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Nicholas Murray Butler (April 2, 1862-December 7, 1947), educator and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

Born in Elizabeth, NJ to a manufacturer and the daughter of a clergyman, Butler was a prodigy. He studied philosophy at Columbia University, then merely Columbia College, earning his bachelor's degree in 1882, a master's degree in 1883, and a doctoral degree in 1884. Thanks to the influence of Columbia president Frederick Barnard, Butler became an educator. He joined the teaching staff of the philosophy department in 1885, became a professor in 1890, and was appointed president of the school in 1901.

Butler remained president of Columbia until 1945 and transformed it from a regional school into one respected around the world. The size of the student body during his tenure exploded from a mere 4000 to 34,000. It expanded its graduate schools, professional training, and into new fields of study. Especially concerned with pedagogy, he helped found the New York College for the Training of Teachers, which is now Columbia's Teachers College. He advocated new methods of teaching and founded a journal, Educational Review, which he edited himself for thirty years.

As if all this wasn't enough, Butler moved into politics while still a professor. Butler, his friend Elihu Root, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt formed a quartet which dominated Republican party politics in those years, until Roosevelt broke from the party to run for president as a Progressive in 1912. Butler ran as Taft's vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, but the Roosevelt split led to a humiliating defeat as Taft failed to secure a second term and Democrat Woodrow Wilson became president. In 1916, he worked for Root's failed attempt to capture the Republican nomination, and in 1920 and 1928 he ran unsuccessful attempts to become the nominee himself.

Butler turned to international diplomacy and world peace even before his political career ended. In 1907, he became president of the US branch of the Conciliation internationale, the peace organization founded by French Nobel peace prize winner d'Estournelles de Constant, and Butler's branch quickly eclipsed the rest of it. In 1910, he convinced Andrew Carnegie to put up $10 million for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.ceip.com), and Butler served in various positions, including president, in that organization until 1945. In the US, Butler was a prominent champion of the Kellog-Briand Pact, an eventually unsuccessful and ineffective treaty to outlaw war dreamed up by French foreign minister Aristide Briand and US Secretary of State Frank B. Kellog. For all these efforts, he was awarded the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize, sharing it with Jane Addams.

It is no wonder that Teddy Roosevelt dubbed him "Nicholas Miraculous". But that epithet was not always applied complimentarily, because great success usually comes with great arrogance as well. A review of his memoir, Across the Busy Years, in Time magazine contained this terse sentence: "Dr. Butler's autobiography betrays no false modesty."

One of his former students at Columbia's Teachers College, Rolfe Humphries, was not fond of him either. Humphries had become an accomplished poet, translator, critic, and classicist, and coached football at a boys' school. In 1939, he penned an impressive if uninspiring poem for Poetry magazine, both then and now the most prestigious journal of poetry in America. The work is in blank verse and is packed with classical allusions, at least one per line:


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 Nicholas Miraculous. Poetry published this in June 1939. In the August issue, the editorial staff huffed:

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.

And thus Humphries was barred from Poetry, but the ban was not permanent, and he had the satisfaction of pulling of one of the 20th century's funniest literary pranks.

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