Probably the first thing anybody should know about the history of the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry is that there isn't any history. The official history of Harvard by Samuel Eliot Morison doesn't contain a single word about the lectureship. That's because it was founded too recently, in 1926, and for Harvard any event in the twentieth century isn't distant enough to be historical. Even E.J. Kahn's popular work, Harvard, Through Change and Through Storm, fails to mention the Norton lectures. And the Harvard archives doesn't contain a great deal of material on the subject either. It was as collection of the manuscripts and most of the posters announcing the dates and times of the various lectures and an admission ticket from the Bernstein lecture. But aside from a few newspaper clippings, and about 20 copes of the same program from the first lecture given by Aaron Copland in 1952, there's nothing.
The Harvard alumni magazine had a smattering of notices through the years announcing the coming lectureship, but there's hardly anything to be found there either.
Charles Chauncey Stillman, Class of 1898, gave the University a $200,000 bequest in 1925 with the idea of founding the chair. According to the terms of the gift, the University was to choose each year "without limits of nationality, from men of high distinction and preferably of international reputation," a lecturer on poetry. But this didn't mean poetry in the narrow sense of verse, meter and rhyme. The bequest explicitly states that "Poetry shall be interpreted in the broadest sense, including, together with Verse, all poetic expression in Language, Music, or the Fine Arts, under which term Architecture may be included."
The Chair was named after Charles Eliot Norton, Class of 1846, one of the first lecturers on Fine Arts in the University, appointed Professor of the History of Art in 1875. Norton was something of a renaissance man: aside from his scholarship in Fine Arts, he was one of the founders of Atlantic magazine, a translator of Dante (eventually he taught the first course on Dante at Harvard), and a pioneer in classical archaeology.
The Stillman donation finally gave Norton the public commemoration he so richly deserved, and it also furthered the study of his wide interests in the humanities. According to the bequest, the Chair is supposed to alternate each year between "the various literatures" in one group and the Fine Arts and Music in another. Each year an ad hoc committee of five is appointed by Harvard's president to decide on the following year's visiting professor. Four members, three of whom are associated with the group in whose field the lectureship falls that year, and one from the other group, are chosen from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The fifth member of the committee must come from out of state. Apparently, this was Stillman's unusual method of assuring that the appointment would be a man "of international reputation." To make doubly sure that the Chair would attract the most eminent scholars of the world, the bequest states that the Norton professor be given "the maximum salary of a full professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard."
The committees down through the years have usually been successful in appointing important artists and scholars, including T.S. Eliot '10, Edwin Muir, e.e. cummings '10, and Octavio Paz literature; Edwin Panovsky and Laurence Binyon in fine arts; R. Buckminster Fuller in architecture; and Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky in music. But the committee has also been turned down. It tried to get W.H. Auden one year but he couldn't come. It seems that Auden wanted to come, but he was headed in the opposite direction, toward England. Edmund Wilson also turned down the Norton Chair, apparently because he didn't like lecturing to big crowds. Others have been asked to become Norton professors and turned it down, but they're still living and ostensibly still up for consideration.
Once a visiting professor for the Norton Chair of Poetry has been chosen, his appointment lasts one year and he must give six lectures "not previously printed or delivered in public." The lecturer must turn over his manuscript to Harvard for publication, usually by Harvard University Press. But in the past, not all the lecturers have handed in their manuscripts. Robert Frost's manuscript for his 1936 Norton lectures. "The Renewal of Words," can't be found in the Harvard archives, and apparently he never turned one in, probably because most of his lectures were extemporaneous in his second lecture he dispelled rumors that he had left Harvard (he attended for two years: 1897-1899) because he couldn't write the English daily theme requirement. Nevertheless, he said, "I wouldn't be caught writing daily themes...they fail to reproduce the dramatic tones found life," and he must have felt the same way about his lectures.
Altogether, five manuscripts weren't collected or printed, including Thorn ton Wilder's lecturers for 1950-51. "The American Literature." Unlike the gregarious Frost, Wilder was supposed to have prepared his lectures very carefully. But despite the large amount of time he put into them, the novelist/playwright was reluctant to publish a critical work.
Among some of the more famous lectures. T.S. Eliot's "The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism," delivered in 1932-33, stands as an important work in the field of English criticism. Where his appointment to the chair was announced, the Harvard Alumni magazine hailed him as a great poet who WA "original with the only originality that counts, that which has a profound conservative basis..." Eliot makes an interesting remark in his 1964 preface to the published lectures. Of his earlier essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," continually applauded and sometimes used as propaganda by conservative English departments trying to dictate classical educations, he says it was "perhaps the most juvenile." Harry Levi '33, Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature, saw Eliot speak when Levin was an undergraduate, and he's seen many of the Norton lectures since then. When asked which lecture meant the most to him, he said that Edwin Panovsky's presentation. "Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character," given in 1947-48, was "most stimulating, a brilliant exposition of art history using the history of art to illustrate the history of ideas," Levin also said that Panovsky was an "electrifying scholar" at the podium.
Levin said the Norton lectures are valuable because they get practitioners in the arts to set out their theories. Igor Stravinsky's lectures in 1939-40 on "The Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons" are strong examples; they're the only lectures to be given in a foreign language, French, Aaron Copland was the Norton lecturer in 1951-52 with "Music and Imagination." And in 1956-57 the painter Ben Shahn not only gave "exceptional lectures" on "The Shapes of Content" but he set up a studio in the basement of the Fogg museum, where he allowed students to watch him at work. Sometimes he helped them with their own. Four years before Shahn, e.e. cummings came to Harvard to present what have to be the most bizarre Norton lectures ever given: "i, six nonlectures." As with cumming's poetry, they're impossible to describe, but they seem to be autobiographical, spiced with some of cumming's favorite poems in world literature. Cummings explained his nonlectures this way: "while a genuine lecturer must obey the the rules of mental decency, and clothe his personal idiosyncrasies in collectively acceptable generalities, an authentic ignoramus remains quite indecently free to speak as he feels. This prospect cheers me...since I can't tell you what I know (or rather what I don't know there's nothing to prevent me from trying to tell you who I am."
Since the inception of the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry in 1925, there have been 35 lecturers; there were 13 years when no lectures were given. During and after World War II, the lectures were cancelled for six years; other cancellations were necessary because there weren't enough funds. Even though there was $562,000 in the endowment as of last June (more than twice the amount of the original gift), the interest of roughly $25,000 per year doesn't provide for the maximum salary of a full professor of the Faculty and for other costs incurred by the lectureship. Letting the principal lie fallow for a year seems to provide enough money for the present. But if expenses continue to rise, the Norton Chair of Poetry may suffer from even longer interludes between lectures. It seems that economic imperatives are constantly working against education, and especially against the humanities where the gains are intangible, not measurable in economic or material terms. And if the maximum salaries of Faculty professors continue to rise, as they will if Harvard wants to continue to attract the best scholars, it looks as though a dark cloud hangs over the already mist-shrouded history of the Norton chair.