Last Look

Writing on the wall

Eight words on the side of a building, tied to abolition, secession, and “Jingle Bells.”

Mark Zurolo ’01MFA

Mark Zurolo ’01MFA

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“Thy light and truth shall set me free.” These words, carved beneath a bow window on the south side of Branford College, evoke both Yale’s motto and the New Testament. But what is their origin? We set out to find the answer. It turns out that the line is from an 1840 poem by John Pierpont ’04 entitled “The Fugitive Slave’s Apostrophe to the North Star.” Pierpont was a poet, minister, and devoted anti-slavery activist who preached in Boston and Medford, Massachusetts. One of his sons, James Lord Pierpont, broke with the abolitionist cause—serving in the Confederate cavalry after moving to Savannah, Georgia. But if father and son had political differences, they both had a penchant for verse. In 1857, the younger Pierpont drew on his New England roots to write the words and music for a song he called “The One-Horse Open Sleigh.” It was later republished as “Jingle Bells.”

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