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Under Which Lyre

I matriculated to Dartmouth College in 1998, the year that marked the beginning of the administration of Dr. James Wright. I won't soon forget my favorite classics professor's description of the incoming president as a "gray ponderous mass" and a mere "steward" of everything that had been accomplished already, to mixed fanfare and disdain, by his predecessor James O. Freedman. I should say the late James O. Freedman, as he died last year of cancer, Dartmouth's first Jewish president and a man who made it his mission to restore the love of learning and individuality to the beer-drenched quadrangles. Freedman caused a lot of giggles when he envisioned the ideal Dartmouth student as someone who'd read Catullus under a tree. (Try Derrida under the influence.)

And whenever I think of that pretentious and overcooked image, I'm reminded of Auden's "Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times." Adam Kirsch, himself a Harvard man, has a characteristically fine essay on the wry subversiveness of the poem, delivered as the 1946 Phi Beta Kappa oration:

The comedy of the poem, and its prescience, lies in Auden’s description of Apollo, the presiding spirit of what he calls “the fattening forties.” The danger to postwar America, the poet suggests, lies in the soft tyranny of institutions, authorities, and experts—of people who know what’s best for you and don’t hesitate to make sure you know it, too. Auden gives a wonderful catalog of the things these Apollonians want to impose: colleges where “Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge,” with courses on “Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport”; poems that “Extol the doughnut and commend/The Common Man” (did Byron Price flinch at those lines?); even processed foods: “a glass of prune juice or a nice/Marsh-mallow salad.” In short, Auden is already predicting the dullest, most conformist aspects of American life in the Cold War years, the kind of prosperous mediocrity that gave the 1950s a bad name.

So here we're confronted with the wonderful set piece of an openly gay ex-Communist poet from Greenwich Village telling young Ivy Leaguers in perfect meter and rhyme, at the nascent Central Intelligence Agency's recruitment center, to damn consensus.

Dartmouth recently decided to eliminate one of its better traditions of allowing half of the Board of Trustees to be elected by the alumni while the other half is appointed by the administration. Now it's to be a 1/3 – 2/3 split in favor of direct appointments. Such are these reactionary times. A college doesn't want to be told what to do by the students it graduated. There's an Auden stave to describe this phenomenon as well:

And always the loud angry crowd, Very angry and very loud, Law is We, And always the soft idiot softly Me.

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