A recent social media discussion among members of the Class of 1968 recalled Horace Thorner, English master from 1943 to 1970, a scholar whose breadth of interests and talents was truly extraordinary. Thorner was a poet of frequent insight and technical virtuosity. Some of his work has already appeared on this blog. (See “The Round World Squared.”)
For the school’s 125th anniversary in 1966, Thorner was asked to write a celebratory “Ode to Williston.” Commemorative poetry is tricky; it is hard to avoid either hyperbole or mawkishness. Thorner was reasonably — though not entirely — successful. But his chapter on founder Samuel Williston is especially perceptive; Thorner, writing for an audience that perhaps expected the old hagiographic legend, captures the essential conflicts in the man better than others have managed using many more words (see “The Button Speech” ).
II. The Founder Who was this man? There is no simple rule To separate the warm flesh and the blood From such another statue, pale and cool, As since the time of ancient Athens stood In lifeless grandeur in the public square, Defying time and tempest, lightning, flood, But never living, never quite the bare, The unadorned, the simple human truth, Standing in unabashed completeness there. Indeed, he was ambitious as a youth, A start for marble statues, but God's will To spoil his eyes left him uncouth, Compared to what he wanted for his goal, To preach, just as his father had, to strive With old New England devils for the soul. He had his children, none of whom would live, And felt God's wrath, but trusted and was brave, Adopted others Emily would love — A stern man but a just one and no slave To outward polish in his speech or act, Never forgetting that his father gave A life of service to the church, a fact That well accounts for all the generous years He took such care his parish never lacked. We see the flesh through marble, know his fears To board a ship on Sunday well may show A man whose God laughed little, lived on tears. He may have driven bargains hard. We know The history of most great fortunes proves The man who rises, steps on some below, And afterwards he finds that it behooves That he appease his conscience by his tithes. Some great philanthropists had cloven hooves. But whether conscience prospers or it writhes, The good it does lives after it, and so They well deserve their shining laurel wreathes. Williston wrote his conscience long ago Into the charter of his school. The words Still shine upon the fading page and glow With all the brightness of crusader's swords. "Knowledge without goodness" — so they read — "Is powerless to do good." The phrase affords An insight to the sturdy heart and head Of Williston, for they were words he chose, Although, indeed, they had been elsewhere said. On this foundation, then, the school arose Between the winding river and the hill That speak God's strength in action and repose. Horace E. Thorner Naples, Italy, February 1966
All eight sections of Horace Thorner’s “Ode to Williston” are too long to publish here. Readers who would like copies of the entire poem may email firstname.lastname@example.org.