In the Company of Beauty

Ham, Roswell Gray


  • Roswell Ham describes being raised by a single mother and the impact she had on his beliefs in beauty.
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And now, This I Believe. A series of living philosophies presented in the hope they may help to strengthen and enrich your life. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. Roswell G. Ham is President of Mt. Holyoke College. Born and educated in California, he was a teacher of English literature for many years at the universities of Washington, California and Yale. Here is the creed of Roswell Ham.
My journey, hitherto, has been kindly, neither in a savage environment nor in one protected from the shocks of life. My father was a forty-niner to California, reckless and always ready for adventure.
After making two or three fortunes and happily losing the last one, he died in my eighth year, and left me to the rearing of my mother. She was the first of several women who contributed most to what I now believe.
She had begun her teaching in Wisconsin at the age of fourteen, and continued her pioneering ‘til her death in my twenty-fourth year. She was a woman, remarkably clear-sighted, deeply but quietly religious, and affectionate without display. Life was not easy for her and sometimes tragic, but she had resources to meet the best and the worst. In public service, with one other person, she was chiefly the creator of a fine school system in her own town, while simultaneously running a hotel, paying off mortgages, and providing a very real family life.
Thus engaged, she managed to put her two sons through college. In my own case, literally so. For at the end of my freshman year, I lost the use of my eyes for a long period, and she lent me her own for some three to five hours a day and saw me through.
Yet, in spite of this close community, I will not pretend that I ever fully knew her, the reserves and depths of her nature were so great. Nor will I pretend that I knew another superb woman, who came subsequently into my life. She was a poet, whose mind moved by indirection through a world of beauty that was her own, only revealed—and then, but partially—in her posthumous book of verse. Thus for years, with one or the other of them, I walked in the company of beauty, at times blind to it, or at best only dimly apprehending it.
But today, I believe in its ultimate reality. One is hard pressed to formulate a basic belief. To me, it stands in terms of symbols: great people that I have partially known; great characters of the imagination that I have read and reread; beauty that I have seen; and high purpose that I have felt. I believe in those symbols. And I also know for certain that the unseen is often far more real than the seen. It is true in personality and religion, and I rather think that it is true in science. Christ spoke in parables and Shakespeare in magnificent allegory. And on the reverse of the medal, a wise scientist once wrote a book on the limitations of science. Science can go a vast way within that thesis, but I do not believe that it can ever make the ultimate leap.
Nor do I attempt to make the ultimate leap, even though my belief in the unseen is strong. I do not deny the hereafter, indeed suspect that it may be there. But I leave that to another chapter, which, incidentally, I do not conceive will be much more interesting than this one. Shakespeare never wrote a sixth act to his dramas. And as a fellow traveler in this world, I am inclined to proceed in his company.
That was Roswell G. Ham, the president of Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts who also manages to teach a course in Shakespeare.