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Songsters, poets, seniors, and of course, Class of 2018,

I’ve been asked to give a graduating senior’s perspective on Yale, and there seems no better way to do this than through its songs. It will be show rather than tell, letting Yale speak for itself, and with words far better than any I could create. It will give lenses through which you might experience Yale, since the lyrics will come to mind later, and will make salient everything which accords with them. “Everybody at Yale sings,” and many Yale songs go undiscovered by most since there are so many, with at least one being added to the official canon every year. Thus, I must share this treasure trove with you.

The best introductory sketch comes in “Eli Yale,” which looks as follows:

As Freshman first we came to Yale (fol dee rol dee rol rol rol)

Examinations made us pale (fol dee rol dee rol rol rol)

(Eli Eli Eli Yale, fol dee rol dee rol rol rol

Eli Eli Eli Yale, fol dee rol dee rol rol rol)

The group boisterously sings all the parenthetical text, while the narrator sings the rest, a gleam in his eye, working his way through a sort of undergraduate career:

Well sophomore year was rather hard (etc.)

But better Yale than at Harvard (etc. etc.)

3. In junior year we take our ease

As evidenced by Cs and Ds

4. In senior year we act our parts

By making love and breaking hearts

This song does not of course characterize every Yale experience, but it does capture many, since many arrive at Yale afraid that the work may be too much for them, and duly afraid, since Yale can be “rather hard.” Still, Yale remains a joyful place, since students are committed to college as an end in itself, which may include some amount of “ease,” “fol dee rol,” and “part-acting.”

Nor do most view academics merely as a source of blood-draining exams, but also as a place to wrestle philosophically, to unearth forgotten genius, to learn the human story. I find this best expressed in a one of the most recent Yale songs, “To Yale Alone,” the text of which comes from Elisa Gonzalez (’11):

To classrooms lit by autumn’s glow and mind

Afire. To find ourselves then old and grown,

Yet not to leave our youthful thought behind

Is victory we seek o’er age and waste

These lines capture so much of the intellectual experience, whose warmth may come either from an autumn doomed to end in cynicism, or perhaps from a fire which soothes and prompts us to confirm youth’s paradoxes.

Luckily, autumn has some good sides (in addition to beautiful foliage and lovely weather), such as football, or at least, football songs. There are even a lot of these, so there’s a mash-up, “The Football Medley.” Here’s a sample verse from one of the songs in that mash-up, “Whoop it up”:

Fight, fight for Yale!

The sons of Eli are out for glory

On! To the fray!

We’ll tell to Harvard the same old story

The cry is on! On they come

We’ll raise the slogan of Yale triumphant

Smash, a-bang we’ll rip poor Harvard

Whoop it up for Yale to-day!

These to me have always had a kind of Norman Rockwell charm, invoking images of posters on which Yale and Harvard are caricatured as David and Goliath, and images of students in scarves and sweaters filling the Yale Bowl, cheering with Jimmy Stewart accents.

Still, my favorite social time has always been nighttime, since those hours seem rich with breath of students past, and with adventure. “‘Neath the Elms” captures this the best:

See the full moon rising weaves

Robes of light o’er tower and hall

Through the slowly lifting leaves

Silver lances flash and fall

Since the workday has ended, and the sun no longer marks each hour, cares leave the goals of the week, and turn to the dreams of life. No time limits romancing, and everything becomes possible.

Of course, the Yale experience is not entirely unique, and thank goodness. For example, it seems as if moving into Cambridge University was very similar to moving into Yale even centuries ago, as we see in Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”:

The Evangelist St. John my Patron was,

Three gloomy Courts are his; and in the first

Was my abiding-place, a nook obscure!

Right underneath, the College kitchens made

A humming sound, less tuneable than bees,

But hardly less industrious; with shrill notes

Of sharp command and scolding intermixed.

Near me was Trinity’s loquacious Clock,

Who never let the Quarters, night or day,

Slip by him unproclaimed, and told the hours

Twice over with a male and female voice.

Her pealing organ was my neighbor too;

And from my Bedroom, I in moonlight nights

Could see, right opposite, a few yards off,

The Antechapel, where the Statue stood

Of Newton, with his Prism and silent Face.

Since his college has “three gloomy courts,” and since he hears chiming at regular times (albeit not of a carillon), it almost seems as if Wordsworth is moving into Branford.

I hope I’ve already given you some lenses through which to see Yale, and inspired you to look more into Yale’s rich song history. However, I must caution that you not use these images to excess, for while some memory of them can provide an enriching frame, excessive concentration can push out images of the more important part of the experience, viz. one’s personal experiences and relationships.

And of course, no tribute to Yale songs can end without a hat-tip to “Bright College Years,” though I insist that these years, though glorious, are not “the gladdest years of life.” Rather, no one set of years need be any less glad than any other, since Yale equips you to get the job you want, opens your mind to more of the beauties of life, and gives you the ideas with which to make sense of it. Let no dread of future pains soil your Yale, and “boola boola”!

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