Wednesday, 06 June 2012
ELDER POETRY INTERLUDE: Morituri Salutamus
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(Written for the 50th anniversary of Longfellow's class at Bowdoin College in Portland, Maine. These are the final three stanzas; the full poem can be found here.)
...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.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in 1807, in Portland, Maine, when the state was still part of Massachusetts. Today, there is a large statue of the poet sitting in a chair in – where else? - Longfellow Square in Portland.
Many people our age memorized some of Longfellow's poems in school: Paul Revere's Ride, The Song of Hiawatha, Evangeline, The Village Blacksmith.
He was greatly admired during his life - like a rock star in his day. Single poems sold for $3,000 and he was popular in Europe too. He died in 1882 of peritonitis and two years later, he became the only American honored with a bust in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.
His reputation did not survive for long after his death. Since then, he has been labeled “minor,” “derivative, “a hack.” Makes no nevermind to me: I like this poem. The title translates from the Latin: we who are about to die, salute you.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marcy Belson: Here, Fishie, Fishie