Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

Morituri Salutamus

Poem for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Class of 1825 in Bowdoin College

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

  • In October, 1874, Mr. Longfellow was urged to write a poem for the fiftieth anniversary of the graduation of his college class to be held the next summer. At first he said that he could not write the poem, so averse was he from occasional poems, but a sudden thought seems to have struck him, very likely upon seeing a representation of Gerome’s famous picture, and ten days later he notes in his diary that he had finished the writing. He not only wrote the poem, but what was a rare act with him, read it before the audience gathered in the church at Brunswick on the occasion of the anniversary. He expressed his relief when he found that he could read his poem from the pulpit, and said, “Let me cover myself as much as possible; I wish it might be entirely.”

  • “O CÆSAR, 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 from 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:

    “Oh, 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 Scæan 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 thunder-cloud

    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 mediæval 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 underground.

    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 you 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 floor 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 Œdipus, 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 Œdipus 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.