Phi Beta Kappa Poems

Phi Beta Kappa has a long history of commemorative poems and orations, stretching back to the early days of the Society. The most famous of these pieces is probably Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” delivered to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1837. Nearly 200 years later, many chapters still maintain the tradition of formal literary exercises as part of their commencement activities. 

Former U.S. poet laureate Daniel Hoffman recently shared a copy of his Phi Beta Kappa poem with us, commissioned by the chapter at Swarthmore for its 1964 induction ceremony. Hoffman’s “The Peaceable Kingdom” will be added to our collection of commemorative poems and archived at the national office in Washington, D.C., before transfer to the Library of Congress.

To share your chapter’s Phi Beta Kappa poems and have them included in our collection, write to

“The Peaceable Kingdom”
  by Daniel Hoffman
Now that we sponsor the extirpation of folklore,
            The growing scarcity of trees,
Bulldozers gouging roadbeds through the valleys,
            Traffic clogged where streams once flowed,
More people nourished by more Inplant Feeding,
            The disuse of Deer Crossing signs,
Proliferation of home-heliports,
            Attrition of the harvest-home
And slagheaps overshadowing the city,
            The mountain’s heart quarried away,
Ingurgitation of knowledge by computers
            Whose feedback gives for wisdom facts
Elicited by robots or commuters
            Grown unhandy with real things
From much manipulation of abstractions,
            The seasons seldom touching them,
Not even benign falls of snow distinguishing
            A land it will be harder to love;
Where Opulence, demotic arriviste,
            Counts his costly toys like beads
While Penury gnaws knuckled fists, her brawling
            Brood of brats picking through trash,
The sullen disinherited and darker
            Faces massing in the square
As though impatient with their ill provision
            Despite the auspex of Dow Jones
That proves the National Gross Product growing,
            The deserts paved with fresh concrete,
Rumbling shadows of the freightcars tilting
            From mine to mill to guarded zone
And skies athrob with gaud and roar of firework,
            Gigantic needles jabbing high
Swiftly trailing flame like thread, then piercing
            The beady button of the moon,
Ashes on Wyoming’s fodder falling,
            Milk curdled, Stunted seed;
are we ready to go forth? Where you have come from
the students will be ever young; there it is only
the faculties and trees grow older. Leaving this friendly
hillside, you will reach your destinations─be sure
in your luggage, among trophies, clothes, and lists
of those Important Books as yet unread, to bring
the Catalogue of the Ships and tales of revolution
─the Russian, the Industrial─and explications
of both the valence table and the vertebrates
who, since the Good Duke dreamed a green world where the count
corrupts no man, agree upon hypotheses
that define the Good and tell the False from True.
Imperfect learning, bless this place
With possibilities of grace.
Let Mind, that ranges Heaven as far
As Barnard’s pendant, lightless star,
Regard, though darkness shroud the soul,
Its constant living aureole
That casts one comprehending light
Across our chaos and the night;
Transform the deserts abstract thought
And unslaked selfishness have wrought
Into orchards where the trees
Stand rich with fruit, epitomes
Of sensuous joys that leap from birth,
Nourished in the dark of earth,
Toward sapling vigor crowned with flowers,
In acts as self-fulfilled as ours
Who build a city out of stone.
And in whose image is this done?
Defend our visionary quest,
Humane intelligence, that we
Who’ve eaten fruit from nature’s tree
And know perfection but in art,
May, schooled and chastened by our past,
Conceive our city in the heart.
Daniel Hoffman (ΦBK, Columbia University, 1947) was poet laureate of the United States from 1973 to 1974, when the appointment was designated Consultant in Poetry of the Library of Congress. His first book, An Armada of Thirty Whales, was W.H. Auden’s choice for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1954. Among its many successor volumes, Brotherly Love, celebrating William Penn’s anticipation of the civil liberties enshrined a century later in our Constitution, was a finalist for both the National Book award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His fourteenth book of poems, Next to Last Words, will be published by LSU Press in April 2013, on his ninetieth birthday.
Hoffman served as Poet in Residence of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1988-1999), administering, with the help of a dozen distinguished poets and writers, The American Poets Corner. He taught at Columbia, Swarthmore, and the University of Pennsylvania, from which he retired as he Felix Schelling Professor of English Emeritus.