In Memoriam, William Yandell Elliott, 1896-1979
Memorial Church, Harvard University
Ward Elliott, 29 January 1979

This is the last of three formal memorials for my father. The first was in the surroundings of his last years, at his country church in Virginia, among his family and neighbors. The second was in the surroundings of his first years, among the boxwoods in Murfreesboro, in the presence of a large number of his buried ancestors and a smaller number of his living descendants. Today we gather to remember the middle years of his life, the years at Harvard which he considered his greatest, and which many now consider Harvard's greatest.

You, his students and friends from those years, know he was a man of many talents. He was a scholar; a statesman who could see things clearly to which others were blind; a man of deep religious sensitivity; a man of the soil. He was a fighter, a boxer in his college days, a battery commander in World War I, a man who fought and bred gamecocks all his life, and, above all, a man in the thick of controversy at home and war abroad for more than fifty years of public life. Yet he was also a man who cherished honorable peace and loved to commend to his students the stern but pacific words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” He was a devoted family man, not just for us, his blood family, but also for the larger family of his students, co-workers, and friends. He expected great things of us, as we did of him.

He was a genius with words, a writer, a poet, a powerful orator, a master storyteller, a man who in a single encounter could move people to their foundations. This moving power was deeper than words. He retained it to the end, after he had lost his command of words, and the vivid recollections of a long-ago speech or conversation so common among those who have met him are more apt to be of his power and presence than of the words he used. My own most recurrent memory of him is completely nonverbal. It is the look in his eyes years ago in Virginia when he had put me on a bus to the city. Before the bus left, he came to the window and put his hand on the glass, radiating feelings of pride, love, possession, and loss, feelings perhaps not so different from our own as we look at him through the glass of his own departure.

Many people thought of him as something of a stranger. Here at Harvard he was a man who always seemed to have just arrived from Washington with his Tennessee accent -- or his Oxford one -- and his mind on Plato, Shakespeare, King David, A.D. Lindsay, or Nancy Turner, great men and women of other places or times. In Cambridge he was unfashionably unwilling to give communism or fascism the benefit of the doubt. In the South he persisted in quoting Lincoln to people reared on Lee and Jackson. When he and his poet friends chose the name Fugitives for themselves, it was to adopt the role of strangers to the shallow, mint-julep conventions of the Edwardian South even as they celebrated the deeper, broader traditions which the South had to share with all peoples and times. To him, the Fugitive image was that of the Eleatic Stranger of Plato's Laws, whose perspectives were larger than those of any one polis or era.

Yet in the years I knew him he was deeply at home wherever he was because he was deeply at home with himself, with his causes, and with his God. More than most men, he was a true Eleatic, a man who could overarch time and place and deepen and enrich whatever time and place he might occupy, Harvard no less than the others.

I trace many of the qualities I have mentioned to his Eleatic side: his tremendous moving powers; his inner serenity; his air of the forever stranger who is forever most thoroughly at home; his own greatness; and his amazing capacity to see and arouse greatness in others by invoking a sense of shared great purpose.

I hope that you, his dear friends of his greatest days, will not only join me in mourning that he is gone, but also in rejoicing that he lived and taught as magnificently as he did; that it was our good fortune to have shared in his learning; and that his power to teach us and move us has not been quenched by death. Today is the last of the public memorials for him, but public memorials are only a marker for the private memorials each of us will have in our hearts for him, and for what he had to teach us.

I do not doubt that he has left a bit of Tennessee in each of you, as he has in me. I would like to leave you with some words from his own poem, Return to Tennessee, which I read over his grave in Murfreesboro. Kind-eyed people, kinsmen,
Amiable, gentle folk and forgiving --
Receive me, a wanderer from you --
Receive me, returning.
Wonderful, gentle folk, calm-eyed,
Always with a smile, though faces are lined,
And eyes are sometimes deeply somber,
Give me, long an exile, your faith again.
You that are wise in the oldest wisdom, endow me
With your rich simplicity.
Here in these blue-grassed plains and lime-stone hills,
In these blessed valleys where trees noble and straight
Inspire tall men and true women to raise them sons,
Here let me stay awhile for strength and faith,
And at the end be gathered to my fathers' God,
To rest here in peace.

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