Letter to Class of 2020 English Majors
“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquering”
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote these words in the late 1300s, about love, to open his “Parliament of Fowls” poem, but they have always seemed to me to sum up in two lines much of what goes on during pursuit of an undergraduate degree in English.
The time does pass quickly, or so it seems when one reaches the end of the degree, no matter how interminable some classes or essay-writing periods may have felt during your years at Carleton!
The “craft”—the skills and knowledge that you have acquired in writing, in reading, in thinking, in organizing and articulating complex ideas, and in learning about people from many different places and time periods as you read their texts––that does take “so long to lerne.” And there is always more to read, more to learn, more to write as you go through life.
The “assay” has been hard and thorough indeed. “Assay” in Middle English means testing of quality or character, a trial or ordeal, a test of arms, an exam or investigation, and an attempt or striving. All those definitions seem relevant to what you have accomplished here at Carleton. It is a hard testing to obtain a B.A. in English, to complete successfully all the demands placed on you by so many different professors, and you have done it.
You have proven yourself, and it was hard, and you should celebrate it. You are at the moment of “so sharp the conquering”—enjoy it! Enjoy the fact that you have triumphed over all the trials—intellectual, social, financial, and even epidemiological! Well done and Bravo!
I have enjoyed teaching you so much—your questions, your hard work, your seminars, your chats before class, your quirky comments on exam papers, and your sighs as you write exams or find out, yet again, that all your English essays are due the same week of term (sorry!). I hope you will take from your studies a thirst to learn and a curiosity about what people write, from all places and time periods, as you embark upon new adventures, whether new studies, new jobs, new travels, or new uncertainties as you figure your future out (which you will—fear not!). I will miss you, and I am so sorry we cannot gather in person to celebrate your accomplishment—or at least not yet. Good luck with the future, and stay in touch!
I include here, in parting, links to audio-visual files for two short medieval poems that seem an appropriate hinge between moments (and which may ring a bell if you took ENGL 2300 with me).
The first, “Messe ocus Pangur bán,” is a ninth-century Irish poem detailing the parallel struggles of a medieval scholar as he solves his intellectual problems and of his cat as the cat hunts mice. I have always enjoyed this poem, and I know many of the cat-owners among you do too! I offer it here as a nostalgic, backward-looking celebration of all your intellectual work and struggles with texts, ideas, essays, and words to obtain your English degree: https://www.asnc.cam.ac.uk/spokenword/i_pangur.php?d=tt (audio file at bottom left of page)
The second is a link to the thirteenth-century Middle English poem “Sumer is i-cumen in”, which celebrates spring/summer and new life––a forward-looking celebration of all that awaits you! If you scroll down, you will see an image of the manuscript and the musical notation it preserves along with, further down, a recording of a modern ensemble singing the Middle English verse. The multilingualism of the manuscript (Latin and English words for the music) and multiculturalism (serious Christian religious text alongside completely different secular celebration of spring and all the sexual urges that emerge then) have always appealed to me. You may also enjoy the slightly scatological discussion of whether this is the earliest appearance in English of the word “fart”—it could well be. As you know if you have studied with me, sometimes inhibitions about bodily functions must just be checked at the door when you read medieval texts! https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/periods-genres/early-music/oldest-english-song-sumer-is-icumen-in/
Most importantly, however, this joyous little medieval song about new life and new experiences seems a fitting auditory celebration of this moment of accomplishment in your lives as you move onward to fresh adventures.
With my very best wishes for your future endeavors.