Nicholas Murray Butler was an educator, philosopher, university president and Nobel prize winner. He was an adviser to seven presidents and a friend to statesmen in many foreign nations. A recipient of decorations from fifteen foreign governments he was awarded honorary degrees from thirty-seven colleges and universities. He was a member of more than fifty learned societies and the author of a small library of books, pamphlets, reports, and speeches. He was an international traveler who crossed the Atlantic at a hundred times or more. A national leader of the Republican Party he advocated peace and he was the embodiment of everything he frequently spoke about. He was called “Nicholas Miraculous” by his good friend Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1882, at the age of twenty, he received his bachelor’s degree, in 1883, a master’s degree, in 1884, a doctorate – all from Columbia College. Later, Butler would become president of Columbia from 1902 to 1945. He was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 1925 to 1945, and received the eight Republican Party electoral votes for Vice President of the United States in the 1912 presidential race. He became active in the successful effort to bring about the repeal of prohibition in 1933.
Despite Butler’s accomplishments, he was regarded by many people as an arrogant smarty pants. He was once quoted as saying: “America is the best half-educated country in the world”. His work tended toward the portentous and overblown. In The American Mercury, the critic Dorothy Dunbar Bromley referred to Butler’s pronouncements as “those interminable miasmas of guff.”
Enter Rolfe Humphries
One of his former students George Rolfe Humphries was a noted poet, translator, teacher, critic and editor. He taught at many poetry and creative writing workshops, including the University of New Hampshire Writers’ Conference and the Writers’ Conference in the Rocky Mountains at the University of Colorado.
Humphries was asked to write an original poem for “Poetry Magazine” in June 1939. He was given the title and was asked to assure that the poem contained one classical reference per line and also be in unrhymed iambic pentameter. “Poetry” was then the most prestigious magazine in its field. The magazine accepted the poem as written and published it before any of the editors realized that something was “up”.
This is the poem:
AN ODE FOR A PHI BETA KAPPA AFFAIR
Niobe’s daughters yearn to the womb again,
Ionians bright and fair, to the chill stone;
Chaos in cry, Actaeon’s angry pack,
Hounds of Molussus, shaggy wolves driven
Over Ampsanctus’ vale and Pentheus’ glade,
Laelaps and Ladon, Dromas, Canace,”
As these in fury harry brake and hill
So the great dogs of evil bay the world.
Memory, Mother of Muses, be resigned
Until King Saturn comes to rule again!
Remember now no more the golden day
Remember now no more the fading gold,
Astraea fled, Proserpina in hell;
You searchers of the earth be reconciled!
Because, through all the blight of human woe,
Under Robigo’s rust, and Clotho’s shears,
The mind of man still keeps its argosies,
Lacedaemonian Helen wakes her tower,
Echo replies, and lamentation loud
Reverberates from Thrace to Delos Isle;
Itylus grieves, for whom the nightingale
Sweetly as ever tunes her Daulian strain.
And over Tenedos the flagship burns.
How shall men loiter when the great moon shines
Opaque upon the sail, and Argive seas
Rear like blue dolphins their cerulean curves?
Samos is fallen, Lesbos streams with fire,
Etna in rage, Canopus cold in hate,
Summon the Orphic bard to stranger dreams.
And so for us who raise Athene’s torch.
Sufficient to her message in this hour:
Sons of Columbia, awake, arise!
What makes this poem really impressive is that, on top of everything else, it is an acrostic. Read the first letter of each line to find out what Humphries really thinks of his former Professor Nicholas Miraculous!
Reading down from the top you will find that it spells:
“NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER IS A HORSES ASS”
When this was discovered the magazine was not pleased with Mr. Humphries and wrote an article in the next issue barring him from the magazine forever:
“Not being accustomed to hold manuscripts up to the mirror or to test them for cryptograms, the editors recently accepted and printed a poem containing a concealed scurrilous phrase aimed at a well-known person. This was not called to their attention until several weeks after the issue had been published. The phrase in question is puerile and uninteresting, and would not be referred to except that it is necessary to disclaim editorial responsibility. Apparently it is also necessary to state a principle which one would have though obvious; namely, that any contributor who allows such matter to be printed without the editors’ knowledge is guilty of a serious breach of confidence, and will automatically disbar himself from the magazine.”
They could ban him, but they could not stop the greatest literary prank of all time.