NORTON: No, we have not yet worn 'the honors of Honor'

The common refrain is a misappropriation of the original intent of Hay’s poem ‘The Honor Men’


James Hay is not defining “the honors of Honor” to be the act of graduating from a school as prominent as the University, but rather defining what it means to truly graduate in terms of long-term honorable behavior.

Marshall Bronfin | Cavalier Daily

Mid-May is always an exciting time for the University — thousands of students see the culmination of many years’ work surrounded by family and friends. As a member of the Class of 2017, I was among those celebrating this past weekend. If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, pictures of friends in black gowns have proliferated, and many have included a possibly botched variant of the oft-repeated line: “I have worn the honors of Honor. I have graduated from Virginia.” Unfortunately, this claim does not respect the context nor intent of the original text.

These two sentences are from the conclusion to the poem “The Honor Men,” by James Hay. The day after I walked the Lawn and received my degree, I ventured to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library to spend a few hours exploring the origins of this work.

A 1976 biographical pamphlet from The Purple Shadows documents shows some of Hay’s actions during his undergraduate years at the University. Hay took an active role in student organizations, serving as the editor of Corks and Curls (in addition to holding positions in other groups). In this capacity, he wrote poems for student publications, including “The Honor Men.” He graduated from the University, but the pamphlet reports he did not actually complete the course requirements for the degree with which he was awarded. (In that time, the pamphlet explains, education worthy of a degree was measured in means other than simply completing courses). The library’s earliest copy of “The Honor Men” is a 1903 printing, courtesy of Corks and Curls, but it has been reproduced for many purposes, ranging from bookmarks distributed by the Z Society to a call for contributions to the 1941 Alumni Fund and, quite recently, an page in the Honor Committee’s Green Book that we all received during our welcome week at the University.

While everyone is familiar with the closing lines, the opening is crucial to understanding the meaning of the poem: “The University of Virginia writes her highest degree on the souls of her / sons. / the parchment page of scholarship — the colored ribbon of a society — / the jeweled emblem of a fraternity —the orange symbol of athletic / prowess — all these, a year hence, will be at best the mementos / of happy hours.”

From the outset, Hay is making it clear that the trappings of graduation and the physical tokens of our time at the University are but shallow reminders — he further likens them to a “withered flower” that is pressed “between the pages of a book for sentiment’s sake.” Instead, he contends, the degree is written on the souls of students. He continues by listing six different attributes of honorable behavior, then closes with:

“If you live a long time and, keeping faith in all these things [the attributes of honorable behavior] hour by hour, still see that the sun gilds your path with real gold and that the moon floats in dream silver;

then … remembering the purple shadows on the lawn, the majesty of the colonnades, and the dream of your youth, you may say in reverence and thankfulness: ‘I have worn the honors of Honor.’ I graduated from Virginia.’”

Hay says the mark of a true graduate of the University is not a diploma, membership in a group, or some merely physical marker. Rather, it is the effect that Virginia’s emphasis on Honor — integrity, helping those weaker than oneself, holding ideals over individual gain and not causing injury to others — causes over the course of one’s life. He is not defining “the honors of Honor” to be the act of graduating from a school as prominent as the University, but rather defining what it means to truly graduate in terms of long-term honorable behavior.

The point Hay makes is that only after living with Honor for our entire life may we claim to have “worn the honors of Honor.” To quote these lines after merely walking the Lawn and receiving a diploma strips them of their context and meaning; it becomes a boast in the greatness of our school, rather than a reverent, contented reflection on life. In our final acts following graduation, we ought to exercise the academic integrity we practiced in our classes by using quotations in a manner consistent with the author’s intent.

Andrew Norton is a 2017 graduate from the Engineering School.

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