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Santayana, George (1863-1952)

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George Santayana

George Santayana

Biographical Introduction

George Santayana, the professor of philosophy at Harvard University, was a student of William James. He was born in Madrid, Spain. When he was nine, the family moved to Boston. His father was Spanish and soon returned to Spain. His mother’s family was Scottish. Santayana never became a United States citizen.

After graduating from Boston Latin School, Santayana attended Harvard College. He co-edited the Harvard Lampoon (where he was a cartoonist), was a member of the Hasty Pudding, and president of the Philosophical Club. After studying in Germany, Santayana returned to Harvard for his Ph.D. degree in philosophy. He never married.

Among his students were Conrad Aiken, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, as well as writer Walter Lippman, historian Samuel Eliot Morison, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

Although Santayana wrote and published various books while teaching at Harvard—including his sonnets and other poems, as well as Interpretations of Poetry and Religion and Three Philosophical Poets—he retired from Harvard at age forty-eight in order to be free for more concentrated writing. After traveling, he made Rome his home, taking refuge during World War II in an English convent, run by Catholic nuns as a hospital-clinic, until his death in 1952. He never returned to the United States. Among his eminent legacy of publications, his one novel, The Last Puritan (1936), was an international success. His autobiography is My Host the World (1953).

Selected Writings of George Santayana

O world, thou choosest not the better part!
It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.
Columbus found a world, and had no chart,
Save one that faith deciphered in the skies;
To trust the soul’s invincible surmise
Was all his science and his only art.
Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead
Across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine
By which alone the mortal heart is led
Unto the thinking of the thought divine.

The low sandy beach and the thin scrub pine,
The wide reach of bay and the long sky line,—
O, I am far from home!

The salt, salt smell of the thick sea air,
And the smooth round stones that the ebbtides wear,—
When will the good ship come?

The wretched stumps all charred and burned,
And the deep soft rut where the cartwheel turned,—
Why is the world so old?

The lapping wave, and the broad gray sky
Where the cawing crows and the slow gulls fly,—
Where are the dead untold?

The thin, slant willows by the flooded bog,
The huge stranded hulk and the floating log,—
Sorrow with life began!

And among the dark pines, and along the flat shore,
O the wind, and the wind, for evermore!
What will become of man?