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COMMENCEMENT

Between Two Worlds,
Under the Open Sky

 

The first image called up by poet Seamus Heaney in his Commencement address to the Class of 2000 concerned the word unroofed. Given the unseasonably chilly, Irish sort of rain falling onto Franklin Field, it resonated.
   The Roman god Terminus, Heaney explained, was the god of boundaries—“of in-between-ness.” And he acknowledged that his own fascination with that ancient deity was partly owing to the fact that he hails from Northern Ireland, where the borders—physical and cultural—are highly charged.
    “The god Terminus crossed boundaries,” he continued in his gentle brogue. “His image was placed in the temple of Jupiter, at a place in the temple where it was unroofed, open to the sky—as if to suggest that [while] boundaries are important here, nevertheless, the unbounded, open sky is the condition which must never be forgotten.”

 

    Heaney—the Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence at Harvard University, recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in literature and a two-time winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (most recently for his translation of Beowolf)—observed that Commencement is a “moment of ritual separation,” a movement from the “relatively knowable and fairly reliable world of the academy into the wider world.” As a result, “there is a note of the ordinariness about every graduation ceremony, and even if the rain isn’t coming, there is a sense of anxiety about it, too.
    “There is a dream-like quality about Commencement,” he added, “but the veil trembles just a little bit more mysteriously, I think, given the year 2000, and a turning point at your life coinciding with a turning point in the era. Everything is volatile.”

    Reminding the students that they were “standing between two worlds,” Heaney suggested that after the ceremony, many of them would be photographed between their parents and their professors, “standing in that snapshot between those you’ve got to know in the new life, and those to whom you belong in the old life. Behind you is your natural habitat, if you like, and in front of you is the prospect of invitation and test. And whatever binds you is still there; whatever is unbounded is there in front of you. You’re in between.” He advised the graduates to “understand that the in-between condition is not to be regarded as disabling—not a confusion but a necessary state, a consequence of the placement between your early beginnings and your angelic potential.”


    Heaney then offered another, somewhat surreal image, this one set in a medieval Irish monastery whose monks were holding a meeting. As they deliberated, he said, “they saw a ship sailing over in the sky, going as if it were on the sea above them.” The ship stopped and dropped anchor, “and a man came out of the ship, and was swimming in the air, swimming as if after the anchor, down to the bottom of the floor of the church. And when he arrived there, the priest was so amazed that he began to hold and shake his hand and so on. And the man said, ‘For God’s sake, let me go, for you are drowning me.’ And at that moment, he left again, swimming in the air of the church.”
    For Heaney, that story was a “kind of dream instruction, a parable about the necessity of keeping the lines open between the two levels of your being”—the levels of routine and revelation, “where the visionary and the marvelous present themselves.
    “Those two images of the unroofed space above the god of boundaries and of the open space between the meeting of the sky with the man going up and down in the air—they have a lot of wisdom implicit in them,” said Heaney. “I share them with you this morning because I know that the University of Pennsylvania believes in opening the boundaries between all kinds of knowledge” and in the “larger community.”
    “You must move about [the world] confidently and freely,” he concluded. “Remember that the anchor of your being lies in human affection and human responsibility, but remember also to keep swimming up into the air of the envisaged possibility. And also, try to keep on finding new answers to the question that Franklin said was the noblest in the world, the question which he himself framed, and which asks: ‘What good may I do in the world?’”

    An hour earlier, Heaney had stood at the reviewing stand across from Claes Oldenburg’s “Split Button” on Locust Walk. He was flanked by Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66, president of the University; Dr. Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73, the provost; James Riepe W’65 WG’67, chair of the trustees; and the five other honorands (see sidebar, page 15), one of whom was former Philadelphia mayor Edward G. Rendell C’65, now chair of the Democratic National Committee. Heaney stood with his arms folded, smiling inscrutably, from time to time applauding the seemingly endless stream of graduating students in their color-coded gowns and decorated mortarboards, occasionally shaking a proffered hand, once signing a book of his poems thrust upon him by a student. As always, and despite the dreary weather, youth and pageantry and high occasion made for a celebratory blend of spirits.


    After noting that the students at Penn’s 244th Commencement “are either the last class at the University of Pennsylvania to graduate in the 20th century or the first to graduate in the new millennium,” President Rodin singled out one Dan Harrell, who arrived at Penn 10 years ago at the age of 46 to work as a custodian at the Palestra. Having already earned “advanced degrees in life,” Rodin noted, he promptly enrolled in the College of General Studies. “Thus began a 10-year journey in which Dan remained a custodian at the Palestra, but also became an assistant coach for the Penn sprint football team, an enterprising student in the classroom and a beloved member of the Penn community.” After hailing Harrell as an “authentic Penn hero,” she asked him to rise and acknowledge the cheers of the umbrella-sheltered crowd, which he did.

    Rodin concluded with a fable of a young man who told a wise man that he hoped to help the poor “as soon as the opportunity arrives,” to which the wise man replied: “Opportunity never arrives. It’s here.”
    “Graduates, the opportunity is here for each of you to do the amazing things you dream of doing,” said Rodin, adding: “Strive each day to make bigger and better imprints on humanity. The ground is opened before you. I know you will till it well.”


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Copyright 2000 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/28/00

And the Honorands Are …

Seamus Heaney
Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa. “As a poet, author, and educator, you have blessed the world with your elegant grace of expression and warmth of spirit. Your work reveals a wealth of sound, image, and metaphor, creating the lyrical beauty that defines your style. Blending the personal, the political, and the tragic, you have written some of the most mellifluous, luminous, and accessible verse of this century.”

Edward G. Rendell C’65
Doctor of Laws, honoris causa. Now chair of the Democratic National Committee, as Philadelphia’s “respected, accomplished, and innovative Mayor from 1992 to 2000, you restored the city’s sense of pride, purpose, and optimism.”

John N. Bahcall
Doctor of Science, honoris causa. Awarded the National Medal of Science in 1998, as well as NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1992, the American Physical Society’s Hans Bethe Prize, and the American Astronomical Society’s Henry Norris Russell Lectureship. “Internationally acclaimed for your work in astrophysics, particularly your expertise on the elusive, subatomic particles called neutrinos, you have broadened humanity’s understanding of the cosmos and enhanced our ability to begin ‘seeing’ the ‘dark matter’ that may comprise as much as 90 percent of the material universe.”

Mary Douglas
Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa. One of the “most outstanding, pioneering anthropologists” of her generation, her books include Purity and Danger and Natural Symbols. “Your explorations into the cognitive processes in cultures and societies have illuminated the principles by which
people order their world.”

Ronald Dworkin
Doctor of Laws, honoris causa. “As one of the leading legal philosophers of our time, you have explored and illuminated the connections between legal theory and moral and political philosophy …”

Wynton Marsalis
Doctor of Music, honoris causa. “You are hailed worldwide as the most accomplished and creative jazz musician, artist, and composer of your generation … In 1997, you became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Blood on the Fields, an epic oratorio on the subject of slavery. While your compositions, recordings, and performances have moved and delighted audiences, your dedication to teaching has made the beauty, excitement, and history of jazz come alive for millions of young people.”