I've noted that some citizens of Connecticut have expressed chagrin at the cost of governors' portraits. While I won't evaluate the aesthetic merits of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's portrait, I will say I have no qualms regarding its existence and its placement in our Museum of Connecticut History located in the State Library and Supreme Court building on Capitol Avenue in Hartford.
In fact we don't need fewer portraits, we need more: The ones that are there and those still to come. The stories they tell in this ancient and near-permanent form are ones people in this state need to know. For example, there is, in Memorial Hall, a portrait of Wilbert Snow who served as the state's leader for 13 days in 1946 and 1947. Snow, in addition to various political posts, served for many years as a professor of English at Wesleyan University in Middletown — and he was a poet, too!
But that was a different era, one in which professors were regarded as leaders and not as loafers. Snow's friend Wilbur Cross in addition to being governor of Connecticut taught English at Yale University and later became the first dean of Yale's graduate programs. There is a portrait of Wilbur Cross in the museum.
Earlier in the century, the remarkable Yale history professor Hiram Bingham led the state for one day when he also became simultaneously a U.S. senator from Connecticut. There is a portrait of Bingham in the hall of governors, but because he "discovered" or uncovered Machu Picchu, I suggest one be commissioned forthwith depicting the professor and politician in his pith helmet.
Though Wilbert Snow wrote more often of his birthplace, Maine, he wrote many poems of New England in general and of Connecticut in particular. He wrote one called "The Leather Man" in which he speculates lost love led to the wanderings of this legendary 19th-century Connecticut rambler. He wrote another titled simply "Invitation to Connecticut:" "… homeward let us walk / While beaten gold is minting in the west; / And I can promise, if you keep quite still, / Beside the brook, a glorious whippoorwill."
But more important, Snow wrote the "Connecticut Tercentenary Ode," a poem he read during the commemorative celebration at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, Oct. 11, 1935. Yale President James R. Angell delivered the keynote address which he began with the biblical quotation: "Let us now praise famous men and our fathers." Angell, as reported in The Courant the next morning, noted that "radical change has inevitably come over the face of the state." He asserted that at a time when Connecticut faces "invasions of foreign stock" remembering Puritan ideals of frugality, industry and self-reliance would well-serve the state. As he put it: "in such a time it may well be wise to turn again the pages of our history and scan therein the lessons taught by 300 years of quiet and sober living."
We may cringe at the phrase "invasions of foreign stock" and we may desire more inclusive language for our version of the Bible — "Let us now praise famous men and women," etc. — but is Angell's conservative caution so bad in our age of impermanence and instantaneous text-messaging? Don't the governors' portraits provide a different sort of message, a needed one?
Snow claimed in his first stanza "Connecticut was Jordan and the clear / Streams flowing to it marked the Promised Land." But, Snow says near the end of the ode, the promise hasn't been entirely fulfilled: "… tell what tears / And laughter rounded out three hundred years / Of new-world story from whose page we scan / The enduring grief and dignity of man."
Perhaps the portraits, too, might show us "the enduring grief and dignity of" men and women. Some governors were great and some were crooks. We need to know the stories and lessons in the artful brushworks hung on thick walls of stone because they tell us a lot about ourselves.
Dennis Barone is a professor of English and American studies at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford and is the editor of "Garnet Poems: An Anthology of Connecticut Poetry Since 1776" (Wesleyan University Press).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun