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Campus Sonnets

Campus Visits  / Campus Sonnets

April 7th, 2007

It is interesting to travel, but it is always good to be back home again.  I spent the last week visiting college campuses in the Midwestern U.S. with my oldest son, trying to help him gain some insight on where he might be spending the next stage of his life.

It was also a chance for me to see universities I had known in the past, and see how they have changed, as well as how I have changed in the twenty-odd years since I was a student. Certainly I felt (and must have looked) much older than the students we saw. The locations still felt familiar but the context seemed to have changed. 

This juxtaposition of strong memories of the college environment combined with a sudden feeling of detachment reminded me of the Campus Sonnets by Stephen Vincent Benét, published in Young Adventure in 1918.

It is a quartet of scenes, written in the first person. The first three scenes serve to connect you with the narrator, and with student life – studying late at night, arguing happily with friends, dozing off while studying in a sun-washed window seat. In scene four, the Great War intervenes, disconnecting him suddenly and violently, and he imagines himself back in daily campus life as he lays dying.  His real world experience with war was much different from the ‘clashing of silver helms’ he read about in school.

In the world and times of this century, we find little poetic about war. The conflicts that exist around the globe are not part of a Great War or a Great Cause, unless it is a war against chaos and entropy. We find ourselves almost in a war of definitions - of what constitutes terrorism, or civil war, or genocide, or what exactly it means to ‘win’ a war of attrition. There is always, however, great poetry in the struggles and suffering of the individuals –the soldiers and the survivors who can be equally described as heroes and victims.

We can only hope that some of this conflict is captured, as the War Poets of the early 20th century captured it, in words that break our detachment from what goes on in war a way that slickly edited pictures and prose on the evening news can not. While it may not be trench warfare, the constant news and casualty lists have had the same numbing effect.

As my son and I strolled through university campuses spread across three states, we saw no signs that a war was in-progress elsewhere – neither protests nor recruiting posters. Students went to class, argued, lounged on the lawn in the warming April sun, seemingly stuck in scene three of Benét's poem - oblivious to the past and to the moment. Then one day the wind and snow suddenly returned, and students changed from flip-flops back to to snow boots, from sleeveless shirts to parkas, struggling to make headway against the freezing wind.



Campus Sonnets:

by Stephen Vincent Benét

1. Before an Examination

The little letters dance across the page,

Flaunt and retire, and trick the tired eyes;

Sick of the strain, the glaring light, I rise

Yawning and stretching, full of empty rage

At the dull maunderings of a long dead sage,

Fling up the windows, fling aside his lies;

Choosing to breathe, not stifle and be wise,

And let the air pour in upon my cage.

The breeze blows cool and there are stars and stars

Beyond the dark, soft masses of the elms

That whisper things in windy tones and light.

They seem to wheel for dim, celestial wars;

And I -- I hear the clash of silver helms

Ring icy-clear from the far deeps of night.

2. Talk

Tobacco smoke drifts up to the dim ceiling

From half a dozen pipes and cigarettes,

Curling in endless shapes, in blue rings wheeling,

As formless as our talk. Phil, drawling, bets

Cornell will win the relay in a walk,

While Bob and Mac discuss the Giants' chances;

Deep in a morris-chair, Bill scowls at "Falk",

John gives large views about the last few dances.

And so it goes -- an idle speech and aimless,

A few chance phrases; yet I see behind

The empty words the gleam of a beauty tameless,

Friendship and peace and fire to strike men blind,

Till the whole world seems small and bright to hold --

Of all our youth this hour is pure gold.

3. May Morning

I lie stretched out upon the window-seat

And doze, and read a page or two, and doze,

And feel the air like water on me close,

Great waves of sunny air that lip and beat

With a small noise, monotonous and sweet,

Against the window -- and the scent of cool,

Frail flowers by some brown and dew-drenched pool

Possesses me from drowsy head to feet.

This is the time of all-sufficing laughter

At idiotic things some one has done,

And there is neither past nor vague hereafter.

And all your body stretches in the sun

And drinks the light in like a liquid thing;

Filled with the divine languor of late spring.

4. Return -- 1917

"The College will reopen Sept. --."


I was just aiming at the jagged hole

Torn in the yellow sandbags of their trench,

When something threw me sideways with a wrench,

And the skies seemed to shrivel like a scroll

And disappear . . . and propped against the bole

Of a big elm I lay, and watched the clouds

Float through the blue, deep sky in speckless crowds,

And I was clean again, and young, and whole.

Lord, what a dream that was! And what a doze

Waiting for Bill to come along to class!

I've cut it now -- and he -- Oh, hello, Fred!

Why, what's the matter? -- here -- don't be an ass,

Sit down and tell me! -- What do you suppose?

I dreamed I . . . am I . . . wounded? "You are dead."


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