NAY, blame me not; I might have spared
Your patience many a trivial verse,
Yet these my earlier welcome shared,
So, let the better shield the worse.
And some might say, “Those ruder songs
Had freshness which the new have lost;
To spring the opening leaf belongs,
The chestnut-burs await the frost.”
When those I wrote, my locks were brown,
When these I write — ah, well a-day!
The autumn thistle’s silvery down
Is not the purple bloom of May.
Go, little book, whose pages hold
Those garnered years in loving trust;
How long before your blue and gold
Shall fade and whiten in the dust?
O sexton of the alcoved tomb,
Where souls in leathern cerements lie,
Tell me each living poet’s doom!
How long before his book shall die?
It matters little, soon or late,
A day, a month, a year, an age, —
I read oblivion in its date,
And Finis on its title-page.
Before we sighed, our griefs were told;
Before we smiled, our joys were sung;
And all our passions shaped of old
In accents lost to mortal tongue.
In vain a fresher mould we seek, —
Can all the varied phrases tell
That Babel’s wandering children speak
How thrushes sing or lilacs smell?
Caged in the poet’s lonely heart,
Love wastes unheard its tenderest tone;
The soul that sings must dwell apart,
Its inward melodies unknown.
Deal gently with us, ye who read
Our largest hope is unfulfilled, —
The promise still outruns the deed, —
The tower, but not the spire, we build.
Our whitest pearl we never find;
Our ripest fruit we never reach;
The flowering moments of the mind
Drop half their petals in our speech.
These are my blossoms; if they wear
One streak of morn or evening’s glow,
Accept them; but to me more fair
The buds of song that never blow.
April 8, 1862.
This was the popular name by which the frigate Constitution was known. The poem was first printed in the Boston Daily Advertiser, at the time when it was proposed to break up the old ship as unfit for service. I subjoin the paragraph which led to the writing of the poem. It is from the Advertiser of Tuesday, September 14, 1830: —
“Old Ironsides. — It has been affirmed upon good authority that the Secretary of the Navy has recommended to the Board of Navy Commissioners to dispose of the frigate Constitution. Since it has been understood that such a step was in contemplation we have heard but one opinion expressed, and that in decided disapprobation of the measure. Such a national object of interest, so endeared to our national pride as Old Ironsides is, should never by any act of our government cease to belong to the Navy, so long as our country is to be found upon the map of nations. In England it was lately determined by the Admiralty to cut the Victory, a one-hundred gun ship (which it will be recollected bore the flag of Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar,) down to a seventy-four, but so loud were the lamentations of the people upon the proposed measure that the intention was abandoned. We confidently anticipate that the Secretary of the Navy will in like manner consult the general wish in regard to the Constitution, and either let her remain in ordinary or rebuild her whenever the public service may require.” — New York Journal of Commerce.
The poem was an impromptu outburst of feeling and was published on the next day but one after reading the above paragraph.
AY, tear her tattered ensign down
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar; —
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee; —
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!
Oh better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!
This poem was suggested by the appearance in one of our streets of a venerable relic of the Revolution, said to be one of the party who threw the tea overboard in Boston Harbor. He was a fine monumental specimen in his cocked hat and knee breeches, with his buckled shoes and his sturdy cane. The smile with which I, as a young man, greeted him, meant no disrespect to an honored fellow-citizen whose costume was out of date, but whose patriotism never changed with years. I do not recall any earlier example of this form of verse, which was commended by the fastidious Edgar Allan Poe, who made a copy of the whole poem which I have in his own handwriting. Good Abraham Lincoln had a great liking for the poem, and repeated it from memory to Governor Andrew, as the governor himself told me.
I SAW him once before,
As he passed by the door,
The pavement stones resound,
As he totters o’er the ground
With his cane.
They say that in his prime,
Ere the pruning-knife of Time
Cut him down,
Not a better man was found
By the Crier on his round
Through the town.
But now he walks the streets,
And he looks at all he meets
Sad and wan,
And he shakes his feeble head,
That it seems as if he said,
“They are gone.”
The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.
My grandmamma has said —
Poor old lady, she is dead
Long ago —
That he had a Roman nose,
And his cheek was like a rose
In the snow.
But now his nose is thin,
And it rests upon his chin
Like a staff,
And a crook is in his back,
And a melancholy crack
In his laugh.
I know it is a sin
For me to sit and grin
At him here;
But the old three-cornered hat,
And the breeches, and all that,
Are so queer!
And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.
OUR ancient church! its lowly tower,
Beneath the loftier spire,
Is shadowed when the sunset hour
Clothes the tall shaft in fire;
It sinks beyond the distant eye
Long ere the glittering vane,
High wheeling in the western sky,
Has faded o’er the plain.
Like Sentinel and Nun, they keep
Their vigil on the green;
One seems to guard, and one to weep,
The dead that lie between;
And both roll out, so full and near,
Their music’s mingling waves,
They shake the grass, whose pennoned spear
Leans on the narrow graves.
The stranger parts the flaunting weeds,
Whose seeds the winds have strown
So thick, beneath the line he reads,
They shade the sculptured stone;
The child unveils his clustered brow,
And ponders for a while
The graven willow’s pendent bough,
Or rudest cherub’s smile.
But what to them the dirge, the knell?
These were the mourner’s share, —
The sullen clang, whose heavy swell
Throbbed through the beating air;
The rattling cord, the rolling stone,
The shelving sand that slid,
And, far beneath, with hollow tone
Rung on the coffin’s lid.
The slumberer’s mound grows fresh and green,
Then slowly disappears;
The mosses creep, the gray stones lean,
Earth hides his date and years;
But, long before the once-loved name
Is sunk or worn away,
No lip the silent dust may claim,
That pressed the breathing clay.
Go where the ancient pathway guides,
See where our sires laid down
Their smiling babes, their cherished brides,
The patriarchs of the town;
Hast thou a tear for buried love?
A sigh for transient power?
All that a century left above,
Go, read it in an hour!
The Indian’s shaft, the Briton’s ball,
The sabre’s thirsting edge,
The hot shell, shattering in its fall,
The bayonet’s rending wedge, —
Here scattered death; yet, seek the spot,
No trace thine eye can see,
No altar, — and they need it not
Who leave their children free!
Look where the turbid rain-drops stand
In many a chiselled square;
The knightly crest, the shield, the brand
Of honored names were there; —
Alas! for every tear is dried
Those blazoned tablets knew,
Save when the icy marble’s side
Drips with the evening dew.
Lean o’er the slender western wall,
Ye ever-roaming girls;
The breath that bids the blossom fall
May lift your floating curls,
To sweep the simple lines that tell
An exile’s date and doom;
And sigh, for where his daughters dwell,
They wreathe the stranger’s tomb.
And one amid these shades was born,
Beneath this turf who lies,
Once beaming as the summer’s morn,
That closed her gentle eyes;
If sinless angels love as we,
Who stood thy grave beside,
Three seraph welcomes waited thee,
The daughter, sister, bride.
I wandered to thy buried mound
When earth was hid below
The level of the glaring ground,
Choked to its gates with snow,
And when with summer’s flowery waves
The lake of verdure rolled,
As if a Sultan’s white-robed slaves
Had scattered pearls and gold.
Nay, the soft pinions of the air,
That lift this trembling tone,
Its breath of love may almost bear
To kiss thy funeral stone;
And, now thy smiles have passed away,
For all the joy they gave,
May sweetest dews and warmest ray
Lie on thine early grave!
When damps beneath and storms above
Have bowed these fragile towers,
Still o’er the graves yon locust grove
Shall swing its Orient flowers;
And I would ask no mouldering bust,
If e’er this humble line,
Which breathed a sigh o’er other’s dust,
Might call a tear on mine.
The Katydid is “a species of grasshopper found in the United States, so called from the sound which it makes.” — Worcester. I used to hear this insect in Providence, Rhode Island, but I do not remember hearing it in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I passed my boyhood. It is well known in other towns in the neighborhood of Boston.
I LOVE to hear thine earnest voice,
Wherever thou art hid,
Thou testy little dogmatist,
Thou pretty Katydid
Thou mindest me of gentlefolks, —
Old gentlefolks are they, —
Thou say’st an undisputed thing
In such a solemn way.
Thou art a female, Katydid
I know it by the trill
That quivers through thy piercing notes,
So petulant and shrill;
I think there is a knot of you
Beneath the hollow tree, —
A knot of spinster Katydids, —
Do Katydids drink tea?
Oh tell me where did Katy live,
And what did Katy do?
And was she very fair and young,
And yet so wicked, too?
Did Katy love a naughty man,
Or kiss more cheeks than one?
I warrant Katy did no more
Than many a Kate has done.
Dear me! I’ll tell you all about
My fuss with little Jane,
And Ann, with whom I used to walk
So often down the lane,
And all that tore their locks of black,
Or wet their eyes of blue, —
Pray tell me, sweetest Katydid,
What did poor Katy do?
Ah no! the living oak shall crash,
That stood for ages still,
The rock shall rend its mossy base
And thunder down the hill,
Before the little Katydid
Shall add one word, to tell
The mystic story of the maid
Whose name she knows so well.