James De Mille's "Phi Beta Kappa Poem"

Edited and with an Introduction by Patricia Monk

The republication of James De Mille's untitled poem on the state of humankind, read at the anniversary exercises of the Phi Beta Kappa society of Brown University on June 16, 1879, is of considerable interest to students of De Mille and of nineteenth-century Canadian literature.  De Mille is, of course, best known to Canadian readers for his "science fiction" novel, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, which occupies an important place in the development of Canadian fiction in the late nineteenth century; he is also known, to a somewhat lesser extent, for the posthumously published Behind the Veil, a long poem on immortality and Divine Love.  The Phi Beta Kappa poem sheds more light not only on the author of these two works but also on the relationship between them, since they can now be seen, together with the poem itself, as parts of a total oeuvre, rather than as isolated pieces as they have been.  This development in turn begins to fill in one more gap in the as yet incomplete map of nineteenth-century literary history in Canada.

     Most importantly, the Phi Beta Kappa poem provides solid evidence of the talent for verse attributed to De Mille by correspondents describing him, some years after his death, to Archibald MacMechan, who was at that time contemplating writing a biography of De Mille.  There are some examples of light verse in manuscript in the Archives of Dalhousie's Killam Library, including the elaborately illustrated "Eggs, Eggs, Eggs" (a parody of Tennyson's "Break, Break, Break") reproduced in part by MacMechan in his 1906 article on De Mille for the Canadian Magazine.  There is also, moreover, among MacMechan's notes, a reference to a notebook of De Mille's (now apparently lost) containing a great deal of verse.  But the Phi Beta Kappa poem is the first extended example of De Mille's verse, other than Behind the Veil, to see daylight since the author's death, and it may prove to be the only one to do so.

     That this talent attributed to De Mille may have been quite considerable is suggested by the evident skill with which he manipulates the form and thought of the poem.  To begin with, his debt to the Age of Reason — to Pope, Johnson, and Goldsmith, in particular — is apparent in his choice of the heroic couplet.  De Mille's own couplets, although perhaps not as expertly turned as those of his masters, are for the most part respectably and occasionally even sharply executed.  His comment, for example, that "these things must be, the world shall never lack / The swindler and twaddler and the quack" (11.113-114), without being obviously dependent on any particular rhetorical devotee, nevertheless fairly spits contempt.  Yet De Mille is far from displaying the saeva indignatio of Swift, and his lines lack the persistent waspishness of Pope's.  In fact, of all his eighteenth-century models, he is perhaps closest to Goldsmith in mood, for the point of the poem turns on a plea for mercy for errant humankind:  "Scan not too strictly how man's life is spent, / But give him credit for his good intent; / So may the path with good intentions paven / Lead him, not down to hell, but up to Heaven" (11.191-194), and in the last line of this, although the phrasing echoes Johnson's "Sir, hell is paved with good intentions", De Mille turns it to precisely the opposite effect.  This manipulation of one of Johnson's pronouncements is one of many literary allusions worked skilfully (and sometimes also playfully) into the text of the poem, and like all the others it is more than a sign of a "literary man" addressing an audience of the same.  Allusion, whether it is played straight or given a satiric twist, is for De Mille a device for manipulating the tone and for modulating it from the satiric opening, through the carefully reasoned middle section, into the almost passionate vision of the triumph of Truth which concludes the poem.  It is the demonstration of this and other verbal skills which enforces De Mille's claim to a talent for verse.

     Almost equally importantly, the satiric vision of this Phi Beta Kappa poem makes very clear its link with Strange Manuscript.  Both the poem and the novel maintain a healthy scepticism about human society, recorded by a clear-eyed and keen-witted observer.  There is in the earlier novel (and if we accept A.H. De Mille's claim in a letter that Strange Manuscript was one the first things his brother wrote, we may consider it very early) an exuberance of fantastic imagination, which in the later poem is replaced by a more sober and tempered judgment (De Mille was 46 in 1879), but the two are nevertheless manifestly akin in their vision of the folly, corruption, and potential for good, of human society.

     In view of this likeness, Behind the Veil may seem, on the other hand, to be even more than previously an isolated work.  I would argue, however, that it is to be seen as complementary to them — the other face of Janus, so to speak.  Set against the basically social vision of the Phi Beta Kappa poem, the other-worldly vision of Behind the Veil becomes even more startling and intriguing in its mysticism — a view of the poem which I have developed fully in a separate article (cf. Canadian Poetry 3, Fall/Winter 1978).  The strength of the likeness between Strange Manuscript and the Phi Beta Kappa poem, however, merely forces the complementary difference of Behind the Veil to stronger relief.  Moreover, our understanding of De Mille himself becomes more three-dimensional as the two sides of his work are brought into a stronger relationship.

     Although the existence of the Phi Beta Kappa poem itself was not unknown between 1879 and 1979, it was for the most part forgotten (except for brief mentions and the reprinting of a section in the Brown Alumni Monthly for July 1907, to accompany an article on De Mille).  The poem in fact exists in two versions:  a manuscript in the Killam Library Archives of Dalhousie University (cited from this point as MS) and a published version in the columns of the Providence Daily Journal for June 18, 1879 (cited from this point as Journal).  The following text has been prepared from these two versions.

     The status of the MS is not entirely clear.   It came to the Dalhousie Archives as a gift from Laurence Burpee in 1926, having been found among the papers of Frederick De Mille, James's younger brother.  Burpee's accompanying letter suggests that the MS "seems to be rather in Fred's hand writing than James's".  It seems probable that James's own copy, the one from which he read, went to the Journal as the copy for setting up the published version.

     There are certain features of the two versions which deserve comment.  There is a noticeable lack of punctuation, especially final punctuation, in the MS, but in a few instances the MS punctuation gives a better reading than that of the Journal, and I have preferred it.  I have indicated these instances in my notes to the poems, but I have not indicated where the Journal merely supplies punctuation lacking in the MS, unless there is a clear difference in the sense as a result.  There are also discrepancies between the MS and the Journal which are equally unlikely to be mistakes by the Journal's compositor's or mistakes by a careless copyist.  I have indicated these differences in my notes, but such obvious misprints as do occur in the Journal I have corrected without a note.  I have retained the paragraphing as shown in the Journal, and noted where the MS does not agree with this, but I have indented the first line of each paragraph without authority from either the MS or the Journal, in order to avoid possible ambiguity.

     I would like to thank the Librarians of Dalhousie's Killam Library and Brown University's John Hay Library for the use of material from their Archives.

Prof. De Mille's Poem

Of all the questions that engage the mind,
This is the chief, "How fares it with mankind?"
Each mortal gives an answer of his own,
But every answer has a different tone —
5 Some burst in laughter, some to weeping fall,
Banter with Horace, storm with Juvenal,
Find virtue all too weak, or vice too strong,
And so declare — whatever is, is wrong.
Hunt, through Ben Adhem, says with genial pen,
10 "Write me as one who loves his fellow-men."
Byron exclaims in gloomy reverie,
"I have not loved the world, nor the world me."
With these observers let us take our stand,
And walk awhile with each one hand-in-hand —
15 Be ours the task with equal eye to scan
The darker ills and brighter hopes of man;
And though you say, returned from this review,
"What's new is false, what's true is nothing new."
Our work at least may serve to while away
20 Some fifteen minutes of a summer day.
        Among the charges by the accuser made,
The first is this: It is an age of trade.
Franklin, he cries, in worldly wisdom sage,
Taught mammon worship to the present age;
25 Our children learn his precepts and his rules,
Write them as copy-heads in all the schools,
Read volumes, which their teacher's hand prepares,
Of self-made rogues and lucky millionaires,
And learn, betimes, this lesson far and wide:
30 Be virtuous and you'll be rich beside.
The boy with such a training grows a man
With this one motto:   "Grab what'er you can!"
Asks this as the first question of the day
Of every human calling, "Will it pay?"
35 As trader, seeks the great commercial marts
And stalks to fortune over broken hearts;
As lawyer, sets his price and sells the laws
To advocate some scoundrel client's cause;
As doctor, diligently cures or kills,
40 Reckless of all things while his purse he fills;
As preacher, fashions his religious views
To raise a salary and fill the pews —
Ready alike to prattle or to pray
And damns or blesses as the people pay;
45 As statesman, acts on Walpole's sage advice,
Clothes in the maxim, "Each man has his price,"
Holds most things false, but this, at least, as true,
The paths of glory lead to fortune too.
         Behold another evil of the day:
50 The love of tawdry show and vain display.
Gripus robs saving banks, despoils the poor,
Plunders the widow, robs the orphan's store;
The gold, bedewed with tears, is flung aside,
What cost a life is offered up to pride.
55 Volpones, after robbing half the town,
Can never keep his ostentation down,
And all his millions fail to satisfy
Unless he flaunts them in the public eye.
No better are the teachers of the age,
60 The same coarse purposes their thoughts engage,
They write, they teach, yet seek, where'er they go,
Not sacred truths, but merely vulgar show.
      Preachers, like boys, delight in "showing off,"
Till those who came to pray remain to scoff;
65 Sensation! O, sensation! they proclaim
Till earth's remotest nation learns their name.
Behind all these there comes another swarm
Of rampant Radicals who bawl "Reform;"
Men who pervert all words, turn black to white,
70 Virtue they treat as vice, and wrong as right,
They pose, they swell, they attitudinize,
And strut before the world's astonished eyes,
Sensation mongers with but this in view
To startle by some doctrine strange and new.
75 The evil heightens and the end draws near,
When new instructors will of course appear
Preaching polygamy and parricide,
And every other earthly crime beside,
And war on all things till this mad world goes
80 Back to the whence it first arose.
Another folly of the age is shown
By those who claim all culture as their own,
Our fashionable critic moves about,
His mental temper universal doubt;
85 At every old belief he coldly mocks
And bids man builds his faith on paradox.
By these the great memorials of the past,
Down to oblivion and contempt are cast:
At ancient and at modern art they smile,
90 Greek is all stiffness, Gothic puerile.
Others more exquisitely still refined
Survey all nature with fastidious mind
With such high culture that they disapprove
Of all on earth below or heaven above.
95 For these in nature all is overdone;
Too dim the moon, too garish is the sun;
The rainbow is for these a tawdry show
And vulgar is the sunset's golden glow.
Still bolder grown, our fierce iconoclast
100 Assails the virtues prized through all the past,
Calls faith a phantom, holy love a cheat,
Immortal hope the senses found deceit;
Honor, and loyalty and sacred truth.
Fit virtues only for the callower youth,
105 Good for beginners but quite out of place
In those who seek to guide the human race.
So these like Buddhas, wrapt in thoughts sublime,
In deep self-contemplation pass the time,
And with all other idols overthrown,
110 They worship nothing but themselves alone.
         Self-seeking, self-indulgence, self display,
From these arise the evils of the day,
These things must be, the world shall never lack
The swindler and the twaddler and the quack,
115 Yet, he who seeks may find a counterpoise
To all this coarse presence and vulgar noise.
Man's possibilities to fairly test,
Take not as type the basest but the best.
Select a Shakespeare rather than a sot,
120 A Homer rather than a Hottentot.
Behind the external show, they hold their place,
The better portion of the human race —
The man who seeks his humble part to do,
The earnest sage with audience fit though few,
125 He who condemns the sophist's shallow art,
He who is clean of hands and pure of heart,
He who lives out his life without a spot,
Who swears to his own hurt and changes not —
All these remain, content to live obscure,
130 With this aim only, that their lives be pure.
         Wherefore as man's true leaders we revere,
The self-contained, the simple, the sincere,
The world owes nothing to the vulgar crowd
Of rich, of great, of titled and of proud;
135 But from the earnest thinker man receives
The good he owns, the faith that he believes.
Croesus and Crassus serve as foils to show
The worth of Solon and of Cicero.
Go, wiser thou, whom such examples please,
140 Study the discipline of Socrates.
Learn the great lesson Horace left behind:
Blend simple pleasures with the care of mind.
See from the life and teaching of Thoreau
How little may suffice for man below;
145 High life, low thinking shun, as Wordsworth taught,
Choose thou, instead, plain life and lofty thought;
And the chief energies of life direct
Not to the income but the intellect;
Or take the pregnant truth by Milton given,
150 Of his own mind, man makes his hell or heaven;
That heaven, that hell, within the mind must rise,
For man on earth or man beyond the skies.
        Yet while from man we single out the boss,
On the great world our hopes may also rest,
155 And when its inner self is understood
Still is the evil balanced by the good.
He sees not all who views man's acts alone,
Good motives for base actions oft atone;
Wherefore man's inmost character enquire,
160 Not from his life, but from his heart's desire.
Behind ill deeds may good intentions lurk,
Man's wish is often better than his work;
And often, though unwilling, 'tie his curse
To love the better part, yet do the worse.
165 See Shelley, high in mind yet low in act;
See Burns, a king in thought, a slave in fact,
See Poe, in spirit pure, in life a sot;
See Bacon, seeking good, yet following not;
Rousseau and Byron each in turn behold,
170 In love with virtue, yet by vice controlled.
Thus many pass their days in painful strife
With loves and longings better than their life;
Man's acts take shape from man's environment,
With his own work no mortal is content;
175 Many the better part may vainly seek,
The spirit often wills, the flesh is weak:
And faithful souls who for their Lord would die,
Sleep while their Lord is in His agony;
Nor this forget, that man for each offence
180 Oft bears the antidote of penitence;
See how with all his folly and his sin,
He judges from his better self within;
Still to bad acts the better thought succeeds,
Man's sentences are juster than his deeds.
185 Thus he casts down the mighty to the dust
And raises up the humble and the just.
What seemed his best is judged to be his worst,
In life an idol, but in death accurst:
So may his victim rise to be his lord,
190 One day the crucified, the next adored.
Scan not too strictly how man's life is spent,
But give him credit for his good intent;
So may the path with good intentions paven
Lead him, not down to hell, but up to Heaven
195 Behold man's general life from age to age,
Virtue and vice by turns his thoughts engage;
Vice seeks a present pleasure for the sense,
Virtue a bar off, future recompense;
One spring to life and hurries on to die,
200 The other lives to immortality;
Successive generations onward move
And learn new lessons, new allurements love,
Act from new principles of blame or praise,
Judge by new standards, new ideals raise,
205 Thus there arise the men of lofty tone
Who follow virtue for herself alone —
The men who love their fellow-men to bless,
The aristocracy of righteousness.
These form the high and pure humanity
210 Whose judgment is the true vox populi.
         For every mortal who has lived or died,
God's judgment is prepared and man's beside.
Public opinion scrutinizes all,
And judges every man, or great or small;
215 Her awful presence we may plainly trace
Sitting in judgment o'er the human race.
She shall be judge of all, and none may fly
That inquisition, or that doom defy.
For every man she keeps this judgment day,
220 For all the acts we do, the words we say.
The Heaven of God the just may hope to find,
And, joined to this, the memory of mankind;
The great Valhalia-hall of human fame,
Where mortal man finds an immortal name;
225 There dwelt the Aesir, who, at duty's call,
Gave grandly up themselves, their lives, their all.
         Of these, America may claim a share,
And point to those whose names are written there.
Therefore shall North and South in union come
230 To twine their garlands round their children's tomb:
There shall the land its solemn honours pay
And name their name on Decoration Day;
There let the vanquished South recount with pride
How Lee commanded and how Jackson died;
235 Then let the North relate how plain John Brown
Fought the good fight and won the martyr's crown;
        Or how his battle fought, his victory won,
Heaven claimed the Liberator — Garrison,
Who now with martyr's crown and victor's palm
240 Roeline, upon the breast of Abraham.
        On such as these, the leaders of our race,
Our faith we rest, and all our hopes we place —
By whose great lives this one great truth is shown,
Man may not live for his own self alone.
245         This struggle comes to all beneath the sky,
Selfhood to please, or selfhood to defy.
All men must make the choice of Hercules,
Between the tons that bless, the joys that please:
And still to ail the cry comes from above:
250 Choose ye this day whom ye will serve and love:
The Baal of baseness, or the God alone
Who leads where heroes and where saints have gone.
        Thus while on earth iniquities abound,
By earnest seekers good may still be found.
255 The eternal verities of God are hers,
And these she offers to her worshippers
Pureness in heart, in action righteousness,
With pity for our fellows in distress,
The bright and chivalrous virtues, steadfast faith,
260 Honor unstained, courage that conquers death,
Just judgment o'er ourselves, warm human love,
And crowning all a trust in God above;
Though now the common-place of daily life,
These have been gained from centuries of strife,
265 And long resisted have been won at last
Through suffering in all ages of the past.
Great Truth herself for us all these has gained,
For us the long laborious strife sustained,
Bearing these gifts of God through myriad years,
270 She comes to us, in sweat, and blood, and tears.
Obscure, by taunts and mockings harshly schooled,
Despised, denounced, rejected, ridiculed,
Suffering the stroke of power, the scorn of pride,
Reviled tormented, scourged, and crucified;
275 Until at last the awful pathway o'er,
She rises up to the right hand of power,
And over ail who bless, and all who curse,
Reigns, the throned monarch of the universe —
And she shall reign, till all her work complete
280 All earthly things be put beneath her feet.


Title: MS has no title; this is the Journal heading.


line 8: Cf. Pope, "And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite, / One truth is clear, "Whatever IS, is RIGHT" (An Essay on Man, Ep. I, 11. 293-294).


9: Leigh Hunt, "Abou Ben Adhem and the Angel".


12: Byron, Childe Harold, Canto III, St. cxiii.



MS reading; Journal "Our work, at least, may . . . "



MS "summers".


40: Attributed to Sir Robert Walpole by many authorities, but apparently a very much older proverbial expression.


48: MS reading; Journal has "paths to". Cf. Gray, "I paths of glory lead but to the grave" (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, l. 36).

     This line is followed by the incomplete, nonscanning line "Another vice unsolved makes us know", and between this and l. 49, in the left hand margin, appears the notation [?<].  This line does not appear in the Journal text.


51: Cf. Pope, "Is yellow dirt the passion of thy life? / Look but on Gripus, or on Gripus' wife" (An Essay on Man, Ep. IV, 11. 279-280).


55: The reference is apparently to Jonson's Volpone, but "Volpones" is the reading in both the MS and the Journal.


59: MS new paragraph.


62: MS "truths"


64: Cf. Goldsmith, from his lips prevail'd with double sway, / And fools, who came to scoff, remain'd to pray" (The Deserted Village, II. 179-180).


67: MS new paragraph.


75: MS new paragraph.


99: MS reading; Journal inserts a final comma.


108: MS reading; Journal has "self-contemplation".


111: MS no new paragraph.  Cf. Tennyson, "Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control, / These three alone lead to sovereign power" (Oenone, 11. 142-14).


116: MS "To all this coarse prentence [sic], this vulgar noise".


118: MS "types".


121: MS "peace".


123: MS indicates a new paragraph beginning here; Journal omits the final comma.


124: MS reading; Journal inserts a comma after audience. Cf. Milton ". . . still govern thou my Song, / Urania, and fit audience find, though few" (Paridise Lost Book VII, 30-31).


125: MS reading; Journal has "contemns".


129: MS reading; Journal omits final comma.


131: MS reading; Journal inserts comma after "wherefore"; MS no new paragraph.


130: MS "care"


136: MS repeats "receives" from line above.


150: Milton, "The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n" (Paradise Lost, Book I, I1. 254-255).


154: MS reading; Journal inserts comma after "world" and has a final semi-colon.


164: Cf. St. Paul, "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not that I do" (Romans 7.19, King James' version).


165-168: Cf. Pope, "See FALKLAND dies, the virtuous and the just / See god-like TURENNE prostrate on the dust!/See SIDNEY bleeds amid the martial strife!"   (An Epistle on Man, Epistle IV, 11. 99-101).


169: MS reading; Journal inserts comma after "Byron" and has a final semi-colon instead of a comma.


171: MS reading; Journal inserts final semi-colon.


182: MS "urges".


191: MS reading; Journal inserts commas after "not" and "strictly".


193-194: Cf. Samuel Johnson, "Sir, Hell is paved with good intentions" (Boswell's Life, under 16 April 1775).


198: MS reading; Journal "afar off".


205: MS reading; Journal inserts comma after "arise."


211: MS no new paragraph.


218: MS reading; Journal omits comma after "inquisition".


219: MS new paragraph.


223: MS "Walhalla".


225: The Aesir (ON As god, pl. AEsir) were the deities of Scandinavian mythology, including Odin, Frigg, Tyr, Thor, Balder, Heimdall, Loki, and others.


227: MS no new paragraph.


232: MS "decoration day".  Decoration Day (30 May) is the U.S. holiday originally "set apart for decorating the graves of soldiers and sailers who fell in the war for the union (1861-1865).  There is now a tendency throughout the country to adopt the term Memorial Day instead of Decortion Day" (Funk & Wagnall's New Standard Dictionary).


234: Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), the Confederate General in the war for the union; Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson (1824-1863), Lee's principal lieutenant.


235: MS "recall"; John Brown (1800-1859), hanged on 2 December 1859 for his raid on Harper's Ferry in the cause of the emancipation of slaves.


238: William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), abolitionist and editor of weekly Liberator (1831-1865) — a major abolitionist paper.


254: MS reading; Journal "God".


256: MS "those".


258: MS"And".


259: MS reading; Journal omits "and".


270: MS reading; Journal omits comma after "sweat" and after "blood".


278: MS reading; Journal omits comma after "Reigns".