Jonathan Service: “Pivoting Perspectives”

Graduate English address at Harvard Commencement 2012

Jonathan Service

In addition to giving the graduate English address, Jonathan Service received a Ph.D. in Japanese history today. In his speech, he looked to the Japanese poet Basho for wisdom.

Yuku haru ya
Tori naki
Uo no me ha namida

This was the poem Basho wrote for the occasion of his departure from his home near Edo, the metropolis that would become Tokyo, as he sought "to leave behind the cosmopolitan comforts of the city in order to discover the wilds of the north. The text translates: "It is the spring of leaving; the birds are crying, and in the eyes of the fish, there are tears."

Charming as this image may be, Service suggested that "the ascription of human emotion to the world around us, while it raises us up to abstract heights, tends to obscure the intimate, the concrete, the here and now of the people around us." He asked his readers to assume that the birds are not "crying" but merely singing as they always do, and that the fish have wet eyes simply because they live in the water. "With this second reading in mind," he said, "...make time today to look each member of your family in the eyes and tell them how much you appreciated their love and thank your teachers and mentors for opening fresh vistas before you."

Then, Service instructed his listeners to return to the first interpretation of Basho's poem: "Allow yourself to perceive all of nature conspiring to celebrate your achievement... Every bee buzzing the news, every lily whispering of the changes you will make, every ant lining up in salute...the very walls of the University pulling themselves up to their full height as they think of what you will do in the world out there."


You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

News Briefs: Important University Updates

A large leap in the smallest science, decarbonization debates, admissions lawsuit

Trade Cards in the Age of Invention

A nineteenth-century advertising medium traces the rise of consumer culture.

Sailing Solo

James Hammitt ’78, is a professor at the School of Public Health—and a superb sailor.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults