May is the month when graduation ceremonies are held at universities across the country.
Students who spent the last four years, or maybe more, pursuing a degree will finally be recognized for their achievement in a ritual as old as the final exam.
And during the ceremony, they will likely hear a commencement speech.
If you are a fan of commencement speeches, and are looking to hear a decent one in 2019, there seem to be plenty of options.
Scheduled to speak to graduating seniors this month are author Scott Turow at Muhlenberg College, Oprah Winfrey at Colorado College, political columnist Peggy Noonan at Notre Dame and billionaire former mayor Michael Bloomberg at Washington University in St. Louis.
If you forgot what was said at your graduation, or even who spoke, don’t worry about it. There are plenty of speeches that have been recorded, and plenty that have been quantified into the 10 or 25 best commencement speeches ever. Or, you can just do a Google search for the best quotes or advice ever given in a commencement speech.
Highlights range from Steve Jobs telling graduates at Stanford in 2005 to “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition,” to Admiral William McRaven advising the class of 2014 at the University of Texas to make their beds every day.
Sage advice, for sure.
But I don’t think commencement addresses on the whole are the place to find wisdom.
Wisdom comes not from being told to do a certain thing or dream your dreams. Wisdom comes from deep thought. One must ponder a thing as if it is a mystery to be discovered. It can mean different things to different people. or take on alternate meadnings at different times in their lives.
So if I were to give a commencement address today, I would give the graduates two quotes taken from two different poets of an age different from ours. They are Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning, both British, and both poets of the Victorian age.
Emerging social responsibility was important to the Victorians and so too was the idea of finding new ways to better the self.
My quotes, I think, are perfectly attuned to today’s graduates who are most likely also concerned with social justice.
The first quote is from Tennyson’s classic poem “Ulysses,” the central character in Homer’s epic tale, “The Odyssey.”
It goes like this: “Drink life to the lees.”
What does it mean?
Drinking to the lees means to drink every last drop, as the lees is the sediment that forms at the bottom of a bottle of wine.
Go for the gusto is how modern Madison Avenue might phrase it today. But there is really more to it than that. Drink life to the lees means to leave no idea unexamined, to do it all.
If you are going to have a career, make it the best career you can have. If you decide to marry, be the best partner you can be. If you are going to parent, learn what it is that makes the best parents. If you are going to have faith, then learn that faith and live it to its fullest.
Take on the attitude of Tennyson’s last line, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
My other favorite quote is from Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto”, who was a painter of the Italian Renaissance, eclipsed by his contemporaries Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci.
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
The perfection that is heaven may be some far off notion that can never be achieved. We are far from perfect, and will never be perfect.
But perhaps heaven exists simply to help us achieve something meaningful, something to shoot for, even if we can never hit the target. Yet by striving for it, you just might go far beyond what you thought possible.
Think of the music that brings you to tears, or the literature the increases your understanding of the world around you.
Graduates, go forth into the world. Drink life to the lees. Let your reach exceed your grasp.
Randy Blaser is a freelance columnist.