Oliver Wendell Holmes
The Last Survivor - Poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes
YES! the vacant chairs tell sadly we are going, going fast,
And the thought comes strangely o'er me, who will live to be the last?
When the twentieth century's sunbeams climb the far-off eastern hill,
With his ninety winters burdened, will he greet the morning still?
Will he stand with Harvard's nurslings when they hear their mother's call
And the old and young are gathered in the many alcoved hall?
Will he answer to the summons when they range themselves in line
And the young mustachioed marshal calls out 'Class of '29 '?
Methinks I see the column as its lengthened ranks appear
In the sunshine of the morrow of the nineteen hundredth year;
Through the yard 't is creeping, winding, by the walls of dusky red,--
What shape is that which totters at the long procession's head?
Who knows this ancient graduate of fourscore years and ten,--
What place he held, what name he bore among the sons of men?
So speeds the curious question; its answer travels slow;
''T is the last of sixty classmates of seventy years ago.'
His figure shows but dimly, his face I scarce can see,--
There's something that reminds me,--it looks like--is it he?
He? Who? No voice may whisper what wrinkled brow shall claim
The wreath of stars that circles our last survivor's name.
Will he be some veteran minstrel, left to pipe in feeble rhyme
All the stories and the glories of our gay and golden time?
Or some quiet, voiceless brother in whose lonely,loving breast
Fond memory broods in silence, like a dove upon her nest?
Will it be some old Emeritus, who taught so long ago
The boys that heard him lecture have heads as white as snow?
Or a pious, painful preacher, holding forth from year to year
Till his colleague got a colleague whom the young folks flocked to hear?
Will it be a rich old merchant in a square-tied white cravat,
Or select-man of a village in a pre-historic hat?
Will his dwelling be a mansion in a marble-fronted row,
Or a homestead by a hillside where the huckleberries grow?
I can see our one survivor, sitting lonely by himself,--
All his college text-books round him, ranged in order on their shelf;
There are classic 'interliners' filled with learning's choicest pith,
Each _cum notis variorum, quas recensuit doctus_ Smith;
Physics, metaphysics, logic, mathematics--all the lot
Every wisdom--crammed octavo he has mastered and forgot,
With the ghosts of dead professors standing guard beside them all;
And the room is fall of shadows which their lettered backs recall.
How the past spreads out in vision with its far receding train,
Like a long embroidered arras in the chambers of the brain,
From opening manhood's morning when first we learned to grieve
To the fond regretful moments of our sorrow-saddened eve!
What early shadows darkened our idle summer's joy
When death snatched roughly from us that lovely bright-eyed boy!
The years move swiftly onwards; the deadly shafts fall fast,--
Till all have dropped around him--lo, there he stands,--the last!
Their faces flit before him, some rosy-hued and fair,
Some strong in iron manhood, some worn with toil and care;
Their smiles no more shall greet him on cheeks with pleasure flushed!
The friendly hands are folded, the pleasant voices hushed!
My picture sets me dreaming; alas! and can it be
Those two familiar faces we never more may see?
In every entering footfall I think them drawing near,
With every door that opens I say, 'At last they 're here!'
The willow bends unbroken when angry tempests blow,
The stately oak is levelled and all its strength laid low;
So fell that tower of manhood, undaunted, patient, strong,
White with the gathering snowflakes, who faced the storm so long.
And he,--what subtle phrases their varying light must blend
To paint as each remembers our many-featured friend!
His wit a flash auroral that laughed in every look,
His talk a sunbeam broken on the ripples of a brook,
Or, fed from thousand sources, a fountain's glittering jet,
Or careless handfuls scattered of diamond sparks unset;
Ah, sketch him, paint him, mould him in every shape you will,
He was himself--the only--the one unpictured still!
Farewell! our skies are darkened and--yet the stars will shine,
We 'll close our ranks together and still fall into line
Till one is left, one only, to mourn for all the rest;
And Heaven bequeath their memories to him who loves us best!
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