Ladies and gentleman, guests, and family members and our new graduates: graduation feels very much like a significant ending. You have done the studying, sat the exams and/or submitted the work, waited for the results, got them, and now here you are marking a major ritual point in your life, a rite of passage, by changing your garb, and becoming something that you formally were not before, the possessor of a particular degree from this University. And let me congratulate you all again, most warmly on that; it is a wonderful achievement.
But graduation is also about starting out. It opens a new phase in your life. Perhaps you are going on to further study, perhaps you have a job in prospect, perhaps you are still considering what to do next. It very probably involves you going away from St Andrews – if only for a while. Even if you are staying here, at one fundamental level you are moving on.
So this is a very important moment. But whatever you are going to do next I urge you to approach it with a sense of quest and ambition. Our University motto, Ever to Excel, encourages you to keep on trying for excellence, not to rest on your laurels – or at least not after this particular week when you are certainly entitled to do a certain amount of laurel resting.
It is equally important, however, to recognise and make something of the fact that, as the immortal Mick Jagger and Keith Richards put it, ‘You can’t always get what you want’. Life does not always work out the way you want or intend it to, but as the Rolling Stones add, ‘But if you try sometime you just might find/You get what you need’.
I picked that lyrical example because it has always seemed to me to have a consonance with the experience of one of St Andrews’ early graduate students, himself a talented lyricist given to producing memorable refrains. William Dunbar who gained his Masters degree here in 1479, is known to us now as one of Scotland’s most celebrated late medieval poets, or makars, as the Scots termed their poets then, and indeed often still do. ‘Making’ places an emphasis on the craft of poetry, and Dunbar became one of Scotland’s most virtuosic and exhilarating poets, equally brilliant as a lyricist of the beautiful and the bawdy, the devotional and the scurrilous, the playful and the penitential. His poems show an astonishing versatility of style and metre, and content. He writes a brilliant little poem about having a migraine. He writes an equally brilliant poem about the fear of death, with the tolling Latin refrain, Timor mortis conturbat me. He writes a hilarious ‘testament’ in the idiom of a drunk doctor. He writes one of the most stunning celebrations of the Virgin Mary to survive from the late medieval era. Dunbar claims some significant firsts: he was the first Scottish poet to feature extensively in print, indeed the first to be printed in Scotland in 1507-8; he was (and you can perhaps see another reason why I have drawn the Rolling Stones analogy) the first poet to use two of our still most outré swear words in a literary context; and he is the first writer in Scots who can really seriously be called a court poet, composing his verse at the court of the celebrated early Renaissance Scottish king, James IV, at the turn of the sixteenth century.
But becoming a poet was not the primary thing that Dunbar wanted to be. An ordained priest, he wanted to be a bishop – something eventually achieved by his major rival, the equally celebrated Scots makar, and another graduate of the University of St Andrews, Gavin Douglas, who produced the first full poetic translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by any British writer, and who became Bishop of Dunkeld. But Dunbar had no such success. He wrote many poems about this, petitioning the king to grant him at least a decent benefice as a priest, but apparently to no avail. In one such poem he writes that he was bounced and dandled on his nurse’s knee as a child to the lullaby ‘dandillie, bischop, dandillie’. But now as time goes on and he ages he says, ‘A sempill vicar I can not be’.
The king may not have granted Dunbar’s repeated pleas for preferment precisely because he could see what a good poet Dunbar was. And eventually, after Dunbar had been writing away at court for ten years or so, he was granted an extremely generous annual retainer by the king. It is pretty clear that he was being rewarded for being an extraordinarily able makar, someone who kept on honing a remarkable talent. Dunbar commemorated that moment in a lovely little poem to the king’s treasurer that glows with the relief of recognition.
So life won’t always give you what you want, or think you want. Versatility, flexibility, adaptability, invention, and self-scrutiny – all transferable life skills that you will have picked up at St Andrews – are important things to go on cultivating. And on occasion you will find that you start down one course of action or career, only to decide to do something else. In my view, that is fine, providing you are prepared to take the consequences and do so positively. When I left university for the first time it was after I had done my first degree, at Oxford, to go into the publishing profession. I had a place to do a doctorate but I wanted to try out a career in publishing. And I am really glad I did. I worked for three years as an editor in one of London’s biggest publishing houses, editing everything from a study of the diamond trade to the diaries of Lord Longford. I learnt a lot about business, a lot about people, and when I decided to go back to Oxford to do my doctorate I took a much more professional approach to that phase of my life than I might have done otherwise. Little we do in life is wasted if we use it properly.
So make the most of what is both an end and a new start. Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what you want. Try things out, learn from them, and learn from the belief that other people invest in you. Sometimes we do need others to tell us what we are good at. I am a great believer in mentoring – both in dispensing it and receiving it. I still have a mentor even as Principal and Vice-Chancellor, and it is a relationship I really value. Look for those who can help you assess your strengths and weaknesses in the most positive way. There is nothing remedial in this; it is rather about learning to excel, to push further, to challenge yourself, and to discover what you are really best suited for. So keep trying, keep searching, keep working with those who can help you be the best you can and, as the song goes, you just may find you get what you need.
Congratulations, and enjoy the rest of this essential rite of passage.
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