Notes from my knapsack 7-17-14
Carved in stone, lost to memory
On College St. opposite the white wedge of Burke Hall, the gateway framing the stairs from the Fine Arts Quad to upper campus has two large stone carvings, quotes to the right and to the left.
To the right, the George Crabbe quote we discussed last time. To the left, a more familiar poet, if not a well known line. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his "The Ladder of St. Augustine," included the observation repeated here in Granville:
"The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight * But they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night"
Like its companion which warns against whining out woes when your own hands can ease your plight, this text reminds passing Denison students that if you want something, you have to work for it, and not just when it seems right to you to do so.
In fact, the full poem Longfellow wrote builds on an obscure citation from St. Augustine who tells penitent sinners that they, or rather, we can build a ladder to heaven from our vices if only we tread them each as rungs below us. Or less elegantly, let overcoming your urges be the growth that keeps you moving away from them.
If you were picking quotes to inspire both students in college, and for townies to see that their student neighbors were being inspired in the right way, this is a good call. "Don't party all night if you want to get somewhere" looks fairly grim, but when you let Longfellow say it, there's a ring to the advice as offered.
My son, when we stopped by for me to check the punctuation on the carvings before crafting this column, noticed less the exhortation than the orthography.
"Why are all the U's shaped like V's, Dad?"
A good question. I remembered asking my mother the same question when we drove past the Valparaiso Pvblic Library. It couldn't be because it was easier to carve a V than a U in stone, since you had O and D and S.
Turns out the reason is that ancient Rome did not have J, U, or W, so it was Ivlivs Caesar. Why continue that shaping of the letter for U today now that we do?
Because it hearkened back, or so it was once thought, to the austere classical values of Greece and Rome. In a town with a scattering of Greek Revival gems, it makes sense. But it was also a trend, back in the 1920s and 30s, to evoke the ancient world particularly in the service of citizenship, education, and wisdom in general.
Less charitably, it was an affectation, and marked an era now past. Toiling vpward is not evocative to youth today, assuming it was in the 20s.
The Denison gateways have two more mysteries for us to consider: stay tuned!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about mystery inscriptions you've seen at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.