Poem For The Two Hundred And Fiftieth Anniversary Of The Founding Of Harvard College by Oliver Wendell Holmes
TWICE had the mellowing sun of autumn crowned
The hundredth circle of his yearly round,
When, as we meet to-day, our fathers met:
That joyous gathering who can e’er forget,
When Harvard’s nurslings, scattered far and wide,
Through mart and village, lake’s and ocean’s side,
Came, with one impulse, one fraternal throng,
And crowned the hours with banquet, speech, and song?
Once more revived in fancy’s magic glass,
I see in state the long procession pass
Tall, courtly, leader as by right divine,
Winthrop, our Winthrop, rules the marshalled line,
Still seen in front, as on that far-off day
His ribboned baton showed the column’s way.
Not all are gone who marched in manly pride
And waved their truncheons at their leader’s side;
Gray, Lowell, Dixwell, who his empire shared,
These to be with us envious Time has spared.
Few are the faces, so familiar then,
Our eyes still meet amid the haunts of men;
Scarce one of all the living gathered there,
Whose unthinned locks betrayed a silver hair,
Greets us to-day, and yet we seem the same
As our own sires and grandsires, save in name.
There are the patriarchs, looking vaguely round
For classmates’ faces, hardly known if found;
See the cold brow that rules the busy mart;
Close at its side the pallid son of art,
Whose purchased skill with borrowed meaning clothes,
And stolen hues, the smirking face he loathes.
Here is the patient scholar; in his looks
You read the titles of his learned books;
What classic lore those spidery crow’s-feet speak!
What problems figure on that wrinkled cheek!
For never thought but left its stiffened trace,
Its fossil footprint, on the plastic face,
As the swift record of a raindrop stands,
Fixed on the tablet of the hardening sands.
On every face as on the written page
Each year renews the autograph of age;
One trait alone may wasting years defy,–
The fire still lingering in the poet’s eye,
While Hope, the siren, sings her sweetest strain,–
_Non omnis moriar_ is its proud refrain.
Sadly we gaze upon the vacant chair;
He who should claim its honors is not there,–
Otis, whose lips the listening crowd enthrall
That press and pack the floor of Boston’s hall.
But Kirkland smiles, released from toil and care
Since the silk mantle younger shoulders wear,–
Quincy’s, whose spirit breathes the selfsame fire
That filled the bosom of his youthful sire,
Who for the altar bore the kindled torch
To freedom’s temple, dying in its porch.
Three grave professions in their sons appear,
Whose words well studied all well pleased will hear
Palfrey, ordained in varied walks to shine,
Statesman, historian, critic, and divine;
Solid and square behold majestic Shaw,
A mass of wisdom and a mine of law;
Warren, whose arm the doughtiest warriors fear,
Asks of the startled crowd to lend its ear,–
Proud of his calling, him the world loves best,
Not as the coming, but the parting guest.
Look on that form,–with eye dilating scan
The stately mould of nature’s kingliest man!
Tower-like he stands in life’s unfaded prime;
Ask you his name? None asks a second time
He from the land his outward semblance takes,
Where storm-swept mountains watch o’er slumbering lakes.
See in the impress which the body wears
How its imperial might the soul declares
The forehead’s large expansion, lofty, wide,
That locks unsilvered vainly strive to hide;
The lines of thought that plough the sober cheek;
Lips that betray their wisdom ere they speak
In tones like answers from Dodona’s grove;
An eye like Juno’s when she frowns on Jove.
I look and wonder; will he be content–
This man, this monarch, for the purple meant–
The meaner duties of his tribe to share,
Clad in the garb that common mortals wear?
Ah, wild Ambition, spread thy restless wings,
Beneath whose plumes the hidden cestrum stings;
Thou whose bold flight would leave earth’s vulgar crowds,
And like the eagle soar above the clouds,
Must feel the pang that fallen angels know
When the red lightning strikes thee from below!
Less bronze, more silver, mingles in the mould
Of him whom next my roving eyes behold;
His, more the scholar’s than the statesman’s face,
Proclaims him born of academic race.
Weary his look, as if an aching brain
Left on his brow the frozen prints of pain;
His voice far-reaching, grave, sonorous, owns
A shade of sadness in its plaintive tones,
Yet when its breath some loftier thought inspires
Glows with a heat that every bosom fires.
Such Everett seems; no chance-sown wild flower knows
The full-blown charms of culture’s double rose,–
Alas, how soon, by death’s unsparing frost,
Its bloom is faded and its fragrance lost!
Two voices, only two, to earth belong,
Of all whose accents met the listening throng:
Winthrop, alike for speech and guidance framed,
On that proud day a twofold duty claimed;
One other yet,–remembered or forgot,–
Forgive my silence if I name him not.
Can I believe it? I, whose youthful voice
Claimed a brief gamut,–notes not over choice,
Stood undismayed before the solemn throng,
And _propria voce_ sung that saucy song
Which even in memory turns my soul aghast,–
_Felix audacia_ was the verdict cast.
What were the glory of these festal days
Shorn of their grand illumination’s blaze?
Night comes at last with all her starry train
To find a light in every glittering pane.
From ‘Harvard’s’ windows see the sudden flash,–
Old ‘Massachusetts’ glares through every sash;
From wall to wall the kindling splendors run
Till all is glorious as the noonday sun.
How to the scholar’s mind each object brings
What some historian tells, some poet sings!
The good gray teacher whom we all revered–
Loved, honored, laughed at, and by freshmen feared,
As from old ‘Harvard,’ where its light began,
From hall to hall the clustering splendors ran–
Took down his well-worn Eschylus and read,
Lit by the rays a thousand tapers shed,
How the swift herald crossed the leagues between
Mycenae’s monarch and his faithless queen;
And thus he read,–my verse but ill displays
The Attic picture, clad in modern phrase.
On Ida’s summit flames the kindling pile,
And Lemnos answers from his rocky isle;
From Athos next it climbs the reddening skies,
Thence where the watch-towers of Macistus rise.
The sentries of Mesapius in their turn
Bid the dry heath in high piled masses burn,
Cithoeron’s crag the crimson billows stain,
Far AEgiplanctus joins the fiery train.
Thus the swift courier through the pathless night
Has gained at length the Arachnoean height,
Whence the glad tidings, borne on wings offlame,
‘Ilium has fallen!’ reach the royal dame.
So ends the day; before the midnight stroke
The lights expiring cloud the air with smoke;
While these the toil of younger hands employ,
The slumbering Grecian dreams of smouldering Troy.
As to that hour with backward steps I turn,
Midway I pause; behold a funeral urn!
Ah, sad memorial! known but all too well
The tale which thus its golden letters tell:
This dust, once breathing, changed its joyous life
For toil and hunger, wounds and mortal strife;
Love, friendship, learning’s all prevailing charms,
For the cold bivouac and the clash of arms.
The cause of freedom won, a race enslaved
Called back to manhood, and a nation saved,
These sons of Harvard, falling ere their prime,
Leave their proud memory to the coming time.
While in their still retreats our scholars turn
The mildewed pages of the past, to learn
With endless labor of the sleepless brain
What once has been and ne’er shall be again,
We reap the harvest of their ceaseless toil
And find a fragrance in their midnight oil.
But let a purblind mortal dare the task
The embryo future of itself to ask,
The world reminds him, with a scornful laugh,
That times have changed since Prospero broke his staff.
Could all the wisdom of the schools foretell
The dismal hour when Lisbon shook and fell,
Or name the shuddering night that toppled down
Our sister’s pride, beneath whose mural crown
Scarce had the scowl forgot its angry lines,
When earth’s blind prisoners fired their fatal mines?
New realms, new worlds, exulting Science claims,
Still the dim future unexplored remains;
Her trembling scales the far-off planet weigh,
Her torturing prisms its elements betray,–
We know what ores the fires of Sirius melt,
What vaporous metals gild Orion’s belt;
Angels, archangels, may have yet to learn
Those hidden truths our heaven-taught eyes discern;
Yet vain is Knowledge, with her mystic wand,
To pierce the cloudy screen and read beyond;
Once to the silent stars the fates were known,
To us they tell no secrets but their own.
At Israel’s altar still we humbly bow,
But where, oh where, are Israel’s prophets now?
Where is the sibyl with her hoarded leaves?
Where is the charm the weird enchantress weaves?
No croaking raven turns the auspex pale,
No reeking altars tell the morrow’s tale;
The measured footsteps of the Fates are dumb,
Unseen, unheard, unheralded, they come,
Prophet and priest and all their following fail.
Who then is left to rend the future’s veil?
Who but the poet, he whose nicer sense
No film can baffle with its slight defence,
Whose finer vision marks the waves that stray,
Felt, but unseen, beyond the violet ray?–
Who, while the storm-wind waits its darkening shroud,
Foretells the tempest ere he sees the cloud,–
Stays not for time his secrets to reveal,
But reads his message ere he breaks the seal.
So Mantua’s bard foretold the coming day
Ere Bethlehem’s infant in the manger lay;
The promise trusted to a mortal tongue
Found listening ears before the angels sung.
So while his load the creeping pack-horse galled,
While inch by inch the dull canal-boat crawled,
Darwin beheld a Titan from ‘afar
Drag the slow barge or drive the rapid car,’
That panting giant fed by air and flame,
The mightiest forges task their strength to tame.
Happy the poet! him no tyrant fact
Holds in its clutches to be chained and racked;
Him shall no mouldy document convict,
No stern statistics gravely contradict;
No rival sceptre threats his airy throne;
He rules o’er shadows, but he reigns alone.
Shall I the poet’s broad dominion claim
Because you bid me wear his sacred name
For these few moments? Shall I boldly clash
My flint and steel, and by the sudden flash
Read the fair vision which my soul descries
Through the wide pupils of its wondering eyes?
List then awhile; the fifty years have sped;
The third full century’s opened scroll is spread,
Blank to all eyes save his who dimly sees
The shadowy future told in words like these.
How strange the prospect to my sight appears,
Changed by the busy hands of fifty years!
Full well I know our ocean-salted Charles,
Filling and emptying through the sands and marls
That wall his restless stream on either bank,
Not all unlovely when the sedges rank
Lend their coarse veil the sable ooze to hide
That bares its blackness with the ebbing tide.
In other shapes to my illumined eyes
Those ragged margins of our stream arise
Through walls of stone the sparkling waters flow,
In clearer depths the golden sunsets glow,
On purer waves the lamps of midnight gleam,
That silver o’er the unpolluted stream.
Along his shores what stately temples rise,
What spires, what turrets, print the shadowed skies!
Our smiling Mother sees her broad domain
Spread its tall roofs along the western plain;
Those blazoned windows’ blushing glories tell
Of grateful hearts that loved her long and well;
Yon gilded dome that glitters in the sun
Was Dives’ gift,–alas, his only one!
These buttressed walls enshrine a banker’s name,
That hallowed chapel hides a miser’s shame;
Their wealth they left,–their memory cannot fade
Though age shall crumble every stone they laid.
Great lord of millions,–let me call thee great,
Since countless servants at thy bidding wait,–
Richesse oblige: no mortal must be blind
To all but self, or look at human kind
Laboring and suffering,–all its want and woe,–
Through sheets of crystal, as a pleasing show
That makes life happier for the chosen few
Duty for whom is something not to do.
When thy last page of life at length is filled,
What shall thine heirs to keep thy memory build?
Will piles of stone in Auburn’s mournful shade
Save from neglect the spot where thou art laid?
Nay, deem not thus; the sauntering stranger’s eye
Will pass unmoved thy columned tombstone by,
No memory wakened, not a teardrop shed,
Thy name uncared for and thy date unread.
But if thy record thou indeed dost prize,
Bid from the soil some stately temple rise,–
Some hall of learning, some memorial shrine,
With names long honored to associate thine:
So shall thy fame outlive thy shattered bust
When all around thee slumber in the dust.
Thus England’s Henry lives in Eton’s towers,
Saved from the spoil oblivion’s gulf devours;
Our later records with as fair a fame
Have wreathed each uncrowned benefactor’s name;
The walls they reared the memories still retain
That churchyard marbles try to keep in vain.
In vain the delving antiquary tries
To find the tomb where generous Harvard lies
Here, here, his lasting monument is found,
Where every spot is consecrated ground!
O’er Stoughton’s dust the crumbling stone decays,
Fast fade its lines of lapidary praise;
There the wild bramble weaves its ragged nets,
There the dry lichen spreads its gray rosettes;
Still in yon walls his memory lives unspent,
Nor asks a braver, nobler monument.
Thus Hollis lives, and Holden, honored, praised,
And good Sir Matthew, in the halls they raised;
Thus live the worthies of these later times,
Who shine in deeds, less brilliant, grouped in rhymes.
Say, shall the Muse with faltering steps retreat,
Or dare these names in rhythmic form repeat?
Why not as boldly as from Homer’s lips
The long array, of Argive battle-ships?
When o’er our graves a thousand years have past
(If to such date our threatened globe shall last)
These classic precincts, myriad feet have pressed,
Will show on high, in beauteous garlands dressed,
Those honored names that grace our later day,–
Weld, Matthews, Sever, Thayer, Austin, Gray,
Sears, Phillips, Lawrence, Hemenway,–to the list
Add Sanders, Sibley,–all the Muse has missed.
Once more I turn to read the pictured page
Bright with the promise of the coming age.
Ye unborn sons of children yet unborn,
Whose youthful eyes shall greet that far-off morn,
Blest are those eyes that all undimmed behold
The sights so longed for by the wise of old.
From high-arched alcoves, through resounding halls,
Clad in full robes majestic Science calls,
Tireless, unsleeping, still at Nature’s feet,
Whate’er she utters fearless to repeat,
Her lips at last from every cramp released
That Israel’s prophet caught from Egypt’s priest.
I see the statesman, firm, sagacious, bold,
For life’s long conflict cast in amplest mould;
Not his to clamor with the senseless throng
That shouts unshamed, ‘Our party, right or wrong,’
But in the patriot’s never-ending fight
To side with Truth, who changes wrong to right.
I see the scholar; in that wondrous time
Men, women, children, all can write in rhyme.
These four brief lines addressed to youth inclined
To idle rhyming in his notes I find:
Who writes in verse that should have writ in prose
Is like a traveller walking on his toes;
Happy the rhymester who in time has found
The heels he lifts were made to touch the ground.
I see gray teachers,–on their work intent,
Their lavished lives, in endless labor spent,
Had closed at last in age and penury wrecked,
Martyrs, not burned, but frozen in neglect,
Save for the generous hands that stretched in aid
Of worn-out servants left to die half paid.
Ah, many a year will pass, I thought, ere we
Such kindly forethought shall rejoice to see,–
Monarchs are mindful of the sacred debt
That cold republics hasten to forget.
I see the priest,–if such a name he bears
Who without pride his sacred vestment wears;
And while the symbols of his tribe I seek
Thus my first impulse bids me think and speak:
Let not the mitre England’s prelate wears
Next to the crown whose regal pomp it shares,
Though low before it courtly Christians bow,
Leave its red mark on Younger England’s brow.
We love, we honor, the maternal dame,
But let her priesthood wear a modest name,
While through the waters of the Pilgrim’s bay
A new-born Mayflower shows her keels the way.
Too old grew Britain for her mother’s beads,–
Must we be necklaced with her children’s creeds?
Welcome alike in surplice or in gown
The loyal lieges of the Heavenly Crown!
We greet with cheerful, not submissive, mien
A sister church, but not a mitred Queen!
A few brief flutters, and the unwilling Muse,
Who feared the flight she hated to refuse,
Shall fold the wings whose gayer plumes are shed,
Here where at first her half-fledged pinions spread.
Well I remember in the long ago
How in the forest shades of Fontainebleau,
Strained through a fissure in a rocky cell,
One crystal drop with measured cadence fell.
Still, as of old, forever bright and clear,
The fissured cavern drops its wonted tear,
And wondrous virtue, simple folk aver,
Lies in that teardrop of la roche qui pleure.
Of old I wandered by the river’s side
Between whose banks the mighty waters glide,
Where vast Niagara, hurrying to its fall,
Builds and unbuilds its ever-tumbling wall;
Oft in my dreams I hear the rush and roar
Of battling floods, and feel the trembling shore,
As the huge torrent, girded for its leap,
With bellowing thunders plunges down the steep.
Not less distinct, from memory’s pictured urn,
The gray old rock, the leafy woods, return;
Robed in their pride the lofty oaks appear,
And once again with quickened sense I hear,
Through the low murmur of the leaves that stir,
The tinkling teardrop of _la roche qui pleure_.
So when the third ripe century stands complete,
As once again the sons of Harvard meet,
Rejoicing, numerous as the seashore sands,
Drawn from all quarters,–farthest distant lands,
Where through the reeds the scaly saurian steals,
Where cold Alaska feeds her floundering seals,
Where Plymouth, glorying, wears her iron crown,
Where Sacramento sees the suns go down;
Nay, from the cloisters whence the refluent tide
Wafts their pale students to our Mother’s side,–
Mid all the tumult that the day shall bring,
While all the echoes shout, and roar, and ring,
These tinkling lines, oblivion’s easy prey,
Once more emerging to the light of day,
Not all unpleasing to the listening ear
Shall wake the memories of this bygone year,
Heard as I hear the measured drops that flow
From the gray rock of wooded Fontainebleau.
Yet, ere I leave, one loving word for all
Those fresh young lives that wait our Mother’s call:
One gift is yours, kind Nature’s richest dower,–
Youth, the fair bud that holds life’s opening flower,
Full of high hopes no coward doubts enchain,
With all the future throbbing in its brain,
And mightiest instincts which the beating heart
Fills with the fire its burning waves impart.
O joyous youth, whose glory is to dare,–
Thy foot firm planted on the lowest stair,
Thine eye uplifted to the loftiest height
Where Fame stands beckoning in the rosy light,
Thanks for thy flattering tales, thy fond deceits,
Thy loving lies, thy cheerful smiling cheats
Nature’s rash promise every day is broke,–
A thousand acorns breed a single oak,
The myriad blooms that make the orchard gay
In barren beauty throw their lives away;
Yet shall we quarrel with the sap that yields
The painted blossoms which adorn the fields,
When the fair orchard wears its May-day suit
Of pink-white petals, for its scanty fruit?
Thrice happy hours, in hope’s illusion dressed,
In fancy’s cradle nurtured and caressed,
Though rich the spoils that ripening years may bring,
To thee the dewdrops of the Orient cling,–
Not all the dye-stuffs from the vats of truth
Can match the rainbow on the robes of youth!
Dear unborn children, to our Mother’s trust
We leave you, fearless, when we lie in dust:
While o’er these walls the Christian banner waves
From hallowed lips shall flow the truth that saves;
While o’er those portals Veritas you read
No church shall bind you with its human creed.
Take from the past the best its toil has won,
But learn betimes its slavish ruts to shun.
Pass the old tree whose withered leaves are shed,
Quit the old paths that error loved to tread,
And a new wreath of living blossoms seek,
A narrower pathway up a loftier peak;
Lose not your reverence, but unmanly fear
Leave far behind you, all who enter here!
As once of old from Ida’s lofty height
The flaming signal flashed across the night,
So Harvard’s beacon sheds its unspent rays
Till every watch-tower shows its kindling blaze.
Caught from a spark and fanned by every gale,
A brighter radiance gilds the roofs of Yale;
Amherst and Williams bid their flambeaus shine,
And Bowdoin answers through her groves of pine;
O’er Princeton’s sands the far reflections steal,
Where mighty Edwards stamped his iron heel;
Nay, on the hill where old beliefs were bound
Fast as if Styx had girt them nine times round,
Bursts such a light that trembling souls inquire
If the whole church of Calvin is on fire!
Well may they ask, for what so brightly burns
As a dry creed that nothing ever learns?
Thus link by link is knit the flaming chain
Lit by the torch of Harvard’s hallowed plain.
Thy son, thy servant, dearest Mother mine,
Lays this poor offering on thy holy shrine,
An autumn leaflet to the wild winds tost,
Touched by the finger of November’s frost,
With sweet, sad memories of that earlier day,
And all that listened to my first-born lay.
With grateful heart this glorious morn I see,–
Would that my tribute worthier were of thee!