Joseph Bottum was commissioned this year to write the Phi Beta Kappa poem, an annual part of spring graduation events at Princeton University. “Autumn” is the final section, in blank-verse pentameter, of “Four Seasons,” the poem he read at the induction ceremonies for Princeton’s new Phi Beta Kappa members on May 23—which he used to remind the graduating students not of their great futures but of something more important: the fact that they will die. And knowing they are mortal, he told this year’s graduates, is how they can find the chance to be truly free.
Autumn: A Graduation Poem
(a blank-verse extract from “Four Seasons,” the 2022 Phi Beta Kappa poem for Princeton University)
Back in 1970, Saul Kripke,
Then Princeton’s great philosopher, observed
That Phosphorus, the dawning star of morning,
And Hesperus, the evening star at dusk,
Are both, in truth, the twilight planet Venus.
The sentence Phosphorus is Hesperus
Is thus a logical necessity,
Although that took millennia to learn.
And what if many necessary truths
Are similar—both logical and waiting?
Think, for instance, of the proposition
That freedom of the will requires death.
The logic’s quick enough: Free will takes change,
And every change needs something’s dissolution.
But other consequences may unfold
In time. The fact that all that lives must die
Unburdens us and eases small dismay.
Undoes ambition, greed, the rush of fame.
Unkindness, too: The price of living long
Is burying your parents, teachers, friends.
Be gentle. Everyone you know is dying.
Be light of touch. Everyone’s an orphan,
—————————And take what time provides:
A chance to seek the beautiful and wise,
To look to God, to live with graceful rites.
These come with death, like crimson leaves, and some
Will catch your eye and strike you as they fall.
In ancient Roman triumphs, servants murmured
To generals and emperors, Remember
You are mortal, lest the cheering crowd
Fan belief that they had turned to gods.
Now poets are those servants, come to say,
This is your Morning Star—that you must die.
This is your Evening Star—that you are free.
And Love, like Venus in her transit, marks
Joseph Bottum is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University and poetry editor of the New York Sun. His latest poetry collection, Spending the Winter (St. Augustine’s Press) is forthcoming this September.