At Least the Puritans Wrote Decent Poetry

Among the many frivolous things for which we are forced to allot space in our brains is the campaign afoot to change the notorious last line of the fourth verse of “Fair Harvard”: “Till the stock of the Puritans die.” The College’s goal for this latest round of self-defacement is “to affirm that Harvard’s motto, Veritas, speaks to and on behalf of all members of our community, regardless of background, identity, religious affiliation, or viewpoint.” I need hardly point out that virtually no Harvard student has even the vaguest idea what the words of the alma mater are, but the College has nonetheless brought every available weapon of Inclusion and Belonging to bear on correcting this imagined grievance.

Now, as an Irish Catholic, I have absolutely no interest in defending Puritans, but I do have an interest in defending good taste and common sense, of which the Task Forces and Committees around here are perennially bereft. In that vein, let us examine the “longlist” of possible replacement lines that the College has published for our consideration.

Six of the 20 options can be immediately eliminated for failure to rhyme; among these are “Brightly shining, ever glorified” (which also puts emphasis on the wrong syllables of words) and “Pressing steadfastly onward for aye.” The author of the second was obviously trying so hard to be Robert Burns that he neglected to notice that “aye,” when it means “always,” rhymes with “day.”

“Veritas be Thy Destiny’s guide” and “Veritas be Thy Ancestor’s pride” force the stress to the last syllable of “Veritas,” which is awkward. What is more awkward is the capitalization of “Thy” as if Fair Harvard were God, which it ain’t. Furthermore, “Ancestor’s” is majuscule and in the singular, whereas in the first verse we see “ancestors’” minuscule and in the plural, which is much more literate.

Speaking of literacy, we must wonder what the author of “And let Veritas—Truth—never die” thinks of ours, not trusting that we will be able to decipher what the funny Latin word means. Nor can I imagine how in the world Truth could die. Another line, “As True North guides our way from on high,” produces a metaphor purée: Two lines before, we were gliding on “Truth’s current,” so we cannot have Truth be both the medium of transport and the navigational gauge.

Likewise, “Like the sun’s blessed light in the sky” won’t do, for the preceding line is “Be the herald of Light and the bearer of Love,” which leaves us with a grammatical ambiguity in which both options are wrong. Either the proposed line modifies “be,” in which case the whole thing is an entreaty to be the herald of light as the sun’s blessed light is the bearer of light, which is nonsensical; or it’s “Light” and “Love” that are like the sun’s blessed light, which idea reminds me of the Teletubbies.

Then we have this outrageous affront to decency and civilization: “Be our haven that never shall die.” “Haven” features prominently in the name of the hometown of that safety school we are fond of beating up on the gridiron, and I will not suffer dog-whistles to the Yalies to be featured in Harvard’s alma mater.

Next on the block is the motley collection of 10th-rate philosophical hairballs such as, “Till the mind and compassion ally” and “Setting wisdom and justice on high.” I am not strictly sure what the latter means. The most likely explanation is that we are being exhorted to make wisdom and justice our priorities, but it actually sounds as if the author were talking about a toaster oven or a washing machine (“No, dear, set it on high!”).

Now for a few that are just plain strange, first among which is “For each creature of land, sea or sky.” I must confess myself unaware that a Harvard education directly benefits archaebacteria and the emerald ash borer. We also read “While the banners of Veritas fly,” i.e., be Harvard for as long as Harvard exists, which is silly. And somebody had the audacity to maintain the mention of the Puritans, doctored slightly: “Lest the hope of the Puritans die.” That might be inclusive to the extent that one need no longer be from the Puritan stock in order for the mission of Harvard to “speak to” him or her, but the hope of the Puritans was probably not very inclusive by the standard of “religious affiliation or viewpoint,” so it is probably ausgeschlossen to mention them at all.

That leaves five suggestions. “Till the end of the ages draws nigh,” isn’t bad, but it would make more sense to want Harvard to endure till the end of the ages actually arrives, which would make for a longer lifespan. “‘Til the stars cease to brighten the sky” and “Till the stars in the firmament die” are coherent, but the image they use is quite irrelevant to the rest of the entire song. The first verse, for example, uses “First flow’r of their wilderness! Star of their night!” That takes a general image and anchors it to Harvard, whereas the two proposals unmoor Harvard and let it drift to a general image.

Only two remain: “Lest the glory of Veritas die” and “Lest the hopes of our ancestors die.” These are undesirable because they are negatives at the end of a very positive song. “Till the stock of the Puritans die,” to the Harvardian of 1832, meant “Till the end of the world.” The spirit of the song is to go on boldly until the end. The two proposed lines, however, are defensive, not at all the attitude we want to impart on our graduates on Commencement Day.

In other words, I’d hate to see the entries that didn’t make the list. Leave the song alone and get back to figuring out why no one’s heard of it in the first place.

Liam M. Warner ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Adams House.

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