Fall 1996

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


An Ode to the Genesee


Donovan Shilling

Back at the turn-of-the-century a young student at the University of Rochester began writing poetry that reflected his love for the Genesee Country. The poet was Thomas Thackeray Swinburne, who later became Rochester's poet laureate. About 1910 or so, he had a book of his verses published entitled Rochester, In Song And Verse With Other Rhymes.

On the very first page of the collection was a song Thomas Swinburne titled, "The New Genesee." It was to be the adopted song of the University of Rochester and was dedicated to professor George M. Forbes and the Society of the Genesee.

Tom Swinburne, Poet-Philosopher of the Genesee

by John R. Slater, Emeritus Professor of English

from the Rochester Review, Nov. 1951, University of Rochester

Chance and tradition have played a large part in the history of Rochester college songs. Many have come and gone. Our offical Alma Mater, Swinburne's lines about the "many fair and famous steams," has now survived at least 55 years. With its simple tune, arranged by Herve Dwight Wilkins '66, from an old English song, it has become a symbol of a romantic past. There are several seldom remembered facts about this poet and his song which may explain its perennial charm.

When Tom Swinburne, a non-graduate member of the class of 1892, wrote these words in the early 1890's, the old Prince Street Campus had not the slightest association with the Genesee River. It was a thoroughly inland school, completely dry—except perhaps on Saturday nights and around Commencement time. But Swinburne, a dreamy youth who grew up in the printing business, was fascinated by the gorge of the Genesee. He thought and felt not only verbally but aquatically.

He loved words and water, and lived by illusion. His imagination dwelt on the Indian legends of this valley, with its many falls, and the ancient trails around them. Life was a portage.

By a sort of clairvoyance or second sight he looked forward to a time when perhaps there would really be a college by the river, for which his verses might be more appropriate. First the river; then the dream and song; then after a generation a college to sing that song beside the river. Poets are like that; they can't help it.

Tom Swinburne was only a minor poet, a five-year student who never got a degree. As a printer who printed for love of the art as well as for livelihood, he literally set up his poems in type before they ever reached paper. In later years he printed several small volumes of verse, in one of which dated 1907 are two Alma Mater songs, which had already appeared in the Interpress. The earlier is that which begins:

"Beside the river Genesee,
Where crystal waters fall and flow,
And where the mills sing merrily,
And fairest trees and flowers grow,
'Tis here our Alma Mater lies,
Endeared to us by many ties."

Set to music by Frank Mandeville, and arranged by Norman Nairn, this song is still part of the Glee Club repertory. The other version, called "The New Genesee," and dedicated to the Society of the Genesee, is nearly like the one we sing today, but longer, and with slight verbal variations.

Its last stanza, comparing life to a river, gathering force as it winds down toward the sea, sounds—perhaps unconsciously—a prophetic note. Life should gain force, and approach its end with joy; but there are men so weary that they would rather echo the despondent lines of the English Swinburne:

"From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea."

Tom Swinburne, a romantic recluse who sought refuge from a prosaic present in a poetic past that never was, and a future that may never be, built himself a log cabin near the Lower Falls. He watched the water going down. Lonely men should never do that. Tom's humor, his friendliness, his grateful remembrance of what college had meant to him, could not save him from the relentless sweep of time and the river. He passed that examination. He almost became the river, himself a waterfall. Something greater than the Genesee called him to wait no longer. He knew when his time had come.

So one December day in 1926, shortly after the death of a beloved sister, distressed by personal grief, unable to sleep or to forget, he went to Central Avenue bridge, waved a final salute, climbed the north railing, and was carried over the falls.

They did not find the body till June, near the mouth of the river. Just before his fatal leap he had mailed this note to the Democrat and Chronicle: "Don't take T. S. from the Genesee. You sever a man from his soul."

His last requests have been better granted than he could have foreseen. In his will he directed cremation, his ashes to be scattered over the river. But those who knew and loved him best did not obey him. They did not sever him from his soul. They kept his ashes until the time was right to place them where they belonged. Beneath the great boulder with its bronze plaque opposite the Eastman Quadrangle, four feet under ground, there is a bronze box with this inscription, to be read by the recording angel:

Ashes of
Thomas Thackeray Swinburne
Poet laureate
of the Genesee
Born April 21, 1865
Died December 17, 1926
Karl Kabelac of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Rush Rhees Library, Univ. of Rochester, located the above article for David Robinson who relayed it for use here. Brooke Dunnigan, Class of '96, made a thorough search of yearbooks and found no picture of Thomas Swinburne. Mr. Kabelac found that John Muehlhaeuser (see his name on song) was listed in a 1910 city directory as a Lutheran minister. Dave Robinson, Class of '43, remembers that freshman in his time were expected to learn the first stanza of "The New Genesee." Not any more, however.
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR