In The Half-Way House

A poem by James Russell Lowell


At twenty we fancied the blest Middle Ages
A spirited cross of romantic and grand,
All templars and minstrels and ladies and pages,
And love and adventure in Outre-Mer land;
But ah, where the youth dreamed of building a minster,
The man takes a pew and sits reckoning his pelf,
And the Graces wear fronts, the Muse thins to a spinster,
When Middle-Age stares from one's glass at oneself!


Do you twit me with days when I had an Ideal,
And saw the sear future through spectacles green?
Then find me some charm, while I look round and see all
These fat friends of forty, shall keep me nineteen;
Should we go on pining for chaplets of laurel
Who've paid a perruquier for mending our thatch,
Or, our feet swathed in baize, with our Fate pick a quarrel,
If, instead of cheap bay-leaves, she sent a dear scratch?


We called it our Eden, that small patent-baker,
When life was half moonshine and half Mary Jane;
But the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker!--
Did Adam have duns and slip down a back-lane?
Nay, after the Fall did the modiste keep coming
With the last styles of fig-leaf to Madam Eve's bower?
Did Jubal, or whoever taught the girls thrumming,
Make the patriarchs deaf at a dollar the hour?


As I think what I was, I sigh Desunt nonnulla!
Years are creditors Sheridan's self could not bilk;
But then, as my boy says, 'What right has a fullah
To ask for the cream, when himself spilt the milk?'
Perhaps when you're older, my lad, you'll discover
The secret with which Auld Lang Syne there is gilt,--
Superstition of old man, maid, poet, and lover,--
That cream rises thickest on milk that was spilt!


We sailed for the moon, but, in sad disillusion,
Snug under Point Comfort are glad to make fast,
And strive (sans our glasses) to make a confusion
'Twixt our rind of green cheese and the moon of the past.
Ah, Might-have-been, Could-have-been, Would-have-been! rascals,
He's a genius or fool whom ye cheat at two-score,
And the man whose boy-promise was likened to Pascal's
Is thankful at forty they don't call him bore!


With what fumes of fame was each confident pate full!
How rates of insurance should rise on the Charles!
And which of us now would not feel wisely grateful,
If his rhymes sold as fast as the Emblems of Quarles?
E'en if won, what's the good of Life's medals and prizes?
The rapture's in what never was or is gone;
That we missed them makes Helens of plain Ann Elizys,
For the goose of To-day still is Memory's swan.


And yet who would change the old dream for new treasure?
Make not youth's sourest grapes the best wine of our life?
Need he reckon his date by the Almanac's measure
Who is twenty life-long in the eyes of his wife?
Ah, Fate, should I live to be nonagenarian,
Let me still take Hope's frail I.O.U.'s upon trust,
Still talk of a trip to the Islands Macarian,
And still climb the dream-tree for--ashes and dust!

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