Response from Dame Janet Nelson

Published: 2 July 2012

Response from Dame Janet Nelson to the speech given by the Principal of the University of Glasgow on Commemoration Day, Wednesday 13 June 2012

Dame Janet NelsonChancellor, Principal, colleagues, fellow-alumni, friends, it’s for me an immense privilege and delight to be here with you, and to have been asked to speak on behalf of those honoured by this University today. What better to have in mind than the words chosen by Pope Nicholas V in his foundation charter for the University in 1451: 

 ‘Amongst other blessings which mortal man is able in this transient life by the gift of God to obtain, it is to be reckoned not among the least, that by assiduous study he may win the pearl of knowledge, which shows him the way to live well and happily, … and opens the door for him clearly to understand the mysteries of the Universe…’

With ‘understanding the mysteries of the Universe’ firmly in view as the aim and object of university study, I want to read you a short poem which is at once ancient and modern:

 Up beyond the Universe and back

Down to the tiniest chigger [that’s a Scots word for a mite that gets under your skin and itches] in the finger

I outstrip the moon in brightness

I outrun midsummer suns.

I embrace the seas and other waters

I am fresh and green as the fields I form.

I walk under hell, I fly over the heavens

I am the land, I am the ocean.

I claim this honour, I claim its worth.

I am what I claim. So, what is my name?

 The poem’s good to think with here and today. Its author was Edwin Morgan (1920-2010), Scotland’s first own makar or poet laureate, Glasgow-born and-bred, an alumnus of this University, a teacher of English here for 30 years, a language-lover and translater in and out of many languages, and recipient of an honorary doctorate here in 1990.

The poem I just read was written in 2009. It’s based on an Old English poem written in an Anglo-Saxon book over 1000 years ago. Its title is ‘Riddle’ – and a riddle’s a puzzle, where every line reveals but also conceals, and only when you’ve thought the whole thing through do you have an answer, a name – in this case: Creation.

The idea of creation can lead you into many different places – all of them somehow represented on today’s list of honorands – and to many places at once, for the disciplines and concerns of universities, originally invented in Western Europe, are nowadays transnational and global, with fields overlapping interdisciplinarily. In religious traditions [the Christian one is represented here by the Revd John Harvey] creation means, usually these days not literally but metaphorically, a divine bringing-into-being of the universe, and consequently for humankind a profound moral concern with and for all that therein is. For scientists medical and physical [represented here by Dr Lee Goldman and Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer and Mrs Alison Bruce], creation can be taken, metonymically, as the object of quests for understanding of the mysteries of matter, dead and alive, the creation of knowledge of all kinds pertaining to the material world, and through that knowledge upholding standards of rigorous science and of care and conservation of animal (including human), vegetable and mineral in space and time. For communications professionals and for Humanities scholars and Social Scientists [variously represented here by Ms Jackie Bird, Professor Fernando Galván and Dr Viviane Reding, and me] the objects of study are humankind themselves and the works men and women have individually and collectively created – languages, institutions, cultures material and textual – hence including poetic creation, which brings us back to Eddie Morgan.

He found metaphors for the human condition in the notions of exploration; of places abroad and at home – of Glasgow; of discoveries aimed at or unexpected, serendipitous; of voyages –of the mind and bodily. ‘Push the boat out, compañeros,
push the boat out, whatever the sea…. Unknown is best, it beckons best’. In exploring, we can discover. In engaging with different notions of creation, we ourselves create. We encounter what may be patterns, even if we don’t always look for them; and we find and decipher meanings, provisional revelations.

In the riddle poem, Creation itself  - ‘I claim this honour, I claim its worth’ -  is what it claims.

As for us, don’t we have to count ourselves happy with partial, incremental, discoveries in whatever our discipline may be, with what Eddie Morgan in another poem called ‘perfect unfinishedness’? The best of the many good reasons universities exist is, as Pope Nicholas said in 1451, to ‘open doors to mysteries’, in other words, to disclose glimpses, to find and disseminate even tiniest chiggers of knowledge and understanding. Glasgow has been on the case for longer than most. It has been over the centuries an alma mater, a benign mother, to tens of thousands of students, opening doors for them with enlightening effects that are cumulatively very great indeed. Those alumni through their ‘assiduous study’ have earned covenanted blessings on lines Pope Nicholas foretold. But the honorary degrees the university bestows are uncovenanted - blessings that can’t truly be claimed but which we honorands prize as gifts beyond price. As we join the ranks of Glasgow’s alumni, nurtured ones, in a ceremony which, year by year, is also a commemoration of past benefactors, many of them alumni too, we thank both the University and all those who came before us, our antecessores; for in honouring them we honour our new alma mater: this year again ‘may she arise in glory’.

First published: 2 July 2012

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