off than the
Oxford Masters of Arts to whom the same place is assigned
in the Sheldonian, they were provided with benches.

I was greatly struck by the difference between a Harvard
Commencement and an Oxford Commemoration. In both
prize compositions are recited, and in both honorary degrees
are conferred. But here the resemblance ceases. At Har-
vard the ordinary degrees are also given, the degrees for the
whole year. In Oxford, it is the distinguished strangers
alone who on the great day are honoured. Even an Oxonian
Bishop, who in that capacity is at once made a Doctor of
Divinity, is not thought good enough, or at all events great
enough, for Commemoration. In Oxford, far greater pomp is
aimed at, but owing to the unrestrained folly of the under-
graduates far less is achieved. Few ceremonies have been
contrived with greater art. To the triumphant notes of the
organ, the Vice-Chancellor, preceded by the Bedells with
their silver maces, followed by the Doctors in their scarlet or
crimson gowns and the two Proctors, enter the Theatre by
the great doors, which on this day alone are flung open. He
takes his seat in his chair of state, with the Proctors below
him and the Doctors on the amphitheatre around him. The
names of those who are to be honoured that day are one by
one put to the vote of the House, a nominal vote it is true.
" Placetne vobis Domini Doctores ? placetne vobis, Magistri ? "
the Vice-Chancellor asks in each case, he and the Proctors as
the question is put raising their caps, which they alone wear
during the proceedings. The doors are a second time thrown
open, and the Bedells lead in a second procession, composed
of those who are to receive the honorary degrees, each wear-


ing the crimson gown of a Doctor of Laws. The Regius
Professor of Civil Law takes them one by one to the foot of
the steps which lead up to the Vice-Chancellor's chair, and
there, in a Latin speech, proclaims each new Doctor's merits.
Each is welcomed by the Vice-Chancellor with a grasp of the
hand, and then takes his seat among the other Doctors. At
my first Commemoration, the Chancellor presided, the Earl
of Derby, and on Alfred Tennyson, among others, an honorary
degree was conferred.

All the solemnity and all the pomp of this ancient and strik-
ing ceremony disappear beneath the dull buffoonery of the
undergraduates, and the incredible weakness of the Univer-
sity. The Regius Professor's voice is drowned by silly out-
cries, and illustrious strangers are honoured — if honour it
can be called — in the midst of an insulting din. "Have I
done anything to offend them?" a learned foreigner not long
ago anxiously asked, when the speech in which his high merits
were described was overwhelmed by the uproar. I have seen
few more piteous sights than one I witnessed many years ago,
when an aged Vice-Chancellor, repeatedly raising his cap to
the undergraduates in the gallery, with beseeching looks, for
his voice could not have been heard, pleaded for silence, but
pleaded in vain. His humble appeals were answered with
jeers and roars of laughter. Men who could thus insult vene-
rable old age should have been hooted out of a university.^
How different was the scene at Harvard ! There was no state,
but there was perfect decorum — a decorum not once marred
by the slightest impropriety, the slightest touch of rude-
ness during the whole of the proceedings. Each recipient of

1 The Commemoration of the present year was conducted with far
greater decorum than any I have witnessed.


an honorary degree rose from his seat as his name was read
out by the President, who in a few words in Latin sounded
his praises. They exchanged bows, and the newly-made
Doctor sat down. Applause followed in each case; the
louder, of course, the more a man was a popular favourite,
but in no case was it prolonged. A little more ceremony
would not have been out of place.

Of the three hundred and thirty-eight students who took the
degree of Bachelor of Arts, only a few of the most distin-
guished were called up to the dais. To them were handed
by the President bundles of parchment diplomas, which they
distributed among their comrades seated in the area. Whilst
this distribution was quietly going on, the other degrees in
Arts, Divinity, Law, Medicine, and Science were conferred,
the recipients coming up in batches. As each batch presented
itself, the President, in Latin addressing the Governing Body,
stated that the students had been examined and approved
by the Professors, and like the Vice-Chancellor at Oxford,
asked for their Placet for conferring the degree.

The six Bachelors who recited the prize-compositions were
perfect in their memory; there was not in any one of them
the slightest hesitation. They had been carefully trained in
elocution. They spoke slowly and clearly. Their action —
no doubt the result also of training — was too monotonous.
There was a movement of the hand so unvaried and mechani-
cal that it added nothing to the force of the words. Perfect
rest would have been equally effective. They did not, as at
Oxford, speak from pulpits. Each, as he stepped upon the
dais, made a low bow to the President, and then, turning
round, an equally low bow to the audience. He who spoke
the Latin oration introduced first the Governor of the Com-


monwealth, to whom he bowed, and next the President of the
University. On each successive Governor an honorary degree
had for so many years been conferred, that it came to be
regarded as an established custom. When, however, Massa-
chusetts disgraced herself by the election of the notorious Gen-
eral Butler, Harvard refused to be dragged through the mire.
That year the Governor was passed over.

Inside the Theatre as well as outside, there was something
in the way of surprise for the Russian officers. One of the
young orators was, beyond all manner of doubt, a Jew by race
— a Jew, moreover, from the east of Europe. Here he was
no outcast, but one of the chosen people, one of " the happy
few " on whom high honour was conferred. Another boldly
maintained, in defiance of truth, censors, and the Czar of all the
Russias, that " the eternal and inalienable rights of man are
asserted everywhere." A third attacked the Government of
his country. "Out of the present political corruption," he
said, "good men have given up the field." No such speech
as that, I thought to myself, is happily ever heard in Eng-
land. The young orator insisted on their duty to return to
the strife, and to make political life once more wholesome
and pure.

In Oxford, at the close of the ceremony, a lunch is given to
the newly-made Doctors and to the most important people in
the University, in the noble Library of All Souls' College.
With a far less splendid meal, the guests of the day are wel-
comed at Harvard. The dinner is not under the management
of the University, but of the Association of Alumni. Judge
Story, who was its founder, had been shocked by the petty
jealousies which so often kept men apart who had been bred
in the same college. He hoped to do something towards


bringing them nearer to one another by an association to
which every Harvard man should be freely admitted. In the
address which he delivered, in 1842, at the first gathering he
said: "We meet for peace and for union; to devote one day
in the year to academical intercourse and the amenities of
scholars." ^ Every year, on Commencement Day, the Alumni
elect their President for the next year, whose chief duty it is
to preside at the annual dinner. This gathering of graduates
is far beyond anything known in an English university. It is
not to witness Commencement that most of them come, for
it is by the friends of the youthful Bachelors and by strangers
that the Theatre is mainly thronged. The former members
of the University flock to Harvard from all parts of the coun-
try, not only to meet their old comrades, in accordance with
a time-honoured custom, but also to vote at the election of the
Overseers. Of the eighteen thousand men who have gradu-
ated in the last two centuries and a half, more than one-half,
it is believed, are still living. Of these, from one in ten to
nearly one in seven vote each year.^ As proxies are not
allowed, the attendance is very large.

An attempt has recently been made to extend the suffrage,
which at present is confined to graduates in Arts and the
holders of honorary degrees. "It was not so much," it is
said, " the naked right to vote that was sought, as recognition
at Commencement, and a right to partake of the hospitalities
of the College, and participate in the enthusiasm of the occa-
sion."^ It seems strange that to all who have a Harvard
degree, this recognition should not be freely extended, and

1 Life of Joseph Story, II. 426.

2 Harvard University, by F. Bolles, p. 4; Harvard Graduates' Maga-
zine, January, 1893, p. 269. * lb.


this right should not be willingly granted. The Medical
School, however, is so loosely connected with the old foun-
dation, that it can scarcely share in its spirit. Having its
seat three miles away in Boston, it has no part in the aca-
demical life and in the social feeling. In Oxford and Cam-
bridge there is, happily, no similar local separation of the
students. Whatever may be their studies, they are all, not
only in name but in reality, members of the same univer-
sity. They almost all belong to one or other of the colleges.
To complete their education our young physicians and sur-
geons must, no doubt, go up to London; for in the small
hospital of a country town the "many shapes of death" and
disease cannot be thoroughly studied. It is a pity that in the
American university all the preliminary scientific instruction,
all the instruction which can be given outside a hospital, is
not given at Harvard. It would confer a double benefit — a
benefit on those who study Medicine and on those who study
Arts; for the mingling of men and studies is the very essence
of the training of a university. The graduates of the Law
School, however, are not under the same disadvantage. To
them, for three long years, the Yard had been their pacing-
ground. They "ranged that enclosure old" no less than the
students in Arts. Nevertheless, I am told that on the hearts
of those who, before coming to Harvard, had passed through
some other university, their first Alma Mater generally retains
by far the stronger hold. It might be otherwise were they
not only allowed, but even urged, to share in " the enthusi-
asm of the occasion." Then as the year came round, they
would help to swell the throng which from North, South, and
West, from the Canadian borders, from the pleasant shores of
the far-distant Pacific, and from the wilds of "vast, illimita-


ble Texas" gathers in Fair Harvard, "the home of their free-
roving years."

When the writer whom I have quoted above talks of " the
right to partake in the hospitalities of the College," he must
use the term hospitalities somewhat loosely. It could scarcely
be expected that the Corporation should each year feed a
thousand self-invited guests. Each alumnus pays for his own
dinner. The charge, viewed in the abstract, seems moderate
enough — only a dollar. As two o'clock, the hour for the
repast, drew near, we were for the second time that day
formed in procession in the Yard. At the head came the
President of the Association and the guests, and next the
graduates according to their standing. They were summoned
in their Classes. Classes and the strong Class spirit which
springs from them, so familiar a feature of American univer-
sities, are unknown in Oxford and Cambridge. Even at
Harvard, firmly as this comradeship binds together the older
men, among the younger generations it is dying out. "There
is no Class spirit at Harvard," a young writer says sadly; "the
elective system destroyed that long ago."^ Much of this
spirit was bad, and has deservedly perished. "The different
Classes," wrote Judge Story, speaking of his undergraduate
days, " were almost strangers to each other, and cold reserve
generally prevailed between them."^

Just as in the ancient English universities, when any mem-
ber of it is mentioned, the question is commonly put, " What
is his College?" so in an American university it is asked,
"What is his Class? " The course of instruction spreads over
four years, and the undergraduates are ranged in four divi-
sions, Freshmen, Sophomores, Junior Sophisters or Juniors,

1 The Crimson, June 23, 1893. ^ nj-^ of Joseph Story, I. 49.


and Senior Sophisters or Seniors. Each of these divisions,
furthermore, is known as the Class of such a year; not of the
year in which it begins its studies, but of that in which it is
to bring them to a close. For instance, at the beginning of
the academic year in September, 1893, there were in resi-
dence the Classes of 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897. The Seniors
form the Class of 1894, for it is in that year that they are to
graduate. The Juniors form the Class of 1895; the Sopho-
mores, of 1896; and the Freshmen, of 1897. In the old days,
the members of each Class, all following the same course of
instruction under the same tutors, being, moreover, compara-
tively few in number,by the end of their four years, if they had
not all become intimate, had, at all events, each acquired a
more or less accurate knowledge of the character of every one
of his companions. As, in all the anxious timidity of a
Freshman, they had on the same day entered College, so on
the same day, in all "the towering confidence " of a Bachelor
of Arts, had they bidden it farewell. Every year, as Com-
inencement has come round, have they revived the old inti-
macy and kept the old bond from loosening. Not only do they
meet in Harvard, but in Boston also they often have their
annual dinner. So, too, do many of the colleges of Oxford
and Cambridge have theirs in London. But in these meet-
ings of the American university, there is this touching differ-
ence. Each year the band grows smaller and smaller as
classmate after classmate passes away. There is no fresh
swarm of young men to fill up the gaps left by the veterans.
In the Harvard Graduates'' Magazine for January, 1893,
eight or nine pages are given to News from the Classes. The
Rev. Samuel May, one of the last survivors of that gallant
band of which William Lloyd Garrison was the leader, sends


in his report as Secretary of the Class of 1829. "There is
little," he writes, "that a Class of five men, all past the age
of eighty years, can have to report of doings. Yet, when that
Jive includes such names as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Sam-
uel Francis Smith, it will be admitted that it is not altogether,
even now, an idle class. The 'national song,' written by
the latter, has just been sung in union by tens of millions of
voices and hearts at the national and patriotic commemora-
tion of the four-hundredth Columbus Anniversary." Dr. S. F.
Smith is the author also of America, which sixty-two years
ago he struck off in half an hour to the tune of God Save the
King. "I had no idea," he says, "that I was writing a
national hymn." On the eighty-third birthday of his old
classmate. Dr. Holmes, he wrote, as Mr. May tells us, to one
of the Boston newspapers: "We have but one Oliver Wen-
dell Holmes, who is known and loved everywhere in the
English-speaking world. . . . Sixty-three years out of col-
lege ! The famous Class dinners, uninterrupted in annual
recurrence from 1828 to 1890, have been discontinued at a
public hostelry; but Dr. Holmes opens his hospitable doors
and spreads his table annually for those that remain. Three
in 1891, three in 1892, met in memory of the past, in recog-
nition of the present, and in anticipation of the future." The
Secretary of the Class of 1832 reports that there were only
four now available for an anniversary. Of the four, one was
the Autocrat's brother, Mr. John Holmes, "the best and most
delightful of men," as Lowell many years ago described him.^
The strength of this Class feeling is now and then shown in a
union for some good purpose. Thus, the Class of 1856 raised
a subscription of six thousand dollars (;^i226), as a fund

1 Letters of J. R. Lowell, II. 173.


for defraying the annual publication of Harvard Studies in
Classical Philology, while the Class of 1857 put up a window
of painted glass in Memorial Hall.^

When on Commencement Day in last June, the procession
began to form in the Yard, and the Marshal called out, " Class
1826," there was great cheering as a solitary old man stood
forth. How much that old man had seen! When he left
College, there still survived many a gray-headed veteran who
had fought in the Revolutionary War. The Autocrat of the
Breakfast Table was just closing his Freshman's year. Motley,
Sumner, Wendell Phillips, Lowell, Dana, and Theodore Parker
were schoolboys. He was soon supported by a veteran of
1827. Of the next three years, there was not a single repre-
sentative. From 1 83 1 downwards there was no gap. In the
Hall the alumni sat down in their Classes, so that comrade
sat by comrade. The Rev. Mr. Pierce records of the dinner
of 1829: "I set the tune, St. Martin's, the seventeenth time
to the LXXVni Psalm. I asked the President how much of
the Psalm we should sing. Judge Story replied, 'Sing it all.'
We accordingly, contrary to custom, sang it through without
omitting a single stanza. It was remarked that the singing
was never better. But as the company are in five different
rooms, it will be desirable on future occasions to station a
person in each room to receive and communicate the time.""
To go through the whole of the seventy-three verses of this
fine psalm, even though the singers were all in one great hall,
would be more than these modern days would patiently bear.
We were contented with singing only five. As I thought of
the old settlement of the Puritans, and of their noble resolu-

1 Harvard Gradtmtes' Magazine, January, 1S93, pp. 279, 322.

2 Historical Sketch, etc., p. 56.


tion that whatever dangers and hardships they themselves had
to face, their children should not grow up in ignorance; as I
called to mind that we were standing on the very spot where
they had founded their College, these verses sung by a thou-
sand voices of their descendants, removed from them by two
centuries and a half, seemed to me unspeakably touching : —

" Give ear, ye children ; to my law
Devout attention lend;
Let the instructions of my mouth
Deep in your hearts descend.

"My tongue, by inspiration taught,
Shall parables unfold;
Dark oracles, but understood,
And own'd for truths of old :

" Which we from sacred registers
Of ancient times have known;
And our forefathers' pious care
To us has handed down.

" Let children learn the mighty deeds
Which God perform'd of old;
Which, in our younger years, we saw,
And which our fathers told.

" Our lips shall teach them to our sons,
And they again to theirs;
That generations yet unborn
May teach them to their heirs."

There is a quaint passage in old Samuel Sewall's Diary,
which might not unfitly be read aloud at every Commence-
ment in grateful commemoration of the founder of the
College. On January 26, 169^ he recorded: "I lodged at
Charlestown at Mrs. Shepards', who tells me Mr. Harvard
built that house. I lay in the chamber next the street. As I
lay awake past midnight, In my Meditation I was affected to


consider how long agoe God had made provision for my com-
fortable Lodging that night, seeing that was Mr. Harvard's
house : And that led me to think of Heaven the House not
made with hands, which God for many Thousands of years has
been storing with the richest furniture, (saints that are from
time to time placed there), and that I had some hopes of
being entertained in that Magnificent Palace, every way fitted
and furnished. These thoughts were very refreshing to me." ^
When the dinner was finished the jugs of coffee were again
passed down the tables, and cigars and pipes were lighted. I
was surprised to see how few smokers there were, — not, I
think, one-fourth as many as there would have been in a simi-
lar company in England. The speeches that followed were
somewhat disappointing. As a stranger remarked to me:
"There was no scholarship in any one of them. They might
all have been made by men not educated in a university."
Had they been spoken by the representatives whom Oxford
generally sends to Parliament, they could not have shown
fewer signs of the scholar. There was no wit, and next to
no humour. Lowell has passed away, and Holmes was not
there. The President, however, spoke well. What he had
to say, he said briefly and clearly. His was a speech
which would have more than satisfied Carlyle. Had some
of the Professors been called on, doubtless an academic
flavour would have been given to the meeting. Mr. Robert
Lincoln, the son of the great President, when once he had
shaken himself free from his jokes, was vigorous enough. He
defended the Judge who three years earlier had tried the Chi-
cago anarchists from the charges lately brought against him by
a man high in authority in the State. The prolonged applause
with which Mr. Lincoln was welcomed bore testimony not
1 Diary of Samuel Sewall, I. 447.

106 HARVARD COLLEGE. chap. v.

only to his own worth, but also to the deep feeling of reve-
rence with which his father's memory is cherished, a reverence,
I believe, scarcely less than that felt for Washington.

Mr. Lincoln was followed by a Roman Catholic Bishop, on
whom that morning had been conferred the degree of Doctor
of Laws. He took for the subject of his discourse the lecture
which Mr. Huxley had lately delivered before the University
of Oxford. For a full half-hour he overwhelmed him and us
with his rhetoric. He told an audience of university men
the whole story of the death of Socrates, as if not only Plato,
Xenophon, Grote, and Jowett were unknown to everybody
present, but even Goldsmith's History of Greece w-ere a sealed
book. It was amazing to me how this rhetorical sermon,
delivered after dinner, — a teetotal dinner, it is true, — was
applauded by an audience of university men. I should not
forget, however, that when there are a thousand present, if
only one in every five claps his hands or beats the table, the
tumult is considerable. Americans, I thought, must have an
amazing appetite for hortatory rhetoric. Scarcely less amaz-
ing was it to hear in this " Godless University " a Roman

Online LibraryGeorge Birkbeck Norman HillHarvard college, by an Oxonian; → online text (page 8 of 26)