August 27, 2010

Sprague and Clarke: Phi Beta Kappa

The Phi Beta Kappa Society honors excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. The chapter at Harvard College was founded in 1799 and hosts an annual literary exercise near commencement every year. On August 27, 1829, the annual address was given by Charles Sprague, the "banker-poet of Boston." Harvard also granted Sprague an honorary doctorate (though he never went to college).

Sprague's lengthy poem, Curiosity, pays homage to that unique human drive for knowledge. "It came from Heaven," an inheritance from the archangels when the planet was created, given directly to Adam. Every generation, in turn, inherits it as well:

'Tis Curiosity—who hath not felt
Its spirit, and before its altar knelt?
In the pleased infant see its power expand,
When first the coral fills his little hand;
Throned in his mother's lap, it dries each tear,
As her sweet legend falls upon his ear;
Next it assails him in his top's strange hum,
Breathes in his whistle, echoes in his drum;
Each gilded toy, that doting love bestows,
He longs to break and every spring expose.

On the same day 17 years later, on August 27, 1846, Rev. James Freeman Clarke gave his own Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard. He sets the tone for his own poem (which apparently was not titled) in the first stanza:

No high, heroic song, no lyric lay,
No lover's tale, shall win your ears-today;
A serious purpose claims the earnest Muse—
Our Country, and its Hopes, the theme I choose.

Clarke says that humanity has become "narrow, selfish, blind." Patriotism, he notes, is somewhat treasonous because the true aims of the Founding Fathers have never been met:

They framed our Union on the broadest plan;
The Equality and Brotherhood of man.

Clarke then roundly attacks the concepts of slavery and the hypocrisy of calling the United States a "free" country "except a Slave be fettered at its base!" Clarke's poem may have been too political for Harvard in 1846; he later wrote "most of the papers said [it] was not artistic."

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