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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1867 Letter

David R. Breed

Delivered: June 16, 1917

Before beginning my narration
Of days of “Auld Lang Syne”
Perhaps a simple explanation
Should properly be mine.

For something very strange befell me,
This anniversary time,
So strange as simply to compel me
To do the thing in rhyme.

You see in days that long have vanished
A muse I seemed to own,
Whom, at a later day, I banished
To regions all unknown.

I came to think no more about her,
Her inspiration ceased,
I got on very well without her,
The more as years increased.

But when she heard I was expected
To reminisce today
My ancient muse, so long neglected,
Came straggling ‘round my way.

She seemed the little bit disconcerted,
And for a time kept still,
Much like a sweetheart when deserted,
Against her own sweet will.

At length with curious indirection
She timidly began,
I could not guess on what projection
Her intimation ran

“I hear you’re going back to College,
She said. “I am,” said I;
“Where you acquired your store of knowledge.
Some 50 years gone by.”

What should I in my agitation
From the old girl receive?
I wondered what in all creation
She might have up her sleeve.

She saw that I was quite embarrassed
And she became more bold,
My memory then she sorely harassed
With stories all too old.

“Perhaps, my boy, you may remember
That in those days,” said she.
“Your courtship of your muse was tender
And her response was free.”

“You were appointed College poet,”
I gave a tardy nod;
“I’m glad,” she said, “to find you know it
When I your memory prod.”

“Washington’s Birthday, 66 —
You did the rhyming then;”
I saw she had me in a fix
And nodded yet again.

“And when the Junior Ex. arrived,
Only a few months later,
Another poem you contrived
To serve your Alma Mater.”

Some other things she called to mind,
All in the same direction,
But not an answer could I find
Nor stand her close inspection.

I saw it all and knew at last,
My muse’s insecution,
Which she perceiving straightway passed
Right on to her conclusion.

“And now you’re going back to Clinton,
An old man, as you think
Permit me, then, to give a hint on
The years you cannot blink.

“Just be a college boy again,
Lock arms with me once more,
And speak in a poetic strain,
Just as you did of yore. 

“T’will do them good, and all the boys
You knew will be agreed;
They’ll hear the old familiar voice
And say, “that’s just like Breed.”

I said, “I’d like to be again
Dave Breed of College Hill.”
She said, “Well, will you do it then?”
And I replied, “I will.”

And so, with these my classmates here,
The rolling hills stand still,
And scenes of old again appear
As when we climbed the Hill.

**********

Clinton was then a sweet sequestered place,
Whose sylvan beauty naught did yet deface,
The verdant valley, girt by towering hills,
The sun-bright stream, the many bubbling rills,
The quiet streets o’er arched by splendid trees,
The homes that spake of dignity and ease —
All, all conspired to constitute a scene
Fair beyond words — incomparably serene.
But this its chief preeminence created —
It was a place to learning consecrated.
Schools flourished here, and shed their fragrance round
Like roses growing in congenial ground.
Schools for young women; schools for boys and men,
A full half-dozen here they numbered then.
I might alliterate some names upon —
Houghton and Holbrook and old Hamilton.

If Plato’s ghost e’er walked this mundane sphere,
No doubt his favorite promenade was here.
A new Academy, but still devoted
To that fine culture for which Greece was noted.
Here was a stream as bright and clear withal
As that which flowed near Athens’ classic wall.
Here there were groves of dense and cool as those
Wherein he sought the spirit’s sweet repose.
Essayed its secret mysteries to scan
And pierce the depths of the internal man.
Surely his ghost could not afford to miss us
If e’er it left over the banks of sweet Cephissus.
O cultured Clinton! How enchantment rules
Over the memories of those ancient schools!
In recreation hour and holiday
The streets were thronged with learning’s bright array.
Young men and women all the sidewalks skirting —
Oh, boys! What times those were for secret flirting!
While guardian teachers winked at our contrivance
With secret hearts full given to connivance.

And when, as happened about once a year,
The astral students from the Sem. appear,
And those sweet Houghton girls came up the slope
To view the stars through Peters’ telescope.
How many fellows, wild with joy and hope,
Planned to cut short engagements and elope!

And at the old Stone Church how we attended,
Our minds instructed and our morals mended,
Meanwhile, despite a little harmless raillery,
Ogling the damsels in the other gallery,
Yes; more than one — if I the truth may state —
At some such service met his happy fate.
Yes; I was there, as regular as a clock,
And she was there in her enchanting frock.
And when she cast a side-glance where I sat,
Something beneath my vest when pitapat!
The years have flown; I make a full confession
And praise the Lord she still is my possession.

Time rushes on; changes so great ensue
‘Tis hard to paint the Clinton that we knew.
The boys today would deem it quite primeval,
Could they but share our memory’s upheaval.
There was the mill-dam and the fine old mill,
I do not know but it is standing still,
And as we passed to town or coming home
We heard the great wheel roar and saw the foam.
There stood the miller in the door,
His garments whitened with the flying flour.
We knew him well, we boys of ’67,
We used his grist, when it was mixed with leaven.
But better still, his son, with fine ambition,
Entered our class and shared our erudition.

The old canal! Oh yes! ‘Twas then in action!
The gaudy boat; the lazy mule for traction,
The barefoot driver trailing at his heels,
Who knows no mercy nor compassion feels.
His grip upon the towline ne’er released
An extra drag upon the poor old beast
Upon the deck the yawning captain stands,
Or rather sits — the tiller in his hands;
In ease supreme he drones the hours away,
Snubbing along at 20 miles a day.
Such were the means of travel in that age,
We ’67ers came on by that stage.
Now let no pampered student of today,
Cast any slur upon the good old way;
Nor let him, when I say it, be surprised —
With all the schemes that men have since devised —
The only way to journey sans reproach
Is by the old historic Concord coach.
Dating far back to times almost unknown
It has a rare distinction all its own;
The aristocrat of all that move on wheels,
With pride the lineage such as Kaiser feels.
Upon the grand old thorough brace it swings
With cold contempt for cantilever springs.
A rolling cradle, and we sweep away
Rocked in the bosom of the broad highway.

From those exalted seats upon the roof,
We seem from the ignoble crowd aloof,
And in our lofty station seem to see
A badge of our superiority,
While the fair vistas over hill and dale,
Refresh our spirits and our eyes regale.
And what a man that coachman seems to be!
The swellest snob in all the country, he.
Right out of Dickens does he come to drive us —
The shade of Tony Weller redivivus.
His four-in-hand he guides with matchless art,
Cracks his long lash and makes the leaders smart,
Admired by all the kids, wherever born,
Who rush to see him when he blows his horn.
The pride of all in homespun or in linen,
On easy terms with 20 miles of women.
Yes; we came out from Utica by stage.
I’m glad we did, ‘twas worth a whole year’s wage,
And sadly may the boys today deplore
That the old-fashioned stagecoach is no more.

But after all not for the stage we rue it,
But for those four fine chargers harnessed to it.
The passing of the horse! Alas! What desolation!
The noblest beast in all the dumb creation!
Man’s truest friend! What glowing tribute serves
To give him all the glory he deserves?
How many stories gather round his name;
How many poems magnify his fame.
Will not the future singers all be dumb
When the poor horse has gone to kingdom come?
Where will they find a subject half so noble?
You can’t write poetry on an automobile.
For when we leave the things as wood and steel,
Emotion strangles in their cold embrace
And Inspiration hides her silent face.

‘Tis said there’s no great loss without some gain; 
I would the terms reverse and this maintain —
With special reference to our friend the “hoss” —
There’s no small gain without enormous loss.
For when, think you, posterity will hear
Of such a ride as that of Paul Revere?
Urging his steed to rouse the sleeping people,
While the bright beacon shines from the old North steeple?
Sheridan’s ride? Why, they will scarce believe it;
His army caught, he hurrying to relieve it;
‘Twill seem archaic, like the ark and Noah,
His furious gallop up the Shenandoah!
There’ll be no poetry when the news is sent
By mounted couriers from Aix to Ghent.
Lord Lovell ne’er again in mournful state,
Will comb his milk-white steed by castle-gate;
No! When my lord bethinks him to get busy,
He’ll turn the crank and start his old tin Lizzy;
Off, down the road his rattling gears will grind,
And leave a stench of noxious gas behind!

Well, to return. We boys our entrance made.
Like Poland’s warriors — “few but undismayed.”
Facing the villagers, the girls, the profs
Showing a stern defiance to the sophs.
Needing a friend at court our part to take—
And finding one in good Saint Peter — Blake.

We jumped right in, heroic to the brim
Learning the ways as puppies learn to swim.
But here I think ‘tis time to change the metre
And pass to other magnates than Saint Peter.

**********

The faculty then; what we suffered from them
It would take a long time to discuss;
But my head would be hoary eye I told the story
Of all that they suffered from us.

Let me pass those old worthies in partial review,
Whom we met when we came that September;
But only to mention, as worth your attention
The things you most likely remember.

There was Prex to begin with, and what do we see
He is driving that fleet-footed mare,
She can trot like Maud S., and I venture to guess
He will let her — as far as he dare.

How chivalric he was! And how proud as he passed us.
He returned our salute in good measure,
His hand to visor as he exercised her—
Yourself and his horse were his treasure.

And he was fleet-footed himself, you recall,
And the boys had good reason to know it.
And when he caught us at night in some illegal plight
And outran us — yes, even your poet.

A next a beloved old chemist appears,
Doctor Ave — but we all know about it;
And the thing that I note was his swallowtail coat,
He made no appearance without it.

See him now, fellow classmates, his ruddy round face,
His capacious abdomen protruding,
And his specs in his hand as the classroom he scanned
For the mischief his eye was eluding.

His chemistry lessons were quite a success,
Or would have been, to put it best,
Had the druggist, Old Watson, ne’er told us of lots on
The list we were given to test.

What we learned in mechanics, however, was nil.
I could write it in one little cipher.
And the examination gave no indication
Of the mark that we all had to lie for.

And then there was he with the quadruple name,
A bachelor scarcely by choice,
For in love our old Twinkle, like poor Mr. Winkle,
Could awaken no answering voice.

So he lived in the skies and turned night into day,
Chased all of the asteroids ‘round,
Tipped up his big spy-glass and gave none a by-pass
Until some of two dozen he found.

His watchtower; it seemed like an actual temple;
I could weep when I think what it lacks.
When our observatory had plenary glory
And Peters was Pontifex Max.

Next comes Doctor Evans, especially noted
For having a beautiful wife;
A distinction unique, for not all of the clique
Had been equally favored in life.

Two things Evans taught which I do not forget,
The birthday of Buonaparte Chief,
I must give it in French though my metre it wrench,
Dis sept cent et Soixante dis neuf.

The other was extra curriculum, but
It conspired to make us all bolder
We’re indebted to him in that old gym,
He taught us to strike from the shoulder.

His gout did not bother him, no, not a bit,
But when he confronted some lubber,
He vaulted about, as he put him to rout,
And sent him kerslap to the rubber.

Then Upson with Mandeville, what about him?
Very much that I cannot recite;
For our whole reputation in skillful oration
Was his own by indubious right.

But “Paul at the feet of Gamiliel,” I think,
I remember before all the rest,
How he ran the whole round of articulate sound
In that sentence with infinite zest.

And “Billy” — poor fellow, I feel for him yet,
There is naught in his memory racy.
Oh, how the boys rowed him, deceived him and cowed him,
Let him now requiescat in pace.

Here comes Oren Root, so laconic and silent,
“Cube” we called him and thought it was cute,
But the term did not fit him and never had hit him
Except that his surname was “Root.”

It is true that he taught mathematics, and this
Seemed to render the epithet keen;
But not his equations or close calculations
Keep his memory fragrant and green.

No, no; but because he was so like the Master
Who taught them in old Galilee,
Who spake of the sowers, the birds and the flowers,
And who loved every green, growing tree.

We scarcely recur to his classroom at all,
Though this we have reason to do;
But begging his pardon we think of his garden
Where pansies and violets grew.

We wander again through these serpentine paths
And beneath the trim evergreens daily,
We take a long look at the sweet little brook
That sings to his praise in the valley.

The campus was his, for he planted its trees
Though now for some other the care is,
But his name is enshrined where its avenues wind —
Circumspice, si monument queris.

But this is not all, for who will not recall
The best that he left to our knowledge?
Long live his great son, bringing the honor upon
His father, himself and the College.

And lastly “Old Greek.” Not a word shall I speak
Wherewith to embellish his story;
‘Tis sufficient of fame just to mention his name
And leave him alone in the glory.

**********
                                                                                     
And now I will bid you to kindly remember
It was on a bright day in the glowing September
Of eighteen hundred and sixty-three
When we of this semi-centennial class
Effected the entrance conditions to pass,
And began as collegians to be.

Eighteen sixty-three! You will please be so kind
As to bear the date very distinctly in mind—
Sixty-three—it was sixty-three;
For there is not another one passed by the nation
Since our forefather signed to the great declaration
So important as this came to be.

For two years and more the war had been raging,
That said Civil War in which we were engaging,
While the tide of success ebbed and flowed;
But the South was prevailing; we could not but feel it,
We were plainly outcasted but we could not conceal it,
Defeat seemed to be on the road.

The opening months of the years passed away
And more gloomy the prospect and darker the day,
The Confederates almost had won;
Burns, Burnside and Grant — they had all been defeated,
And Hooker at Chancellorsville had retreated,
His army completely undone.

Then Lee, flushed with victory, seized the occasion
To turn his defense into active invasion
And up through the Valley he thundered;
Pennsylvania was entered! If now he succeed
The South is triumphant, the Union indeed
Forever and ever is sundered

Then Gettysburg! Oh, those two terrible days,
When the surges of battle in alternate ways
Made the conflict so slow in the ending;
Back and forth; back and forth through the Valley of Death,
From the hills overhead, through the orchard beneath,
And the fate of the nation impending!

And then the third day! ‘Twas the Fourth of July,
The most glorious Fourth that had ever passed by
In the oldest inhabitants knowledge.
And then! Well, what then! Why, I bid you remember
That soon after this, in the month of September,
Our class of old boys entered College.

Was it not a fine time to begin our career?
In the fall of that happy, victorious year,
With the star of the North in ascendent?
With the sun of our liberty splendidly beaming,
The flag flying high and the eagle a-screaming,
And final reunion impendent.

Well, a year and a half had gone into the past
And that Washington’s birthday came on at last
To which I have called your attention,
And Freedom had triumphed, the slaves had been freed,
The South had submitted and peace was decreed,
And of many such things I made mention.

But the nub of my poem turned on an expression
Very frequently used in those days of secession
And of Slavery’s condition begotten;
For its principal product, on which it relied,
Was in this current formula personified
And they commonly called it “King Cotton.”

So I spoke of the fall of this great king of Dixie,
The wreck of his empire, his power gone to nixie,
And if you permit a quotation,
I will give you my words on the old Chapel stage,
Quite pertinent words, as it seemed, for that age,
Which I used on that happy occasion.

The time worn monarch of the South,
‘King Cotton’ as they call him,
Infirm with age and impotence,
Before the truth has fallen.
For loyal hearts within a year
Have seized the king’s dominions
And overturned his tottering throne
With Freedom’s just opinions.
So now into his vacant place
A better chief we bring,
For Cotton is dethroned for aye,
And Corn, thank God, is King.
His rule will no know East nor West
Nor North, nor South shall be
The seat of his impartial reign
Of truth and equity.

Will you pardon a little forgivable pride
If I say to my classmates, in measure aside,
It seemed to have just the right ring;
The old auditorium shook with applause,
It captured the College and most of the boys
Continued to echo the thing;
As they passed on the campus they waved a salute,
Like the loyal Norwegians to old King Canute,
“Corn,” they yelled, “thank God, is King!”

**********

Fifty years have gone by, and I cannot forbear
Those soul-stirring times with our own to compare,
For again the great conflict is on;
And our semi-centennial finds us engaged
In the mightiest warfare that ever was staged
This battle-scarred planet upon.

But as sure as you live it’s exactly the same,
Though it may not assume an identical name,
One warfare, whatever betide;
It started in Eden with Abel and Cain,
With hatred triumphant and righteousness slain,
And a curse on the base fratricide.

And so when old Ramses played out his part,
Claimed that he was divine and so hardened his heart
And refused to let Israel go;
It is so when a later king cries Me and Gott,
When the helpless are crushed and the innocent shot,
Even now it is so — it is so.

There is only one world war, there never was other,
Though some may endeavor the issue to smother,
There are only two parties contending;
One primary principle ever at stake,
And only two sides — one of which we must take,
And there can be but one final ending.

The world war is nothing but Might against Right.
It is Hate against Love, it is Dark against Light
It is age-long and wide as mankind;
King Cotton was Might in his day —that was all;
But the Right must win out and King Cotton must fall
And his slaves must their fetters unbind.

“We have no king but Caesar!” Alas for those Jews,
That the hate of their hearts should the true king refuse;
“We have no king but Caesar,” they cried.
Barabbas the robber they feign would release
And deliver to judgment the great Prince of Peace,
While they shout, “Let him be crucified!”

But as sure as you live — let me say it again,
The good time is coming, is coming amain,
When Barabbas shall hang on the tree;
When Caesar no longer the purple shall wear,
But the crucified Savior his scepter shall bear
And His truth shall make every man free.

“War is Hell!” So said one of our own great commanders
And they surely have found it so over in Flanders,
With apologies even to Hell;
For in Hell ‘tis the guilty who suffer alone
But in war ‘tis the innocent ones who atone
For the crimes which the guilty befell.

But it’s not far away, sure as you are alive,
When no single man shall be able to drive
His subjects to Hell and to battle;
The Lord may allow him a little probation,
But the time is at hand when throughout every nation
The prophets of hatred shall lose their vocation
And kingcraft shall take an eternal vacation!
Thank God! We can hear the death-rattle!

And the star-spangled banner, our pride and our boast,
Will be in the death with the militant host,
When infernal autocracy gives up the ghost,
And float o’er his sepulchre gory;
‘Tis the flag of the freeman and only has waved
Over heroes who fought to release the enslaved;
Hurrah and hurrah! For Old Glory!

I have said ‘twas a good time to enter when we
Came up to the Hill in the year ’63,
But the time to depart may be better;
For away through the mist and the darkness withdrawn
We discern the bright signs of millennial dawn
And with this I conclude my long letter.

If we only can live till the right is victorious
In a peace that is final, Oh, it will be glorious
To take our departure; and then
In the name of our God we will furl up the banner,
Sing a glad hallelujah and shout a hosanna,
And say Nunc dimittis.

Amen.