The Iron Gate
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
Read at the breakfast given in honor of Dr. Holmes's seventieth birthday by the publishers of the Atlantic Monthly, Boston, December 3, 1879.
Where is this patriarch you are kindly greeting?
Not unfamiliar to my ear his name,
Nor yet unknown to many a joyous meeting
In days long vanished, -- is he still the same,
Or changed by years, forgotten and forgetting,
Dull-eared, dim-sighted, slow of speech and thought,
Still o'er the sad, degenerate present fretting,
Where all goes wrong, and nothing as it ought?
Old age, the graybeard! Well, indeed, I know him, --
Shrunk, tottering, bent, of aches and ills the prey;
In sermon, story, fable, picture, poem,
Oft have I met him from my earliest day:
In my old Aesop, toiling with his bundle, --
His load of sticks, -- politely asking Death,
Who comes when called for, -- would he lug or trundle
His fagot for him? --he was scant of breath.
Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher, --
Has he not stamped the image on my soul,
In that last chapter, where the worn-out Teacher
Sighs o'er the loosened cord, the broken bowl?
Yes, long, indeed, I've known him at a distance,
And now my lifted door-latch shows him here;
I take his shrivelled hand without resistance,
And find him smiling as his step draws near.
What though of gilded baubles he bereaves us,
Dear to the heart of youth, to manhood's prime;
Think of the calm he brings, the wealth he leaves us,
The hoarded spoils, the legacies of time!
Altars once flaming, still with incense fragrant,
Passion's uneasy nurslings rocked asleep,
Hope's anchor faster, wild desire less vagrant,
Life's flow less noisy, but the stream how deep!
Still as the silver cord gets worn and slender,
Its lightened task-work tugs with lessening strain,
Hands get more helpful, voices, grown more tender,
Soothe with their softened tones the slumberous brain.
Youth longs and manhood strives, but age remembers,
Sits by the raked-up ashes of the past,
Spreads its thin hands above the whitening embers
That warm its creeping life-blood till the last.
Dear to its heart is every loving token
That comes unbidden ere its pulse grows cold,
Ere the last lingering ties of life are broken,
Its labors ended and its story told.
Ah, while around us rosy youth rejoices,
For us the sorrow-laden breezes sigh,
And through the chorus of its jocund voices
Throbs the sharp note of misery's hopeless cry.
As on the gauzy wings of fancy flying
From some far orb I track our watery sphere,
Home of the struggling, suffering, doubting, dying,
The silvered globule seems a glistening tear.
But Nature lends her mirror of illusion
To win from saddening scenes our age-dimmed eyes,
And misty day-dreams blend in sweet confusion
The wintry landscape and the summer skies.
So when the iron portal shuts behind us,
And life forgets us in its noise and whirl,
Visions that shunned the glaring noonday find us,
And glimmering starlight shows the gates of pearl.
-- I come not here your morning hour to sadden,
A limping pilgrim, leaning on his staff, --
I, who have never deemed it sin to gladden
This vale of sorrows with a wholesome laugh.
If word of mine another's gloom has brightened,
Through my dumb lips the heaven-sent message came;
If hand of mine another's task has lightened,
It felt the guidance that it dares not claim.
But, O my gentle sisters, O my brothers,
These thick-sown snow-flakes hint of toil's release;
These feebler pulses bid me leave to others
The tasks once welcome; evening asks for peace.
Time claims his tribute; silence now is golden;
Let me not vex the too long-suffering lyre;
Though to your love untiring still beholden,
The curfew tells me -- cover up the fire.
And now with grateful smile and accents cheerful,
And warmer heart than look or word can tell,
In simplest phrase -- these traitorous eyes are tearful --
Thanks, Brothers, Sisters -- Children -- and farewell!
Source:Illustrated poems of Oliver Wendell Holmes
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin And Company
New York: 11 East Seventeenth Street