Below, please find the speech of Charlie Ducey (class of 2016, German and English Major) which he gave at our Departmental Commencement Ceremony 2016:
"The most fitting way to start a speech like this, and perhaps the only appropriate way, is with a gesture of gratitude. In German one might feel inclined to say Herzlichen Dank! which translates to something like heart-felt thanks. One could extend an ordinary danke schön – thanks so much – or a more all-encompassing Danke für alles – thank you for everything – as well. In word and in deed, there is plenty to be thankful for as we sit here this fine morning as students, soon-to-be-graduates, professors, educators, administrators, and family members, commemorating the great amount of diligence and perhaps a little amusement—though mostly diligence—that has gone into our studies here. I want to take the time to thank my own family for what has really been a life time of support, and for traveling here for this weekend's festivities.
Many thanks and herzlichen Dank for that. I know that I have benefitted greatly from my time in the German department, both among the faculty and my fellow students, not to mention the ample hours spent in the shared German and Russian Department office space on the third floor of O'Shaughnessy Hall, where I would entrench myself in masterpieces of German literature as professors came in routinely to check their mail and a certain student of English and Russian – who will remain unnamed – ate his lunch and did the crossword every Tuesday and Thursday without fail. A reliable coterie of us would frequent the third-floor conference room during the weekdays, inadvertently forming a kind of clubhouse of literary study. This, I think, is part of what makes being a student in this department so rewarding: we are a small department, yes, but that is distinctly to our advantage. We are a tightly-knit group bound by an affinity for particular European languages and, on occasion, select pastries and refreshments provided by the department once a month at the very least.
The benefits extend far beyond the culinary realm, of course. It is not at all uncommon for professors of small seminar-style classes – and practically every class in the department is a small seminar-style class – to invite the whole class to their homes at the end of the semester. I have been fortunate enough to receive invitations to such events from four of my professors. And that is not all unique to me. I'm sure every one of my fellow students can attest to the hospitality and openness of the faculty here. Many of you have even met Professor Roche's horses. Again,herzlichen Dank for that.
Another blessing of a small, well-connected department such as this comes in the form of opportunities that more or less fall into your lap without much solicitation. The encouragement I have received to apply for grants or seek out travel and research opportunities has really been without parallel. Three times during my undergraduate studies I have been flown to Germany and three times I have paid essentially nothing out of pocket for experiences that have affected and challenged me deeply. From researching Werther's sorrows in Weimar to taking German classes in Bonn to hearing lectures on Hegel in Heidelberg, the journey has been upbuilding, enriching, and in a word, special. Herzlichen Dank.
If this is a time to thank those who have helped us along the way, it is likewise a time to congratulate each other for what we have accomplished. I know many of you graduates are heading off to different parts of the country and, in fact, the world for the next stage of your lives, off to career training or further education or some other worthy transition. I congratulate you for that.
As our paths separate the need naturally arises for departures and farewells—partings of sorts. The German word for this would be Abschied. It's composed of the little prefix “ab” which usually means “away” and a transformation of the verb “scheiden,” meaning to divide or to separate.Abschied. Away we separate. I wanted to find an excerpt of German literature to use as some sort of farewell, even though I'm sure the graduates will be pulling out pocket-sized Reklam editions of classic works of German literature to read on the train or their lunch breaks well beyond their time at Notre Dame. In all honesty, I do think the works of German literature we've read will stay will us. I ran into a bit of a problem while trying to select some literary farewell, though. It seems that just about every German poet I could think of has written a poem called “Abschied,” so the choice wasn't as straightforward as I thought it would be. Gottfried Benn wrote a poem titled Abschied. So did Theodor Fontane and Theodor Storm. Goethe wrote no fewer than two poems titled Abschied, one with the definite article and one without. There must be some unwritten rule that in order to rise above a certain threshold of literary fame as a German, you have to write an Abschied poem. In the end I had to settle on one by Rainer Maria Rilke, an Austrian-bohemian poet who crafted his verses in German at the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. Like us, he lived in a state of transition, a liminal space. His poem, simply titled “Abschied,” holds a privileged place in my studies, seeing as how I had to memorize it for an exercise in Professor Boes's class. As much as I would like to read the poem in its original German, I also want to get its message across to the wider audience gathered here today. So, here, with many unavoidable alterations, is the spirit of Rilke's poem, transmuted into English.
How I have felt what parting means
How I know it still; a dark, not yet gotten over,
terrible something, that once again shows
delays, and tears apart a bond of beauty
How unarmed was I, looking on at that
which, calling to me, let me go,
remaining behind, like all of womankind,
and nonetheless small and white and nothing more than this:
A wave, already not directed at me anymore,
a soft further waving –, already hardly capable
of explanation: maybe a plume tree,
from which a cuckoo hastily flown away.
It's a beautiful poem, even in my ungainly English translation, I hope. The last word in the German version is “abgeflogen.” Here the tiny prefix “ab” returns: away. The word actually feels incomplete, grammatically speaking, since it's what's called a past participle. It literally means “flown away” but it lacks the “has” part to complete the phrase “the cuckoo has hastily flown away.” The cuckoo bird, known for laying its eggs in the nests of other birds before flying off, has departed so hastily that it forgot the “has,” or so the poem seems to suggest. For all us gathered here, I hope that your partings and farewells are not hasty. I hope you are able to linger a little while longer to say your goodbyes, in German or in English, with much congratulation and thanksgiving."