Humboldt's Birthday

A poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Ere yet the warning chimes of midnight sound,
Set back the flaming index of the year,
Track the swift-shifting seasons in their round
Through fivescore circles of the swinging sphere!

Lo, in yon islet of the midland sea
That cleaves the storm-cloud with its snowy crest,
The embryo-heir of Empires yet to be,
A month-old babe upon his mother's breast.

Those little hands that soon shall grow so strong
In their rude grasp great thrones shall rock and fall,
Press her soft bosom, while a nursery song
Holds the world's master in its slender thrall.

Look! a new crescent bends its silver bow;
A new-lit star has fired the eastern sky;
Hark! by the river where the lindens blow
A waiting household hears an infant's cry.

This, too, a conqueror! His the vast domain,
Wider than widest sceptre-shadowed lands;
Earth and the weltering kingdom of the main
Laid their broad charters in his royal hands.

His was no taper lit in cloistered cage,
Its glimmer borrowed from the grove or porch;
He read the record of the planet's page
By Etna's glare and Cotopaxi's torch.

He heard the voices of the pathless woods;
On the salt steppes he saw the starlight shine;
He scaled the mountain's windy solitudes,
And trod the galleries of the breathless mine.

For him no fingering of the love-strung lyre,
No problem vague, by torturing schoolmen vexed;
He fed no broken altar's dying fire,
Nor skulked and scowled behind a Rabbi's text.

For God's new truth he claimed the kingly robe
That priestly shoulders counted all their own,
Unrolled the gospel of the storied globe
And led young Science to her empty throne.

While the round planet on its axle spins
One fruitful year shall boast its double birth,
And show the cradles of its mighty twins,
Master and Servant of the sons of earth.

Which wears the garland that shall never fade,
Sweet with fair memories that can never die?
Ask not the marbles where their bones are laid,
But bow thine ear to hear thy brothers' cry: -

"Tear up the despot's laurels by the root,
Like mandrakes, shrieking as they quit the soil!
Feed us no more upon the blood-red fruit
That sucks its crimson from the heart of Toil!

"We claim the food that fixed our mortal fate, -
Bend to our reach the long-forbidden tree!
The angel frowned at Eden's eastern gate, -
Its western portal is forever free!

"Bring the white blossoms of the waning year,
Heap with full hands the peaceful conqueror's shrine
Whose bloodless triumphs cost no sufferer's tear!
Hero of knowledge, be our tribute thine!"

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