In 1875, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) accepted an offer from the American Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain to speak at Longfellow’s fiftieth reunion at Bowdoin College. There he read his poem “Morituri Salutamus.” (The title of the poem means, “We who are about to die, salute you.”) The poem begins with a Latin quote by the Roman poet Ovid which reads: “Tempora labuntur, tacitisque senescimus annis, Et fugiunt freno non remorante dies.” (“The times slip away, and we grow old with silent years, and the days flee unchecked by a rein.”) (Here is a link to Chamberlains’s letter inviting Longfellow.)
The poem expresses Longfellow’s belief that while we cannot stop the inexorable march of time, we can mitigate its effects by learning as we pass through life—for maturity allows for insights unachievable in youth. He also voices his belief that there is much left to do in old age. While it is true that most of us won’t do our best work in old age, perhaps if we have learned something in life we will become better people as we age. And while many criticized the simplicity of Longfellow’s simple rhymes, I find them comforting.
The final stanzas of Longfellow’s poem exhort his fellows to continue to work and dream even as they age.
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.