Morituri Salutamus: Poem for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Class of 1825 in Bowdoin College

Original Text: 
The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Bibliographical and Critical Notes, Riverside Edition (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1890), III, 187-96. PS 2250 E90 Robarts Library.
Tempora labuntur, tacitisque senescimus annis,
Et fugiunt freno non remorante dies.
             Ovid, Fastorum, Lib. vi.
2Salute you!" was the gladiators' cry
3In the arena, standing face to face
4With death and with the Roman populace.
5O ye familiar scenes,--ye groves of pine,
6That once were mine and are no longer mine,--
7Thou river, widening through the meadows green
8To the vast sea, so near and yet unseen,--
9Ye halls, in whose seclusion and repose
10Phantoms of fame, like exhalations, rose
11And vanished,--we who are about to die,
12Salute you; earth and air and sea and sky,
13And the Imperial Sun that scatters down
14His sovereign splendors upon grove and town.
15Ye do not answer us! ye do not hear!
16We are forgotten; and in your austere
17And calm indifference, ye little care
18Whether we come or go, or whence or where.
19What passing generations fill these halls,
20What passing voices echo from these walls,
21Ye heed not; we are only as the blast,
22A moment heard, and then forever past.
23Not so the teachers who in earlier days
24Led our bewildered feet through learning's maze;
25They answer us--alas! what have I said?
26What greetings come there from the voiceless dead?
27What salutation, welcome, or reply?
28What pressure from the hands that lifeless lie?
29They are no longer here; they all are gone
31Honor and reverence, and the good repute
32That follows faithful service as its fruit,
33Be unto him, whom living we salute.
35His dreadful journey to the realms of shade,
36Met there the old instructor of his youth,
37And cried in tones of pity and of ruth:
38"Oh, never from the memory of my heart
39Your dear, paternal image shall depart,
40Who while on earth, ere yet by death surprised,
41Taught me how mortals are immortalized;
42How grateful am I for that patient care
43All my life long my language shall declare."
44To-day we make the poet's words our own,
45And utter them in plaintive undertone;
46Nor to the living only be they said,
47But to the other living called the dead,
48Whose dear, paternal images appear
49Not wrapped in gloom, but robed in sunshine here;
50Whose simple lives, complete and without flaw,
51Were part and parcel of great Nature's law;
52Who said not to their Lord, as if afraid,
54But labored in their sphere, as men who live
55In the delight that work alone can give.
56Peace be to them; eternal peace and rest,
57And the fulfilment of the great behest:
59Over ten cities shall ye reign as kings."
60And ye who fill the places we once filled,
61And follow in the furrows that we tilled,
62Young men, whose generous hearts are beating high,
63We who are old, and are about to die,
64Salute you; hail you; take your hands in ours,
65And crown you with our welcome as with flowers!
66How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams
67With its illusions, aspirations, dreams!
68Book of Beginnings, Story without End,
69Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!
71That holds the treasures of the universe!
72All possibilities are in its hands,
73No danger daunts it, and no foe withstands;
74In its sublime audacity of faith,
76And with ambitious feet, secure and proud,
77Ascends the ladder leaning on the cloud!
79Sat on the walls of Troy in regal state
80With the old men, too old and weak to fight,
81Chirping like grasshoppers in their delight
82To see the embattled hosts, with spear and shield,
83Of Trojans and Achaians in the field;
84So from the snowy summits of our years
85We see you in the plain, as each appears,
86And question of you; asking, "Who is he
87That towers above the others? Which may be
89Ajax the great, or bold Idomeneus?"
91As he who puts it off, the battle done.
92Study yourselves; and most of all note well
93Wherein kind Nature meant you to excel.
94Not every blossom ripens into fruit;
96Flung it aside, when she her face surveyed
97Distorted in a fountain as she played;
99Was one to make the bravest hesitate.
100Write on your doors the saying wise and old,
102Be not too bold!" Yet better the excess
103Than the defect; better the more than less;
105Than like a perfumed Paris turn and fly.
106And now, my classmates; ye remaining few
107That number not the half of those we knew,
108Ye, against whose familiar names not yet
110Ye I salute! The horologe of Time
111Strikes the half-century with a solemn chime,
112And summons us together once again,
113The joy of meeting not unmixed with pain.
114Where are the others? Voices from the deep
115Caverns of darkness answer me: "They sleep!"
116I name no names; instinctively I feel
117Each at some well-remembered grave will kneel,
118And from the inscription wipe the weeds and moss,
119For every heart best knoweth its own loss.
120I see their scattered gravestones gleaming white
121Through the pale dusk of the impending night;
122O'er all alike the impartial sunset throws
123Its golden lilies mingled with the rose;
124We give to each a tender thought, and pass
125Out of the graveyards with their tangled grass,
126Unto these scenes frequented by our feet
127When we were young, and life was fresh and sweet.
128What shall I say to you? What can I say
129Better than silence is? When I survey
130This throng of faces turned to meet my own,
131Friendly and fair, and yet to me unknown,
132Transformed the very landscape seems to be;
133It is the same, yet not the same to me.
134So many memories crowd upon my brain,
135So many ghosts are in the wooded plain,
136I fain would steal away, with noiseless tread,
137As from a house where some one lieth dead.
138I cannot go;--I pause;--I hesitate;
139My feet reluctant linger at the gate;
140As one who struggles in a troubled dream
141To speak and cannot, to myself I seem.
142Vanish the dream! Vanish the idle fears!
143Vanish the rolling mists of fifty years!
144Whatever time or space may intervene,
145I will not be a stranger in this scene.
146Here every doubt, all indecision, ends;
147Hail, my companions, comrades, classmates, friends!
148Ah me! the fifty years since last we met
149Seem to me fifty folios bound and set
150By Time, the great transcriber, on his shelves,
151Wherein are written the histories of ourselves.
152What tragedies, what comedies, are there;
153What joy and grief, what rapture and despair!
154What chronicles of triumph and defeat,
155Of struggle, and temptation, and retreat!
156What records of regrets, and doubts, and fears!
157What pages blotted, blistered by our tears!
158What lovely landscapes on the margin shine,
159What sweet, angelic faces, what divine
160And holy images of love and trust,
161Undimmed by age, unsoiled by damp or dust!
162Whose hand shall dare to open and explore
163These volumes, closed and clasped forevermore?
164Not mine. With reverential feet I pass;
165I hear a voice that cries, "Alas! alas!
166Whatever hath been written shall remain,
167Nor be erased nor written o'er again;
168The unwritten only still belongs to thee:
169Take heed, and ponder well what that shall be."
170As children frightened by a thunder-cloud
171Are reassured if some one reads aloud
172A tale of wonder, with enchantment fraught,
173Or wild adventure, that diverts their thought,
175The gathering shadows of the time and place,
176And banish what we all too deeply feel
177Wholly to say, or wholly to conceal.
178In mediæval Rome, I know not where,
179There stood an image with its arm in air,
180And on its lifted finger, shining clear,
181A golden ring with the device, "Strike here!"
182Greatly the people wondered, though none guessed
183The meaning that these words but half expressed,
184Until a learned clerk, who at noonday
185With downcast eyes was passing on his way,
186Paused, and observed the spot, and marked it well,
187Whereon the shadow of the finger fell;
188And, coming back at midnight, delved, and found
189A secret stairway leading underground.
190Down this he passed into a spacious hall,
191Lit by a flaming jewel on the wall;
192And opposite, in threatening attitude,
193With bow and shaft a brazen statue stood.
194Upon its forehead, like a coronet,
195Were these mysterious words of menace set:
196"That which I am, I am; my fatal aim
197None can escape, not even yon luminous flame!"
198Midway the hall was a fair table placed,
199With cloth of gold, and golden cups enchased
200With rubies, and the plates and knives were gold,
201And gold the bread and viands manifold.
202Around it, silent, motionless, and sad,
203Were seated gallant knights in armor clad,
204And ladies beautiful with plume and zone,
205But they were stone, their hearts within were stone;
206And the vast hall was filled in every part
207With silent crowds, stony in face and heart.
208Long at the scene, bewildered and amazed
209The trembling clerk in speechless wonder gazed;
210Then from the table, by his greed made bold,
211He seized a goblet and a knife of gold,
212And suddenly from their seats the guests upsprang,
213The vaulted ceiling with loud clamors rang,
214The archer sped his arrow, at their call,
215Shattering the lambent jewel on the wall,
216And all was dark around and overhead;--
217Stark on the floor the luckless clerk lay dead!
218The writer of this legend then records
219Its ghostly application in these words:
220The image is the Adversary old,
221Whose beckoning finger points to realms of gold;
222Our lusts and passions are the downward stair
223That leads the soul from a diviner air;
224The archer, Death; the flaming jewel, Life;
225Terrestrial goods, the goblet and the knife;
226The knights and ladies, all whose flesh and bone
227By avarice have been hardened into stone;
228The clerk, the scholar whom the love of pelf
229Tempts from his books and from his nobler self.
230The scholar and the world! The endless strife,
231The discord in the harmonies of life!
232The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
233And all the sweet serenity of books;
234The market-place, the eager love of gain,
235Whose aim is vanity, and whose end is pain!
236But why, you ask me, should this tale be told
237To men grown old, or who are growing old?
238It is too late! Ah, nothing is too late
239Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.
241Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides
242Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers,
243When each had numbered more than fourscore years,
244And Theophrastus, at fourscore and ten,
245Had but begun his "Characters of Men."
246Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales,
247At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales;
248Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last,
249Completed Faust when eighty years were past.
250These are indeed exceptions; but they show
251How far the gulf-stream of our youth may flow
252Into the arctic regions of our lives,
253Where little else than life itself survives.
254As the barometer foretells the storm
255While still the skies are clear, the weather warm
256So something in us, as old age draws near,
257Betrays the pressure of the atmosphere.
258The nimble mercury, ere we are aware,
259Descends the elastic ladder of the air;
260The telltale blood in artery and vein
261Sinks from its higher levels in the brain;
262Whatever poet, orator, or sage
263May say of it, old age is still old age.
264It is the waning, not the crescent moon;
265The dusk of evening, not the blaze of noon;
266It is not strength, but weakness; not desire,
267But its surcease; not the fierce heat of fire,
268The burning and consuming element,
269But that of ashes and of embers spent,
270In which some living sparks we still discern,
271Enough to warm, but not enough to burn.
272What then? Shall we sit idly down and say
273The night hath come; it is no longer day?
274The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
275Cut off from labor by the failing light;
276Something remains for us to do or dare;
277Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;
278Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,
279Or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode
281But other something, would we but begin;
282For age is opportunity no less
283Than youth itself, though in another dress,
284And as the evening twilight fades away
285The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

Notes

1] "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 presentation 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.'" (Editor, p. 187.)
"This use of the phrase Morituri Salutamus agrees with the treatment of Gérôme in his painting, beneath which he wrote the words, Ave Cæsar, Imperator, Morituri te Salutant. The reference to a gladiatorial combat, however, is doubted by some scholars, who quote Suetonius and Dion Cassius as using the phrase in connection with the great sea-fight exhibition given by the Emperor on Lacus Fucinus. The combatants were condemned criminals, and they were to fight until one of the parties was killed, unless saved by the interposition of the Emperor." (Editor, p. 302.)
The epigraph is from Ovid's Fastorum, VI: "Time slips away and we age with these silent years, and the days fly by with nothing to slow them down." Back to Line
30] "Professor Alpheus Spring Packard, since deceased." (Editor, p. 302.) Back to Line
34] Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italian poet of The Divine Comedy, which Longfellow translated after his wife's death. The quoted lines are translated from the Inferno, V, 82-87, where Dante meets and thanks his former teacher Brunetto Latini. Back to Line
53] Jesus' parable of the talents appears in Matthew 25.14-29. Back to Line
58] A parable by Jesus narrated in Luke 19: 11-17. Back to Line
70] Aladdin's Lamp: magical, wish-granting lamp of the youth in an ancient eastern tale supposed to be part of The Arabian Nights Entertainments (but not found in earliest manuscripts), translated by Antoine Galland 1704-17 and thereafter into English.
Fortunatus' Purse: the story of a 15th-century European romance, popularized by Thomas Dekker in his Old Fortunatus (1600), in which Fortune grants unlimited wealth to Fortunatus, who dies as a result of how he spends it. Back to Line
75] 1 Cor. 13.2. " ... though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing." Back to Line
78] Priam at the Scæan gate: king of Troy, at the main city gate. Cf. Iliad III.174. Back to Line
88] Atreides, Menelaus, Odysseus: leaders in the war against Troy -- Agamemnon, commander of all Greek forces against Troy; his brother, king of Sparta, and husband of Helen of Troy; and the king of Ithaca.
Ajax the great, or bold Idomeneus: Greek hero in Agamemnon's forces; and the king of Crete and Cretan armies against Troy. Back to Line
90] 1 Kings 20.11: "And the king of Israel answered and said, Tell him, Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off." Back to Line
95] Minerva: Roman goddess identified with Pallas Athenae, Greek goddess of wisdom and poetry. Back to Line
98] The unlucky Marsyas: a satyr who challenged Apollo's prowess with the flute and whom Apollo, on winning the contest, flayed alive. Back to Line
101] "See Spenser's Faerie Queene, Book III. Canto xi. Stanza 54." (Editor, p. 302.) This is the inscription found above the door of the final room in the castle of love. Back to Line
104] Hector: Trojan hero, slain by Achilles outside Troy(Iliad XXII).
Paris: Trojan prince, a son of Priam, and husband of Helen of Troy. Back to Line
109] asterisk: notes a name in a group of names as belonging to someone who has died. Back to Line
174] "The original of this story is to be found in Tale CVII. of Gesta Romanorum; Of remembering death and forgetting things temporal." (Editor, p. 302.) Back to Line
240] Cato: Marcus Porcius Cato the elder, "the censor" (234-149 B.C.), Roman statesman.
Sophocles: Greek dramatist (496?-406 B.C.), author of the tragedies "Oedipus the King" and "Oedipus at Colonus."
Simonides: of Ceos, a Greek poet (ca. 5th-6th cent.).
Theophrastus: Greek philosopher (371-287 B.C.) known for his botanical works and for his "Characters," brief descriptions of persons who typify certain traits or "humours."
Chaucer, at Woodstock:Geoffrey Chaucer may have visited this royal estate near Oxford but he did not write The Canterbury Tales there, or for that matter do so at age 60 (when he died), but in various places, especially London, from the early 1380s until a few years before his death.
Goethe at Weimar: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), German dramatist and poet, who about 1770 started his great drama on the scholar who sold his soul to the devil and only completed it just before his death. He spent most of his life at Weimar working in government and theatre. Back to Line
280] Tabard Inn: the hostelry from which Chaucer's pilgrims set out to Canterbury. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1875
Publication Notes: 
In The Masque of Pandora
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1998.
Form: