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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

“The night of time far surpasseth the day”

— One of the most important things you can do to strengthen the life of a residential college is to tie that life into the annual cycle of nature. Every residential college should of course have a regular rhythm of weekly, monthly, and annual events, but the ultimate anchor for that rhythm must be the rhythm of nature, which is an inexhaustible source of opportunities for teaching with-out the curriculum.

Today is the September equinox: at 15:44 GMT the sun will be directly overhead at the equator, and from that moment the southern hemisphere will head into spring and the northern hemisphere will head into fall. In the northern hemisphere we usually label this block on the calendar the autumnal equinox, but since antipodeans experience it as the vernal equinox, most scientists today use the hemispherically-correct term “September equinox.”

If you have one of the elegant wall-mounted planetary daylight displays made by Geochron—I’ve always wanted one—you’ll see that this is the point, in both hemispheres, of equal day and equal night. One of the equivalent displays that are freely available online will show you the same thing:

[Illumination of the earth on the equinox]

That’s an image that should be on your college office door today, or posted to your residential college blog, with an open question about its significance (and a chocolate prize waiting in the office for the provider of the correct answer).

An astronomical turning point, the equinox has often been made into a literary metaphor, as in Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia (1658), the most graceful meditation on time in the English language and an ideal work from which to pluck a quotation-of-the-week for your residential college newsletter. Brown’s universe was a 6000-year universe, and he reckoned that by the seventeenth century “the remaining particle of futurity” was small indeed; nearly all of history had already run its course:

The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day; and who knows when was the equinox?

(In our modern age we can say with confidence that Browne’s calculations were off by a few hundred years at least, since we know that in 2370 the above quotation will appear on the dedication plaque of the Nova-class USS Equinox.)

The September equinox in the northern hemisphere represents both the end of summer and at the same time the beginning of autumn. The English writer Elizabeth Jennings captured the equinoctial moment in 1955 in a strikingly enjambed poem—and as she was a graduate of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, that poem deserves to be on many a residential college door today as well:

Song at the Beginning of Autumn

Now watch this autumn that arrives
In smells. All looks like summer still;
Colours are quite unchanged, the air
On green and white serenely thrives.
Heavy the trees with growth and full
The fields. Flowers flourish everywhere.

Proust who collected time within
A child’s cake would understand
The ambiguity of this—
Summer still raging while a thin
Column of smoke stirs from the land
Proving that autumn gropes for us.

But every season is a kind
Of rich nostalgia. We give names—
Autumn and summer, winter, spring—
As though to unfasten from the mind
Our moods and give them outward forms.
We want the certain, solid thing.

But I am carried back against
My will into a childhood where
Autumn is bonfires, marbles, smoke;
I lean against my window fenced
From evocations in the air.
When I said autumn, autumn broke.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021