Harvard College Library

Formative Years of Literary Icons Revealed in Harvard Poets: 1900-1945

T.S. Eliot age 19; the photo was taken in 1907 at his family's home on Cape Cod.
January 29, 2004 - T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings – influential poets of the 20th century whose works are pored over by literature students around the world, Pulitzer prize winners, writers who helped shape literary tradition … and graduates of Harvard once known to their classmates as Tom, Rob, and Ed. In the exhibition, Harvard Poets: 1900-1945, at Lamont Library, Level Five, the university years of these poets along with 27 other early 20th century writers such as William Burroughs, Robert Lowell, and Stanley Kunitz, are explored. The exhibition reveals early poems published in the Advocate (Harvard’s student literary magazine), schoolboy pranks, and the burgeoning of talent.

"The exhibition details the most crucial and least knowable moments of a poet's career: the formative years of youth. Virtually nobody has ever looked into what these young poets did when they were at Harvard - in most cases not even their biographers. The exhibition documents the flowering of talent in these writers and is informative for anyone interested in how poetry finds its way into the world," said Don Share, Curator of the George Edward Woodberry Poetry Room.

The exhibition is composed of photographs and short biographies for each poet, which include anecdotes, copies of early poems, and experts from journals. The biography on Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot, AB ‘09, AM ‘10, LittD '47, relates his poor academic performance his freshman year when he earned Ds in Government, History, and Greek and his class ode that he published in the Advocate that begins, "For the hour that is left us Fair Harvard, with thee, / Ere we face the importunate years, / In thy shadow we wait, while thy presence dispels / Our vain hesitations and fears."

Excerpts from Witter Bynner’s AB '02 diary illustrate student life at the turn of the century, "Jan 16 [1902] Advocate Initiation and Beer Night. I was horribly merry and tight. I may have disgraced my instincts by appearing so downstairs at the Union." A tale from William Burroughs’ AB '36 time at Harvard tells of how he made bathtub gin in his freshman year dorm and had a pet ferret named Sredni Vashtar.

The stories also illuminate how poetry found its way into the students’ lives. Stanley Kunitz AB ‘26, AM '27, tells how he discovered in Widener Library a poet that would later influence his own work, "One day I was wandering through the poetry stacks in Widener Library and I, just by random, picked a little collection of poems off the shelf and it turned out to be a first edition of the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins." The section on Wallace Stevens ’01, LittD '51, explains that he entered Harvard with plans to become a journalist. After excelling in English, French, and German, and publishing poems in Harvard publications, he began to reconsider. As he prepared to leave Harvard he informed his composition professor, Charles "Copey" Copeland, that he intended to become a poet, at which Copeland allegedly responded, "Jesus Christ!"

The exhibition explains that certain poets-to-be came to Harvard and thrived, serving as editors for the Advocate, joining academic clubs, while others felt alienated and lost, sometimes leaving after one or two years of study. But for almost all, the passion for poetry began at Harvard, as John Gould Fletcher '07 states in his memoir, "It was at Harvard that the idea first came to me of becoming a poet."

Harvard Poets: 1900 – 1945 runs through September 2004. For more information contact James Sitar, 617.384.9583.


This story appears courtesy of the Harvard College Library Communications Office
Copyright © 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College