At The Commencement Dinner, 1866, In Acknowledging A Toast To The Smith Professor

A poem by James Russell Lowell

I rise, Mr. Chairman, as both of us know,
With the impromptu I promised you three weeks ago,
Dragged up to my doom by your might and my mane,
To do what I vowed I'd do never again:
And I feel like your good honest dough when possest
By a stirring, impertinent devil of yeast.
'You must rise,' says the leaven. 'I can't,' says the dough;
'Just examine my bumps, and you'll see it's no go.'
'But you must,' the tormentor insists, ''tis all right;
You must rise when I bid you, and, what's more, be light.'

'Tis a dreadful oppression, this making men speak
What they're sure to be sorry for all the next week;
Some poor stick requesting, like Aaron's, to bud
Into eloquence, pathos, or wit in cold blood,
As if the dull brain that you vented your spite on
Could be got, like an ox, by mere poking, to Brighton.

They say it is wholesome to rise with the sun,
And I dare say it may be if not overdone;
(I think it was Thomson who made the remark
'Twas an excellent thing in its way--for a lark;)
But to rise after dinner and look down the meeting
On a distant (as Gray calls it) prospect of Eating,
With a stomach half full and a cerebrum hollow
As the tortoise-shell ere it was strung for Apollo,
Undercontract to raise anerithmon gelasma
With rhymes so hard hunted they gasp with the asthma,
And jokes not much younger than Jethro's phylacteries,
Is something I leave you yourselves to characterize.

I've a notion, I think, of a good dinner speech,
Tripping light as a sandpiper over the beach,
Swerving this way and that as the wave of the moment
Washes out its slight trace with a dash of whim's foam on 't,
And leaving on memory's rim just a sense
Something graceful had gone by, a live present tense;
Not poetry,--no, not quite that, but as good,
A kind of winged prose that could fly if it would.
'Tis a time for gay fancies as fleeting and vain
As the whisper of foam-beads on fresh-poured champagne,
Since dinners were not perhaps strictly designed
For manoeuvring the heavy dragoons of the mind.
When I hear your set speeches that start with a pop,
Then wander and maunder, too feeble to stop,
With a vague apprehension from popular rumor
There used to be something by mortals called humor,
Beginning again when you thought they were done,
Respectable, sensible, weighing a ton,
And as near to the present occasions of men
As a Fast Day discourse of the year eighteen ten,
I--well, I sit still, and my sentiments smother,
For am I not also a bore and a brother?

And a toast,--what should that, be? Light, airy, and free,
The foam-Aphrodite of Bacchus's sea,
A fancy-tinged bubble, an orbed rainbow-stain,
That floats for an instant 'twixt goblet and brain;
A breath-born perfection, half something, half naught,
And breaks if it strike the hard edge of a thought.
Do you ask me to make such? Ah no, not so simple;
Ask Apelles to paint you the ravishing dimple
Whose shifting enchantment lights Venus's cheek,
And the artist will tell you his skill is to seek;
Once fix it, 'tis naught, for the charm of it rises
From the sudden bopeeps of its smiling surprises.

I've tried to define it, but what mother's son
Could ever yet do what he knows should be done?
My rocket has burst, and I watch in the air
Its fast-fading heart's-blood drop back in despair;
Yet one chance is left me, and, if I am quick,
I can palm off, before you suspect me, the stick.

Now since I've succeeded--I pray do not frown--
To Ticknor's and Longfellow's classical gown,
And profess four strange languages, which, luckless elf,
I speak like a native (of Cambridge) myself,
Let me beg, Mr. President, leave to propose
A sentiment treading on nobody's toes,
And give, in such ale as with pump-handles we brew,
Their memory who saved us from all talking Hebrew,--
A toast that to deluge with water is good,
For in Scripture they come in just after the flood:
I give you the men but for whom, as I guess, sir,
Modern languages ne'er could have had a professor,
The builders of Babel, to whose zeal the lungs
Of the children of men owe confusion of tongues;
And a name all-embracing I couple therewith,
Which is that of my founder--the late Mr. Smith.

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