Graduation address given by Professor Barry Spurr

Professor Barry Spurr, Professor of Poetry and Poetics, Department of English, University of Sydney, gave the following occasional address at at the 9.30am Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony on 6 May 2011.

Professor Barry Spurr

Professor Barry Spurr, photo, copyright Memento Photography.

Graduation address

Deputy Chancellor, distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, newly-minted graduates.

Early in the 1630s, the greatest of English poets wrote two companion poems with Italian titles, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. The first celebrates the active life, while the second contemplates the pensive life of the reflective person. In the course of that second poem, the poet becomes particularly personal and reflects warmly upon his university years, then coming to a close:

But let my due feet never fail,
To walk the studious cloisters pale.

The personal touch has led some readers to conclude that he is commending the reflective life over the active life, particularly as he was about to embark on six further years of study at home, with his generous father’s support, after graduating. Some of you today might like to put a similar proposal to your parents while they are in celebratory mode. Poetically and biographically, it would seem that the poet was preferring retirement from the world to involvement with it. Rather, in the course of the two poems (neither of which should be read without the other, but which co-exist in a creative tension with one another), he magnificently displays the virtues of both lives, leading his readers to appreciate that the life well-lived combines both action (including engagement with society), on the one hand, and, on the other, the consideration and evaluation of what we do and why, personally, professionally and as members of the community, in retreat from action in study and contemplation (which, of course, are actions of their own kind). As Socrates taught centuries earlier, the unexamined life is not worth living – and this is true for the individual, as for the culture at large.

A common misrepresentation of a university education and, indeed, of students’ time and academics’ lifetimes at university, is that it is time out from the ‘real world’ in a tower of ivory or, at least, sandstone gothic. An interstate university, mindful of this idea, declares in its current marketing slogan that it is ‘a University for the real world’, as if this were something innovative and unique, establishing a connection with reality while other places remain in a state of lamentable, chronic dissociation from it. One should not be too hard on the Queensland University of Technology, for the Concise Oxford Dictionary itself gives as one of its definitions of the word ‘academic’, ‘not related to a real or practical situation and therefore irrelevant’. Common to both the slogan and the dictionary definition is that troublesome word ‘real’ from such use of which the philosophical, not to say the ordinary commonsensical mind should indeed reel.

‘What is truth?’ asked jesting Pilate. ‘What is real?’ we may ask and how is it that the University and the education you receive therein are separate from it. This is not only a dichotomy which, as soon as you start to think about it, is meaningless, but worse, it would dismiss what a university (and, especially, I would argue, a Faculty of the Humanities), truly engaged in its work, is doing – the analysing, discussing and evaluating of all aspects of reality. I would go so far as to suggest that there is no place on earth in which the real is more comprehensively pursued and known than in the university. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said of the medieval philosopher, Duns Scotus (whose life was spent in the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Paris): he was ‘of realty the rarest-veined unraveller’. This is the purpose of a university, to probe and understand reality in all its forms and expressions.

But such probing and the conclusions that arise must be made known. All graduates in the Humanities should be philologists – lovers of the word, written and spoken - seeking, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, the ‘consent of language’ to embody truth and to communicate it.

In an inarticulate and verbally incoherent culture such as ours, where a veritable tsunami of misuse and mispronunciation of words, often because of etymological ignorance, syntactical muddle through grammatical ignorance, vacuous cliché, the circumlocution and obfuscation of risible euphemism and officialese in all departments of life in a society that is supposed to value plain speaking, and the simplistic misrepresentation of historical complexity in glib (usually dismissive) phraseology, often in the service of currently modish ideology, the need for clear thinking and accurate and compelling speaking and writing has never been more pressing. This is not merely a matter of elocution or even of the importance of speaking or writing correctly by this or that pedantic standard. George Orwell warned, as long ago as 1946, in his essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’, that ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’ and where foolish thoughts prevail, the people are ready for tyranny. This week we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of that book which, more than any other, has influenced the written and oral cultures of the English-speaking peoples: the Authorized (or King James) version of the Bible, published on 2 May 1611. Last month, a group of graduates of this Faculty and of the Law Faculty took on the world in Washington DC and won the Jessup law mooting competition against 500 law schools from 80 countries. Knowledge is power, it is said, but as both the Authorized Version and our brilliant mooters demonstrate, language is its powerful tool. Those who are unable to use language effectively and compellingly are disempowered, silenced.

What you have received, in reading for degrees in Arts and the Social Sciences, is not some decorative embroidery on the tablecloth of life, but the fostering of the ability to acquire wisdom and to communicate it. The University is, as Philip Larkin said of churches, a place to grow wise in and that growth continues as you go into the next stages of your lives, for their enrichment and that of the community at large.

I began with John Milton, so I will close with him. A few years after he wrote L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, and had had his lengthy postgraduate period of private study across a range of disciplines, he reflected, in a polemical prose work, collapsing the distinctions between poet and poem, artist and artefact, that ‘He who would… hope to write well… in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem’. As you go on your way justly rejoicing today, from this Great Hall and this great university, may your lives, too, be true poems: inspired, beautiful and meaningful.