Remarks made at the first TAMIU Celebration for Life
April 13, 2011
Today we meet to establish a new annual tradition at Texas A&M International University, a program to celebrate life. It is perhaps strange that we should only now, in our 41st year, institutionalize this celebration, for it marks what we know to be the most universal, impenetrable of all truths: life is finite, life is fleeting, life ends. Its beauty we hold in our hands for a few moments, then in our memories and in our hearts for the unknown time remaining to us.
We alone in creation know that we are mortal; our recognition of this fact has been the most enduring theme of art and of literature. The poets sing of human death in a variety of tones: sensual, tragic, redemptive. We will listen together to five poets who give voice to widely divergent responses to death, and then look closely at Machado’s poem which you have just heard read.
First, the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, who lived just before the beginning of the Common Era, sees death as a reason to consummate love. Don’t hold back because old people say we ought not, he entreats his girlfriend Lesbia. Let’s spring for love, now.
Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
Suns are able to set and return;
for us, once the brief light sets,
we must sleep one perpetual night.
Give me one thousand kisses, then one hundred
then one thousand others, then a second one hundred.
Nox est perpetua una dormienda. Not a fearsome pronouncement, merely
the reality as Catullus presses Lesbia for what Lope de Vega called “el dulce sí.”
Second, in the 11th century, Persian poet Omar Khayyam asks the most obvious question: How can we know so little about the one universal experience of life?
Strange, is it not? That of the myriad who before
us passed the door of Darkness through,
not one returns to tell us of the road,
which to discover we must travel, too.
Third, in the 19th century, William Cullen Bryant offers a philosophical stoicism, neither the passionate plunge into lovemaking of Catullus nor the dark mystery Omar Khayyam wishes to penetrate.
So live that when thy summons
comes to join
The innumerable caravan that moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed,
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
William Cullen Bryant instructs us to join willingly the “innumerable caravan,” to take our place beyond the door of Darkness. As for Catullus, death is a long sleep; Bryant says we should embrace it as pleasant dreams.
Our fourth example, not surprisingly, comes from Shakespeare. Hamlet’s pronouncement, like the three we have already seen, is rigorously descriptive, and becomes for him the source of courage.
If it be/ now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it
will be/ now; if it be not now, yet it will come.
The/ readiness is all.
For an unsentimental telling of the way things are, Hamlet’s words seem final. And yet I yearn to think of death as somehow embedded in the life I have known. As if in answer to that longing, Emily Dickinson offers what is for me her greatest poem:
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The carriage held but just Ourselves—
We slowly drove—He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess—in the Ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—
Or rather—He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling in the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—
Since then—‘tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity—
Meeting death, for Miss Emily, is a most civil experience; only slowly, at a pace death itself sets, do we begin to grasp what is taking place.
These five poetic depictions of death began with Catullus who, like one of our undergraduates, reminds his girl that death is waiting. So why should we? Omar Khayyam asks how it is that we know so little when this experience is the only one assured for all of us; Bryant tells us how we should behave at that tremendous moment; Hamlet coaxes himself to take comfort in inevitability; Dickinson imagines a leisurely carriage ride from her home, down the lane, and into eternity.
Antonio Machado, in the most profound eulogy in the Spanish language, lays before us the comfort we in the University can find in the moment of devastating loss. The poem, read to you by Noreva Medina, printed in your program, describes the death of a great teacher, how we students feel, what the teacher leaves for us, and how we should respond when we lose one who has shaped our minds and hearts.
In Machado’s poem, the teacher’s death is at first a strange, unexpected absence. We students only know that Giner is suddenly gone; the same bright sun that hints at his passing also lights the path which leads him away from us. We are not to weep; the teacher asks us to turn our mourning into work and hope. We must grasp life, for it continues; it is death and shadows which pass. And then the master’s most important teaching: “lleva quien deja.” One can only take what at the same time he leaves, what he has made. (This is another way of stating Cervantes’s famous dictum: Cada uno es hijo de sus obras. Each of us is the child of what we do.) To carry love with us we must have engendered it here and therefore also leave it behind. The same wisdom and joy which accompany Machado’s noble teacher out of this life remain in the lives of his students.
Finally, Machado shows how we might conjoin natural beauty and death. He describes the place of separation, the place where students will lay their teacher’s body: “los azules montes/ del ancho Guadarrama.” Giner’s body will rest where his spirit soared and where he imparted his greatest lesson to his students. The body’s mortality, its seeming separation from spirit, is finally negated as the master’s life and words become his unshakable and enduring presence.
We are part of an institution conceived to foster enduring bonds between teachers, students, and supportive staff. Those bonds are forged in a protected environment of stunning beauty. For us, the University becomes a vessel to preserve what we were and what we hoped to have been or to have seen. The University continues, even as we fade away. But the teachings we share—the power of what is taught, the deep attachment to a brightly lit future—defines the teacher and his or her students forever.
Tonight we remember all who have been here and have gone ahead of us “por una senda clara,” down that bright path. Some were like Francisco Giner de los Ríos, the master capable of forming a generation. Some were like Machado, students transformed who then, unexpectedly, left our presence carrying that spirit, that light. Some were members of a staff who made possible, by their encouragement and support, an optimal venue for learning. That intense bond, teacher and student and learning community, is unique to the University. The memory of that bond sustains us today and gives us, like Hamlet, the courage to act, to persevere in lives of hard work and of hope.
Machado comforts us in the seamless beauty of student, teacher, community, place. This is not the door of Darkness. He remembers the wind’s song, the golden butterflies, the fields of thyme as his teacher spoke. For you and for me and for all who come to this place, the dove and the deer, the shaded walks and majestic buildings, remain ready to stir life anew within us. Teachers and staff, here, at Texas A&M International University, will continue to show our students how and what best to dream. We will return. We will allow the reawakening of our hearts. We will remember them. We will.