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(authors icon)1918

Dean Birge

from Wisconsin Authors and Their Works   1918
by Charles Rounds

E.A. Birge

Edward Asahel Birge was born in Troy, New York in 1851. He received his collegiate training at Williams and Harvard and was made instructor in natural history at the University of Wisconsin in 1875, professor in 1879, and Dean of the College of Letters and Science in 1891, which position he has held down to the present time, except for three years when he served as Acting President.

No one among all the professors is better known to the students of the University of Wisconsin than Dean Birge. His active figure, his firm step, his (now) white hair, which, when the writer went to school, was but iron-gray, his keen eye, have all come to be institutional and fundamental at the University of Wisconsin. No undergraduate who has gone tremblingly before Dean Birge to get his excuse for being late to his first class after the Christmas holidays will need a description of Dean Birge's eye. No one ever thinks of trying to deceive the Dean.

But withal, nothing could be more unfair than to give the notion that keenness is the only quality in that eye. Kindness is there, too, and above all, justice. We who were undergraduates at Madison, always think of Dean Birge as a scholar in his chosen line and as a school administrator. It will be a surprise to many to know of his keen interest in literature. The writer ventures to say that one will look some time before he finds, from the pen of the best-trained specialist in English, a fairer estimate of Milton than the one here given by this biologist.

Birge as UW President

Birge by Max Otto

Birge the scientist


Introductory remarks made by E. A. Birge at the celebration of the tercentenary anniversary of Milton's birth, held at the University of Wisconsin, December 9, 1908.

Perhaps I am wrong in permitting myself to say anything beyond the formal words which belong to my office tonight. I am sure that I have no right to join in the tribute which today the world offers to Milton, beyond that which belongs to every one who did not need to knock the dust from his copy of the poems when this tercentenary anniversary approached. Yet if I had the power to praise, I should attempt the task.

"If my inferior hand or voice could hint
 Inimitable things"
I would add my words to those of more discriminating praise. But if I speak at all, it must be as one of Milton's readers, not as his critic, still less as his judge; not even as his eulogist. Perhaps I may speak also as a descendant of the men and women who made up that Puritan commonwealth from which he was born and to which at bottom he belonged; as a descendant of men and women, stern, god-fearing, theology-loving, yet very human; mostly commonplace people; not sensitive to art or caring much about it, yet capable of being profoundly moved by the greatest poetry. I may speak in the name of those who for generations kept Milton second only to the Bible in their knowledge and as belonging to a generation which today finds Milton next beyond the Bible in its ignorance. I may represent in some sort that public which long cherished him but which today leaves him to the few lovers of poetry on the one side, and on the other, must have converted him to a post-mortem belief in purgatory by condemning him to a place among the authors assigned for "intensive study" in secondary schools.

I cannot find it in my heart to blame my fellows severely for their present neglect of Milton. When we read the introductory lines of the Aeneid--for our small Latin extends so far as this--and the triumphant final words: "atque altae moenia Romae" "burst out into sudden blaze," then in that quick vision of the walls of lofty Rome we catch some hint of that spirit which made the poem the bible of the Roman state. And when we find the introduction to Paradise Lost closing with the promise that the author will "justify the ways of God to man," we feel that temper in the poem which made it at once the holier bible of the Puritan and prevented it from becoming the bible of the English speaking race for all time.

But we of the stock from which Milton came have not all deserted the poet. Some of us still read his verse, though not for the poem so much as for the poetry, which in his hands became the

"golden key 
That opes the palace of eternity."
We do not find our Milton in his earlier poems; for, charming as they are, they lack that note of strong personality and endless power which our ear first catches in Lycidas:
"Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where'er thy bones are hurled,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou, perhaps, under the whelming tide
Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou to our moist vows denied,
Sleep'st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded Mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold--"

Birge in the waterlilies

Here is the true music of Milton's verse; a deep, long drawn note, a solemn cadence; far from the "wanton heed and giddy cunning" of the music which untwists the chains of harmony, and equally distant from heaven's calm serenity of choral symphonies and "undisturbed song of pure content." This music sounds in the Paradise Lost, less emotional perhaps, but purer and higher; appealing to ear and soul in complex and interwoven harmonies of thought and verse. We hear it still in the Samson; austere, intellectualized; the scheme of music rather than music itself; still resonant though not resounding. We have no skill to compare this music with that of other poets; but this we know, that while its harmonies linger in our ears all other verse rings poor and thin. We hear no voice but Milton's which can bear the praise of his own words: "praesentem sonat vox ipsa Deum"--its very note proclaims the present God.

Nor is this all. Milton's verse moves us as does that of no other poet. I do not mean that it moves us to laughter or even to tears. I mean rather that it moves our souls bodily, if such a thing may be. As we read it, we find ourselves committed to a power not so much buoyant as illimitable. The verse bears us aloft and carries us forward not swiftly, slowly rather; advancing, to our increased happiness, not directly, but with many a pause and turn; yet steadily and powerfully pressing on toward a goal certain and far-seen. We know not whether Milton's poetry accomplished

"Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme";
but at least we must confess for ourselves that it illumines our darkness and raises and supports us as does no other verse.

And so we, who in some far off sense belong to Milton's people, join tonight with you who have the right to praise his name. Yet it may be that in so doing we are thinking rather of ourselves than of any tribute that you or we can bring to him. We know that your commemorative words will renew our knowledge and quicken our hearts. We hope that, hearing them, we may feel the presence of those

"immortal shades    
Of bright aerial spirits"
who ever attend Milton's verse; perhaps we even hope that our clearer vision may catch some new glimpse of Milton himself--our poet--wearing "the crown that Vertue gives" and sitting
"Amongst the enthroned gods on sainted seats."

"Dean Birge." Wisconsin Authors and Their Works. Madison: The Parker Educational Company, 1918. 276-280.
From the GLS Department of Special Collections reference room: PS 283 W6 R6 1918.