Morituri Salutamus - Poem For The Fiftieth Anniversary Of The Class Of 1825 In Bowdoin College

by


    Tempora labuntur, tacitisque senescimus annis,
    Et fugiunt freno non remorante dies.--OVID, Fastorum, Lib. vi.


    "O Caesar, we who are about to die
    Salute you!" was the gladiators' cry
    In the arena, standing face to face
    With death and with the Roman populace.

    O ye familiar scenes,--ye groves of pine,
    That once were mine and are no longer mine,--
    Thou river, widening through the meadows green
    To the vast sea, so near and yet unseen,--
    Ye halls, in whose seclusion and repose
    Phantoms of fame, like exhalations, rose
    And vanished,--we who are about to die
    Salute you; earth and air and sea and sky,
    And the Imperial Sun that scatters down
    His sovereign splendors upon grove and town.

    Ye do not answer us! ye do not hear!
    We are forgotten; and in your austere
    And calm indifference, ye little care
    Whether we come or go, or whence or where.
    What passing generations fill these halls,
    What passing voices echo front these walls,
    Ye heed not; we are only as the blast,
    A moment heard, and then forever past.

    Not so the teachers who in earlier days
    Led our bewildered feet through learning's maze;
    They answer us--alas! what have I said?
    What greetings come there from the voiceless dead?
    What salutation, welcome, or reply?
    What pressure from the hands that lifeless lie?
    They are no longer here; they all are gone
    Into the land of shadows,--all save one.
    Honor and reverence, and the good repute
    That follows faithful service as its fruit,
    Be unto him, whom living we salute.

    The great Italian poet, when he made
    His dreadful journey to the realms of shade,
    Met there the old instructor of his youth,
    And cried in tones of pity and of ruth:
    "O, never from the memory of my heart
    Your dear, paternal image shall depart,
    Who while on earth, ere yet by death surprised,
    Taught me how mortals are immortalized;
    How grateful am I for that patient care
    All my life long my language shall declare."

    To-day we make the poet's words our own
    And utter them in plaintive undertone;
    Nor to the living only be they said,
    But to the other living called the dead,
    Whose dear, paternal images appear
    Not wrapped in gloom, but robed in sunshine here;
    Whose simple lives, complete and without flaw,
    Were part and parcel of great Nature's law;
    Who said not to their Lord, as if afraid
    "Here is thy talent in a napkin laid,"
    But labored in their sphere, as men who live
    In the delight that work alone can give.
    Peace be to them; eternal peace and rest,
    And the fulfilment of the great behest:
    "Ye have been faithful over a few things,
    Over ten cities shall ye reign as kings."

    And ye who fill the places we once filled,
    And follow in the furrows that we tilled,
    Young men, whose generous hearts are beating high,
    We who are old, and are about to die,
    Salute you; hail you; take your hands in ours,
    And crown you with our welcome as with flowers!
    How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams
    With its illusions, aspirations, dreams!
    Book of Beginnings, Story without End,
    Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!
    Aladdin's Lamp, and Fortunatus' Purse,
    That holds the treasures of the universe!
    All possibilities are in its hands,
    No danger daunts it, and no foe withstands;
    In its sublime audacity of faith,
    "Be thou removed!" it to the mountain saith,
    And with ambitious feet, secure and proud,
    Ascends the ladder leaning on the cloud!

    As ancient Priam at the Scaean gate
    Sat on the walls of Troy in regal state
    With the old men, too old and weak to fight,
    Chirping like grasshoppers in their delight
    To see the embattled hosts, with spear and shield,
    Of Trojans and Achaians in the field;
    So from the snowy summits of our years
    We see you in the plain, as each appears,
    And question of you; asking, "Who is he
    That towers above the others?    Which may be
    Atreides, Menelaus, Odysseus,
    Ajax the great, or bold Idomeneus?"

    Let him not boast who puts his armor on
    As he who puts it off, the battle done.
    Study yourselves; and most of all note well
    Wherein kind Nature meant you to excel.
    Not every blossom ripens into fruit;
    Minerva, the inventress of the flute,
    Flung it aside, when she her face surveyed
    Distorted in a fountain as she played;
    The unlucky Marsyas found it, and his fate
    Was one to make the bravest hesitate.

    Write on your doors the saying wise and old,
    "Be bold! be bold!" and everywhere--"Be bold;
    Be not too bold!"    Yet better the excess
    Than the defect; better the more than less;
    Better like Hector in the field to die,
    Than like a perfumed Paris turn and fly,

    And now, my classmates; ye remaining few
    That number not the half of those we knew,
    Ye, against whose familiar names not yet
    The fatal asterisk of death is set,
    Ye I salute!    The horologe of Time
    Strikes the half-century with a solemn chime,
    And summons us together once again,
    The joy of meeting not unmixed with pain.

    Where are the others?    Voices from the deep
    Caverns of darkness answer me: "They sleep!"
    I name no names; instinctively I feel
    Each at some well-remembered grave will kneel,
    And from the inscription wipe the weeds and moss,
    For every heart best knoweth its own loss.
    I see their scattered gravestones gleaming white
    Through the pale dusk of the impending night;
    O'er all alike the impartial sunset throws
    Its golden lilies mingled with the rose;
    We give to each a tender thought, and pass
    Out of the graveyards with their tangled grass,
    Unto these scenes frequented by our feet
    When we were young, and life was fresh and sweet.

    What shall I say to you?    What can I say
    Better than silence is?    When I survey
    This throng of faces turned to meet my own,
    Friendly and fair, and yet to me unknown,
    Transformed the very landscape seems to be;
    It is the same, yet not the same to me.
    So many memories crowd upon my brain,
    So many ghosts are in the wooded plain,
    I fain would steal away, with noiseless tread,
    As from a house where some one lieth dead.
    I cannot go;--I pause;--I hesitate;
    My feet reluctant linger at the gate;
    As one who struggles in a troubled dream
    To speak and cannot, to myself I seem.

    Vanish the dream! Vanish the idle fears!
    Vanish the rolling mists of fifty years!
    Whatever time or space may intervene,
    I will not be a stranger in this scene.
    Here every doubt, all indecision, ends;
    Hail, my companions, comrades, classmates, friends!

    Ah me! the fifty years since last we met
    Seem to me fifty folios bound and set
    By Time, the great transcriber, on his shelves,
    Wherein are written the histories of ourselves.
    What tragedies, what comedies, are there;
    What joy and grief, what rapture and despair!
    What chronicles of triumph and defeat,
    Of struggle, and temptation, and retreat!
    What records of regrets, and doubts, and fears
    What pages blotted, blistered by our tears!
    What lovely landscapes on the margin shine,
    What sweet, angelic faces, what divine
    And holy images of love and trust,
    Undimmed by age, unsoiled by damp or dust!

    Whose hand shall dare to open and explore
    These volumes, closed and clasped forevermore?
    Not mine.    With reverential feet I pass;
    I hear a voice that cries, "Alas! alas!
    Whatever hath been written shall remain,
    Nor be erased nor written o'er again;
    The unwritten only still belongs to thee:
    Take heed, and ponder well what that shall be."

    As children frightened by a thundercloud
    Are reassured if some one reads aloud
    A tale of wonder, with enchantment fraught,
    Or wild adventure, that diverts their thought,
    Let me endeavor with a tale to chase
    The gathering shadows of the time and place,
    And banish what we all too deeply feel
    Wholly to say, or wholly to conceal.

    In mediaeval Rome, I know not where,
    There stood an image with its arm in air,
    And on its lifted finger, shining clear,
    A golden ring with the device, "Strike here!"
    Greatly the people wondered, though none guessed
    The meaning that these words but half expressed,
    Until a learned clerk, who at noonday
    With downcast eyes was passing on his way,
    Paused, and observed the spot, and marked it well,
    Whereon the shadow of the finger fell;
    And, coming back at midnight, delved, and found
    A secret stairway leading under ground.
    Down this he passed into a spacious hall,
    Lit by a flaming jewel on the wall;
    And opposite in threatening attitude
    With bow and shaft a brazen statue stood.
    Upon its forehead, like a coronet,
    Were these mysterious words of menace set:
    "That which I am, I am; my fatal aim
    None can escape, not even yon luminous flame!"

    Midway the hall was a fair table placed,
    With cloth of gold, and golden cups enchased
    With rubies, and the plates and knives were gold,
    And gold the bread and viands manifold.
    Around it, silent, motionless, and sad,
    Were seated gallant knights in armor clad,
    And ladies beautiful with plume and zone,
    But they were stone, their hearts within were stone;
    And the vast hall was filled in every part
    With silent crowds, stony in face and heart.

    Long at the scene, bewildered and amazed
    The trembling clerk in speechless wonder gazed;
    Then from the table, by his greed made bold,
    He seized a goblet and a knife of gold,
    And suddenly from their seats the guests upsprang,
    The vaulted ceiling with loud clamors rang,
    The archer sped his arrow, at their call,
    Shattering the lambent jewel on the wall,
    And all was dark around and overhead;--
    Stark on the door the luckless clerk lay dead!

    The writer of this legend then records
    Its ghostly application in these words:
    The image is the Adversary old,
    Whose beckoning finger points to realms of gold;
    Our lusts and passions are the downward stair
    That leads the soul from a diviner air;
    The archer, Death; the flaming jewel, Life;
    Terrestrial goods, the goblet and the knife;
    The knights and ladies, all whose flesh and bone
    By avarice have been hardened into stone;
    The clerk, the scholar whom the love of pelf
    Tempts from his books and from his nobler self.

    The scholar and the world!    The endless strife,
    The discord in the harmonies of life!
    The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
    And all the sweet serenity of books;
    The market-place, the eager love of gain,
    Whose aim is vanity, and whose end is pain!

    But why, you ask me, should this tale be told
    To men grown old, or who are growing old?
    It is too late!    Ah, nothing is too late
    Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.
    Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles
    Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides
    Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers,
    When each had numbered more than fourscore years,
    And Theophrastus, at fourscore and ten,
    Had but begun his Characters of Men.
    Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales,
    At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales;
    Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last,
    Completed Faust when eighty years were past.
    These are indeed exceptions; but they show
    How far the gulf-stream of our youth may flow
    Into the arctic regions of our lives.
    Where little else than life itself survives.

    As the barometer foretells the storm
    While still the skies are clear, the weather warm,
    So something in us, as old age draws near,
    Betrays the pressure of the atmosphere.
    The nimble mercury, ere we are aware,
    Descends the elastic ladder of the air;
    The telltale blood in artery and vein
    Sinks from its higher levels in the brain;
    Whatever poet, orator, or sage
    May say of it, old age is still old age.
    It is the waning, not the crescent moon;
    The dusk of evening, not the blaze of noon:
    It is not strength, but weakness; not desire,
    But its surcease; not the fierce heat of fire,
    The burning and consuming element,
    But that of ashes and of embers spent,
    In which some living sparks we still discern,
    Enough to warm, but not enough to burn.

    What then?    Shall we sit idly down and say
    The night hath come; it is no longer day?
    The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
    Cut off from labor by the failing light;
    Something remains for us to do or dare;
    Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;
    Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,
    Or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode
    Out of the gateway of the Tabard inn,
    But other something, would we but begin;
    For age is opportunity no less
    Than youth itself, though in another dress,
    And as the evening twilight fades away
    The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

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