by Elizabeth Vandiver
Associate Professor of Classics
Clement Biddle Penrose Professor of Latin
May 17, 2008
It would always be an honor to be invited to speak at the baccalaureate ceremony, but I am especially happy to be given the chance to address this particular class, the class of 2008 — because I too came to Whitman in the fall of 2004 and have just now completed my fourth year here. Some of you in this auditorium today have been in my classes — a few of you in several of my classes; most of you, of course, I have not had the privilege to teach. But we began our Whitman careers at the same time, all of us arriving in a strange new place, wondering how we would do here, what we would learn, who would be our friends, what our time at Whitman would hold for us. It seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it — at the same time it all seems to have gone by so quickly.
When I began thinking about what I wanted to say to you today, I thought of my first Core class, and of the very first day when we launched right into the opening four books of the Odyssey. But then I found my thoughts turning from the Odyssey itself to Tennyson’s reworking of the Odysseus myth in his great poem “Ulysses.” This train of thought makes sense, actually, since my main area of research now is the sub-branch of classics called “reception studies,” which looks at how later authors and cultures used and modified classical exempla in their own works.
So for my theme for this speech I turned to Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, which reflects and refracts not only Homer, but also Dante’s earlier reworking of Homer. This poem imagines the aged Odysseus (or Ulysses, as Tennyson calls him) leaving Ithaca again for one further journey, one further quest that cannot be stopped or denied by his old age.
The poem contains many famous phrases, including its ending words: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” But the lines I want to focus on today are the ones in which Ulysses describes his reason for embarking on this last journey. He says that he is summoned to this final adventure by his “spirit yearning in desire / to follow knowledge like a sinking star / beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
If it seemed odd that I would take a poem written in the voice of a man at the very end of his life and use it to speak to an auditorium full of 21 and 22 year olds, Ulysses’ words tell you why I find this poem so appropriate for today’s occasion. A spirit yearning in desire to follow knowledge — how powerful a description of intellectual curiosity, of the mind that refuses to settle for the hackneyed, refuses to accept without questioning. In my fours years here at Whitman– which are your four years here– I have been struck over and over, and have been delighted by, Whitman students’ deep intellectual curiosity. At the end of my first semester, when I read my class evaluations, one comment impressed me most. A student in my Greek and Roman Art class said that “the readings weren’t quite hard enough for a 200-level class.” (I’ve fixed that, by the way.) “Not quite hard enough.” That student didn’t want an simple class or an easy A; she, or he, wanted to be challenged, to be pushed, to follow knowledge.
To follow knowledge includes risks, and can include loss, and it will come as no surprise to you to hear that Tennyson’s poem leaves room for many different readings, some of them much bleaker than the one I’m offering today. But here is where I want to press a little further my analogy between Tennyson’s reworking of the classical myth and your future use of your Whitman education. Any great text is multi-faceted; its meanings depend on an interaction between the “givens” of the text and each reader’s own experiences. This is an on-going process; what your favorite texts, songs, works of art, ways of thought mean to you now is not precisely what they will mean to you one or two or three or four decades from now. I first read Tennyson’s “Ulysses” when I was 14 years old. What it means to me now is not what it meant to me then; but what it means to me now is an unfolding from, a de-velopment (in the root sense of that word) from what it meant then, both affected by my later experiences and in its turn affecting those experiences. So it will be for you, with whatever texts (in the broadest sense) inform and accompany your lives.
And as with texts, so with all education; your education will not be — cannot be — static. We have not offered you a set of frozen and fossilized facts, or readings of literature, or data about the world, which you can now label “finished” and pack away into a box; we have, instead, offered you (or helped you to gather) a set of ever-malleable resources, which you yourselves will reuse and reshape throughout your lives. Do with your education what Tennyson did with the traditions about Odysseus; take what you have learned, refract it through your experiences, remold it, and change it — that is what your courses were for. The body of knowledge you gained here, in whatever your chosen major was and in your distribution courses and in the electives that you took purely out of interest — that body of knowledge, important as it was to grasp, was all along waiting for you to change it, shape it, and expand its bounds through your own intellect.
To follow knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bound of human thought – what you make of your education, your lives, and your world is beyond the bounds of all our thoughts today. As Ulysses puts it, “all experience is an arch wherethrough / gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades / forever and forever when I move.” The margin — the limit of human thought and human experience — moves forever as you follow knowledge. The bounds of human thought expand because of spirits that yearn in desire for knowledge. Come back, Class of 2008, in ten, twenty, thirty years, and astonish us (by then we will be as old as Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, or older) with the way you have expanded your bounds, and our bounds. Congratulations, and good sailing.