A Bitter Valediction

In the days since the death of fourth-year student Yeardley Love, the thoughts of many in our academic community have turned to loss and remembrance. To provide a perspective from the classroom, I have invited Michael Suarez to be the first guest essayist on my blog. He’s the new director of the Rare Book School at U.Va. and a professor of English who two weeks ago found himself, and his students, working through a remarkably timely piece of classic English poetry. -MW

This time was different.  This time, death had come home to them.  They had lost one of their own and now mortality and the transience of human endeavor were present as never before.  Yeardley Love was neither an aged grandparent nor a prom-night drunk driver from a high school on the other side of the county.  Every student in my English poetry seminar knew that “May 3, 2010” should not have been the date on her gravestone and she in no way deserved to die.  In their last class at the University for most in attendance, the air was filled with a bitter valediction, a profound sense of injustice, a troubling vulnerability, an overwhelming conviction that this should not have been.

Many who never even knew Yeardley are feeling bereft in the root sense of that word: something precious has been stolen from us; a life has been taken and the integrity of the community radically compromised, seemingly by one of its members.  A university is meant to be place of safety, a protected space for exchange and debate, for competition and friendship.  In Mr. Jefferson’s day, they would have called it “the genius of the place,” the spirit that pervades the Grounds and the people who here give themselves together to a common enterprise, a community of learning, a world enriched by conversation, an honor-bound university where one student’s striving for excellence ennobles all, and where another’s fall diminishes all.

The glorious business of the University is not limited to seeking truth, but necessarily includes the search for meaning, a striving to understand from multiple perspectives what it is to be authentically human.  The answers – and the questions – inevitably take different forms, but in the weeks since Yeardley Love’s tragic murder those questions have been especially pressing.  Students of many faiths and of none have spoken with me, a Jesuit priest, as doubtless they have with other counselors and mentors, about what has happened here, about the senselessness of violence, and about their belief that in Yeardley’s death something of what is most precious about this institution and our common endeavor has been put under threat.  Very often, they give voice to anger and recrimination, to confusion and disbelief.

In the late afternoon on the final day of classes here, twelve students and I came back to the place where we had first begun.  Revisiting texts from our earliest explorations of eighteenth-century English poetry together, we pored over Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” arguably the work in all of English literature about death and remembrance, about mortality and community.  We had been here before on a dreary January day, when not even the high drifts of snow could catch enough fading light to cheer our gathering in the basement of Alderman Library.  Tentatively finding our way, a seminar as yet unpracticed in the habits of Augustan verse, we had read:

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

We had roamed through the graveyard that Gray so carefully paints, but the cemetery at Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire, England, where he sat and finished his great poem might as well have been a million miles away, and Gray’s ruminations on how “The paths of glory lead but to the grave” seemed far distant from my students’ experience and concerns.  But now Gray’s words had a painful resonance for these young women and men no less than for their professor.

As with all grief, the inability of our sorrow to rescue Yeardley Love, or George Huguely, from the finality of what has happened only adds to our sense of frustration and pain.  “I weep the more because I weep in vain,” Gray had written about the death of his school friend Richard West.  Yet, many in Charlottesville have sought to redeem the time in the midst of evil by being more explicitly and more intentionally a community for and with our students, by recalling to ourselves the high purpose of this institution, and by dedicating ourselves anew to its noble mission of learning for the common good.

Yeardley Love will receive her degree posthumously on the 23rd of May.  On that day, spare a thought for the class of 2010.  The knowledge they bear as they walk the Lawn at Final Exercises has cost them, and their alma mater, especially dear.

Michael F. Suarez, S.J. is Director of the Rare Book School, Professor of English, and University Professor.

18 Responses to “A Bitter Valediction”

  1. Cheryll Lewis says:

    I hope that this essay will be a continual source of comfort for the students and the families because it takes a long time ( perhaps never) to recover from this type of devestation. So I say to all those lost to us in death “Rest in Peace, dear ones, until the day our Lord calls you to awaken”. John 5: 28 &29.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean Kennedy and UVA Serp Society, cclayporter. cclayporter said: Compassion in words for Yeardley Love. How a professor is coping; how he is helping his students cope: http://bit.ly/b6tpoT [...]

  3. C. Pfeiffer Trowbridge Law '53 says:

    Nothing can bring understanding to this tragedy but such poetry as this can help in the grieving process. The 42 years I spent as a circuit judge exposed me to man’s inhumanity to man and the senseless actions some take that disqualify them as humans. There is no anwer to this. We just have to move on.

  4. Gerry A. Zimmerman, College '59 says:

    What an eloquent tribute to Ms Love. It was a tragedy that touched many people. May she rest in peace.

  5. Raymond (Rick) Holt says:

    There can be no retribution strong enough to address the transgression of this villainous act. However, retribution is not in the domain of the UVA community. Let us pray for justice to prevail to the maximum extent, and further pray for consolation of her family and all others at UVA.

  6. There is a great deal of comfort within the shelter of our serpentine walls. There is intellectual freedom, pursuit of truth and a rare society of individuals committed to leaving the cave and walking towards the light . We are above all else a community of honor.
    It is for this reason I feel so profoundly the pain and regret for a life cut short. That it occurred at the hand of one of our own is unimaginable. I believe we owe it to Ms. Love and all that she held dear to not let the actions of an individual, even one of our own, deter us from our quest. We should grieve until we can grieve no more and then stand together for the love of one who no longer stand with us to continue the good work making ourselves and our society a better place.

  7. Jim Malone says:

    At this incredibly difficult time for a young person, or a parent, it is helpful to consider the thoughts of St. Augustine who wrote in describing his despair upon the death of a friend – “This is what comes of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you might lose. If love is to be a blessing and not a misery, it must only be for a God who will never pass away.” Yeardley Love’s cruel death can only help us if we contemplate upon what Agustine wrote. We are unlikely to achieve Augustine’s level of devotion, but understand that what he is saying is that while our love of family, friends and our spouse should be great and intense, it still is not as great as the love our Supreme Being has bestowed on us. That love lasts for all eternity. We must be faithful in our hearts, our minds and our soul – and go there to find peace and strength in this horrible moment.

  8. Beth Searcy says:

    Thank you for this poignant reflection, Dr. Suarez. Rest in peace, Yeardley Love.

  9. Thank you, Meredith, for sharing this with us. Poetry and scripture can help us heal. I agree that St. Augustine’s words are true, that we must look to God and align ourselves with what God designed us to be, to humble ourselves for His glory. Yeardley’s death is a symptom of a culture which has ignored the lessons of history. She was an angel in this life and is certainly one in the next. We have four daughters, the oldest is walking the lawn at her graduatation on Sunday. We never dreamed the capitals would be draped in black, as they should be, or that our thoughts will be so very much with the Loves and the Huguely families, praying that we can draw from this some lessons on how to care for and guide our children and youth. Mothers and fathers reading this, please go spend time with your children. Turn off the TV. Please lead them to fine poetry and the Bible, to a better place. Where are our priorities?

  10. Ed Burley, Law '90 says:

    I read “A Bitter Valediction” this morning in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where death is ever present and weekly we morn the loss of valiant young men and women from throughout NATO and Allied Nations who strive for freedom. The loss of Yeardley Love is all the more tragic, however, because her loss was not for a cause worth dying for, but because of the selfishness of another. I am sorry that such tragedy has come to The University.

  11. James R. Brett, College '62 says:

    There is a sense taken from the expressions of grief and condolence that the murder of Yeardley Love was an isolated and unaccountable event, a bolt from the blue. It was not. The grief we all feel is also a guilt we suppress, a resistance to taking a clear-eyed look at the murder and the sure knowledge that there is causation and motive and opportunity all of which we deny for the lack of courage to stand up to it.

    If you are going to take in a young person and train them to aggressive behaviors which you will then exploit for the benefit of the reputation of the institution, the institution has an equal and unrelievable responsibility to train that person to understand the nature of aggressive behavior, to come to terms with it, to learn how to channel it productively. There seems to be precious little or none of this here, but rather an blind-eye exploitation of the aggression and no attention to the surrounding responsibilities.

    Virginia is a special place among intellectual places, a community of scholars first and foremost. I am sickened by the murder and sickened by the dishonor it brings to our University. I am saying that the Athletics Department and its Director must be held to account for their negligence, their failure to deal appropriately and effectively with a situation that was brewing and smoldering for a long time, their deliberate ignorance, and their misplaced priorities. Coaches must have a place to turn when their own resources are exhausted, and the A.D. has the responsibility to make sure that they do, and the President has the responsibility to see to it that the Athletic Director understands this.

  12. David Williams, college '91 says:

    Looking back 19 years when I walked the lawn for final exercises I can only think of the poignant excerpt from Housman…..
    Into my heart an air that kills
    from yon far country blows
    what are those blue remembered hills
    what spires, what farms are those?
    That is the land of lost content,
    I see it shining plain
    the happy highways where I went
    and cannot come again..

    youth, the promise of tomorrow…gone forever for two students–tragic

  13. ann beddingfield says:

    Yes, it is clear the men’s lacrosse coach knew there was a problem when it was reported to him that George had attacked a sleeping teammate because he thought the latter had kissed Yeardley. The news account I read stated that the coach disciplined both players. That sounds incredible to me so maybe that report is inaccurate. But anyone who would hit a sleeping person has a big problem and the coach should have intervened.

  14. lynn noland says:

    There is sadness from every direction in the wake of this wonderful young woman’s death. My heart is heavy for her family and for us all. I pray that those of us in our communities who feel rage or see rage recognize it for what it is, a plea for help. Please get help or help those you love obtain it. There is another way. This comment is not meant to lay blame, simply to plead the case for competent psychological help. There is no shame in relying on the skills and capabilities of one another. Only wisdom
    Lynn Noland
    nursing ’73; college ’91

  15. Gloria Frank, College 1982 says:

    I walked the Lawn 28 years ago at graduation and also the day before Yeardley was killed in that I was spending a lovely weekend in Charlottesville, as I have often done in the years since my time at UVa. I sometimes think that I might have passed Yeardley or George on the Corner that weekend, as they went about preparations for exams and graduation, never suspecting that their lives would be over in a matter of days or hours. But isn’t that the lesson one learns with middle age–to understand mortality and even value it? I am saddened for the Class of 2010 and all of the students, for having to learn this lesson prematurely. Be proud class of 2010, for your allegiance to the university will never fade, and your memories of Yeardley and George will guide and strengthen you. My sincere condolences to all family members and friends.

  16. Melissa College '07 says:

    Thank you Meredith and Dr. Suarez. This is a great piece that I hope will help many students cope. As young as I am, I know all too well that it is extraordinarily hard to lose someone you love and care about, let alone someone within your community. I grew into the person I am today at the University, and the term “It hits close to home” is not enough even having been away for a year. What I have always loved about UVA is that feeling that no matter who you are, what college you are in, who your friends are or how long you have been away, you are connected to every individual whether you know them or not. You are part of the tradition, and we are all part of this tragedy. I pray for the families and friends who are close to Yeardley and George. Life has plans, and many times they don’t make sense. The Lord must have had bigger and better plans for Yeardley, and just knowing that will hopefully help everyone remain strong!

  17. Brawner Cates says:

    Reading the essay&comments above is somewhat helpful as was attending my niece’s graduation from McIntire yesterday but I still get very ill thinking about this episode. Attending a Lacrosse game at Klockner on a pretty spring day was absolutely one of my favorite pastimes. I fear it will never be the same for me. I’m reminded what a frightening organism the human brain can be, capable of both great good and great evil. We certainly see this all over the world. For the most part the Good outweighs the Evil. That is my solace.

  18. Claudia Furlow says:

    Death is an event that ebbs and flows for all of us, and we must try not to suffer the pain from the death of others too deeply. It’s only one mark in a very long road ahead of other deaths at other times. Today is the anniversary of my dead sister’s birth, gone now 28 years. Best to approach it from the viewpoint of William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.” His words whisper to me like an updraft around a cemetery tree trunk, and I find peace and comfort in the circumstances of my sister’s life.