The following is the text of the Baccalaureate Address delivered by President Richard C. Levin on May 25 in Woolsey Hall.
We began together. We met here, in this grand hall, sweltering in the heat of late summer. A thunderstorm kept you and your parents from strolling down Hillhouse Avenue to a garden reception. We scrambled instead to receive you in Commons, where, duped by a campus humor magazine to believe you were participating in an ancient tradition, you each handed me a blue bead.
You were the first class that Dean Brodhead and I had the pleasure of greeting, and you are the first class that we have watched, with much admiration, through four years. And now, your beads returned, you sit before us again.
It is natural to think of this occasion as an ending. This weekend you will look back with mixed emotions -- pride in your accomplishments, regret for opportunities not seized, joy for the friends you have made, and sadness in leaving them. But, even as you are looking back, let me take this moment to look forward. For it is not by accident that this ending, this completion of four intense and rewarding years, is called a commencement, a beginning. It is a beginning, the beginning of your lives as independent, educated citizens of this nation and the world.
To graduate is, quite literally, to take a step. Some of you are eager to take that step, to march straight ahead with a clear sense of purpose and direction. But most of you are still asking yourselves anxiously where the next step leads. This division within your ranks -- between those who have clarity about a future course and those who do not -- is to be expected. The discovery of one's true calling may come early. More often it comes late, and it may come more than once in a lifetime.
We are fortunate that many of our greatest writers have left behind reflections on the stage of life that now lies ahead of you. It is instructive, and reassuring, to compare the experience of two of the greatest English poets. They lived in different times and in a different place from you, and they had exceptional gifts. But you will recognize something familiar in the story of how each came to choose a life's course. William Wordsworth had a clear direction by the summer of 1788, after only one year at Cambridge. By contrast, John Milton, whom Harold Bloom calls "still the morning and evening star"1 of poetry in the English language, considered himself a late- bloomer. It was years after his graduation in 1629 before he began to show evidence of his genius.
Paradoxically, it was Wordsworth who was the more alienated from the academic side of the undergraduate experience. In his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, he tells us of his distaste for lectures, examinations, and competition among his fellow students. More in touch with nature than with his studies, Wordsworth spent much of his first year at Cambridge in solitary reflection and the rest enjoying the company of his friends. He had frequent melancholy, fears about his future livelihood,
And, more than all, a strangeness in my mind, A feeling that I was not for that hour, Nor for that place.2
That summer, back in his beloved Lake District, his epiphany came. In The Prelude, he recalls walking home at dawn after a night of "dancing, gaiety, and mirth:"
Magnificent The morning was, a memorable pomp, More glorious than I ever had beheld. The Sea was laughing at a distance; all The solid Mountains were as bright as clouds, Grain-tinctured, drench'd in empyrean light; And, in the meadows and the lower grounds, Was all the sweetness of a common dawn, Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds, And Labourers going forth into the fields. -- Ah! I need say, dear Friend, that to the brim My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows Were then made for me; bond unknown to me Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly, A dedicated Spirit. On I walk'd In blessedness, which even yet remains.3
From that moment, Wordsworth knew his calling. Looking back, fifteen years later, he wrote of his last two years at Cambridge: The Poet's soul was with me at that time, Sweet meditations, the still overflow Of happiness and truth. A thousand hopes Were mine, a thousand tender dreams ...
Those were the days Which also first encourag'd me to trust With firmness, hitherto but lightly touch'd With such a daring thought, that I might leave Some monument behind me which pure hearts Should reverence.4
Wordsworth thus emerged from Cambridge with a clear calling and the very great ambition to leave a monument behind. I cite this example, not to intimidate you, but rather to inspire those of you whose hopes and dreams have already taken specific shape. To you I would say: you can achieve what you have imagined, for you are better prepared than you think. In the company of so many talented classmates and teachers you may seem to yourself just another person of ordinary capability. But what you miss, and what your teachers see more clearly and delight in, is that every one of you has the capacity to make a difference in the world.
For those of you who are still formulating your hopes and dreams, the example of Milton serves better. Unlike Wordsworth, Milton loved his studies from the beginning, perhaps to a fault, because he did little else but study. He published only one poem before his thirty-sixth birthday, a tribute to Shakespeare. His lines reveal how heavily the greatness of his poetic precursor weighed upon him:
each heart Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book, Those Delphic lines with deep impression took, Then thou our fancy of itself bereaving, Dost make us marble with too much conceiving.5
Or, in other words, Shakespeare's poetry was so great, its impression so profound, that it turns Milton to marble, leaving his imagination to mourn its own loss.
Milton remained at Cambridge for three years beyond his first degree. After returning home to continue his studies at age twenty- four, he felt obliged to defend his "tardy moving" in a letter to a friend who had admonished him "that the hours of the night pass on." Milton acknowledged that his life was "as yet obscure and unserviceable to mankind," and he wrote "Yet that you may see that I am somewhat suspicious of myself, and do take notice of a certain belatedness in me, I am the bolder to send you some of my nightward thoughts ..."6 The beautiful sonnet that followed, published twelve years later, captures in its opening lines a sentiment that may haunt some of you.
How soon hath time the subtle thief of youth, Stol'n on his wing my three and twentieth year. My hasting days fly on with full career, But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.7
Despite the pathos of these lines, Milton did not regard his "belatedness" as a failure. The sonnet continues:
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth, That I to manhood am arrived so near, And inward ripeness doth much less appear, That some more timely-happy spirits endureth.8
Without bud or blossom to show, Milton was nonetheless confident of his own "inward ripeness." It took him another decade to conceive of a drama on the Fall of Man; it was still another twenty- five years before Paradise Lost, transformed into an epic, was published. Even then, Milton reminds us of his late development when he writes in Book IX:
Since first this subject for heroic song Pleas'd me long choosing, and beginning late.9
For those of you who have yet to fasten upon a specific direction for your lives, I cite the example of Milton to remind you that you too have an "inward ripeness," for this is exactly what your Yale education has given you. What you have obtained with four years of effort is precious and important. You have sat with some of the best teachers in America, and you have been inspired by their curiosity and their passion for learning. You have learned to reason critically, to hold ideas, beliefs, and experiences up to rigorous scrutiny, to think for yourselves. You have the tools to shape your own lives, to set your course, and to meet life's challenges with energy and enthusiasm.
I trust that you have even more than this. Yale has taught you that a full life involves more than self-satisfaction; it requires as well a commitment to service -- to family, community, and the larger society.
Your deep involvement in the extracurricular life of the campus and the New Haven community gives me confidence that you have learned this lesson well.
Those of you who have a clear sense of direction may at certain moments wonder: "Is this it? Is my commitment to medicine, or law, or painting, or teaching something that will never be altered?" And, for those of you who have yet to choose, the fear of lost freedom may inhibit decisive action. By comparing Wordsworth and Milton, I do not mean to imply that the choice of a life plan is made once and for all. Indeed, to bring the matter closer to home, we might look at some of the astonishing mid-career transitions made by Yale College graduates.
Consider just these few examples. A lawyer, class of 1961, builds a distinguished practice in the area of securities law, then becomes chief executive officer of a major manufacturing corporation. An entrepreneurial retailer, class of 1950, builds a successful business, sells it, and then creates and produces one of the most successful musical comedies of all time. A member of the class of 1984 wins two Academy Awards as an actress, then becomes one of Hollywood's leading directors. Finally, another entrepreneur, class of 1963, develops a pioneering travel business, sells it, devotes the next decade to independent scholarship, and produces a strikingly original work documenting how our First Amendment freedoms were threatened in the early years of the Republic.
Women and Men of the Class of 1997, early and late bloomers alike: It is time to graduate, to take the next step. Whether your course is now clear or still uncertain, you have prepared yourselves well during our four years together. Whether you are marked with outward confidence or "inward ripeness," you have encountered here great ideas, inspiring teachers, and extraordinary classmates. Make good use of the gifts that Yale has given you. Fill your lives with continued learning and devoted service. Recalling Milton's description of Adam and Eve leaving their first home: the world is all before you, where to choose your place of rest, and Providence your guide.
1 Harold Bloom, Ruin the Sacred Truths. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 113. 2 William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Text of 1805), edited by Ernest De Selincourt. London: Oxford University Press, revised impression, 1960, Book III, Lines 79-81. 3 Ibid., Book IV, Lines 330-345. 4 Ibid., Book VI, Lines 55-69. 5 John Milton, "On Shakespeare. 1630," in John Milton, edited by Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 20. 6 Milton, "Letter to a Friend, 1633 (?)," in op. cit., pp. 1-2. 7 Milton, "Sonnet 7," in op. cit., pp. 34-35. 8 Ibid. 9 John Milton, "Paradise Lost," Book IX, Lines 25-26, in op. cit., p. 524.