In the movie The Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams’ character John Keating exhorts the young men in his classroom, “Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” He said this after showing them a display case full of the trophies and artifacts and pictures of past students, many long dead. His point: we are all mortal, we have one life to live, so live it to the fullest, with your eyes wide open and your heart courageous.
I didn’t have John Keating in college; I had his bespectacled uncle. Nate Atwater struck me as old money and Ivy-educated. He stuck out at what was then Southeastern Massachusetts University. I am pretty sure that I had him for only one class, but I enjoyed him. He was clear in the classroom, fair, organized. He also made more than a few of the many points I still carry with me from those years.
I was in his class that covered Beowulf, and he was marching us through the text when he paused one day to reflect on the melancholy that permeates the work. He wrote “Ubi sunt” on the chalkboard and then turned to us. “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” The Poetry Foundation website tells us that medieval poems employed this theme of ubi sunt as a meditation on the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death.
I picture myself in that classroom. It was the fall of my junior year, making me 21. I still only carried something like 155 pounds on my 6’2” frame, but I was looking more like a college student by then and less like an extra from That ‘70s Show. I had taken to wearing dark sweaters, jeans. I had given up my leather jacket for an over-sized wool one. I was always laden down by books and coffee.
Professor Atwater’s class met Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 3:00 to 3:50. My college—now called UMass Dartmouth but then called Southeastern Massachusetts University—was largely a commuter school then. The campus was busy in the morning, quiet in the afternoon. We had 800 students in the dorms and many would go home for the weekend, so by 3:00 on a Friday afternoon, the campus would be nearly empty when I walked into the lecture hall.
Maybe it was on one of those Fridays.
We weren’t expected to learn the Old English in depth, though we had a book that had the Old English and a translation on some facing pages. Atwater would read sections aloud in the Old English. It was musical, haunting, rich. I was cursed with no ability to pronounce anything save my Boston-tinged English, so I loved it.
Forgive my poor scholarship, Dr. Atwater, but I don’t remember a word of Beowulf. I was in that phase of being an English major where I had to rocket through almost 900years of English (and then American) literature. By my senior year I found what I truly loved, which were the modern and postmodern English and American novels, though I can still quote selected poems of Donne, Keats, and Yeats. I also remember the point Nate Atwater made the day.
I can picture Dr. Atwater at the bottom of the small lecture hall, chalk in hand, bespectacled, wearing an Oxford shirt and sweater. Google tells me he was 16 years removed from his graduate work at Brown. This would have had him cresting 40. He turned to the chalkboard and wrote ubi sunt and then he turned to us. “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”
The moment wasn’t lost on me. Atwater was asking us to summon those snows from our own, albeit shorter years—friends from our high school lunch table, grandparents long gone, that girl we kissed once and once only. It wasn’t morbid or mean or condescending. It was an invocation to those spirits, and he has asking us to sit with them for a moment, to acknowledge we carried them with us. Pause for a moment, he was telling us, and recognize that life is short and beautiful and bittersweet.
Where are the snows of yesteryear? Where are they indeed.