Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
II. May-Day and Other Pieces
IT 1 is time to be old,
To take in sail:—
The god of bounds,
Who sets to seas a shore,
Came to me in his fatal rounds,        5
And said: ‘No more!
No farther shoot
Thy broad ambitious branches, and thy root.
Fancy departs: no more invent;
Contract thy firmament        10
To compass of a tent.
There ’s not enough for this and that,
Make thy option which of two;
Economize the failing river,
Not the less revere the Giver,        15
Leave the many and hold the few.
Timely wise accept the terms,
Soften the fall with wary foot;
A little while
Still plan and smile,        20
And,—fault of novel germs,—
Mature the unfallen fruit.
Curse, if thou wilt, thy sires,
Bad husbands of their fires,
Who, when they gave thee breath,        25
Failed to bequeath
The needful sinew stark as once,
The Baresark marrow to thy bones,
But left a legacy of ebbing veins,
Inconstant heat and nerveless reins,—        30
Amid the Muses, left thee deaf and dumb,
Amid the gladiators, halt and numb.’ 2
  As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,        35
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
‘Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.’ 3        40
Note 1. Terminus was to the Romans the deity presiding over boundaries and landmarks.
  In the last days of the year 1866, when I was returning from a long stay in the Western States, I met my father in New York just starting for his usual winter lecturing trip, in those days extending beyond the Mississippi. We spent the night together at the St. Denis Hotel, and as we sat by the fire he read me two or three of his poems for the new May-Day volume, among them “Terminus.” It almost startled me. No thought of his ageing had ever come to me, and there he sat, with no apparent abatement of bodily vigor, and young in spirit, recognizing with serene acquiescence his failing forces; I think he smiled as he read. He recognized, as none of us did, that his working days were nearly done. They lasted about five years longer, although he lived, in comfortable health, yet ten years beyond those of his activity. Almost at the time when he wrote “Terminus” he wrote in his journal:—
  “Within I do not find wrinkles and used heart, but unspent youth.” [back]
Note 2. Mr. Emerson wrote to his brother William in 1838,—
  “All Emersons are slender. There are only two or three sound stocks of that excellent tree.”
  Journal, 1859. “Shall I blame my mother, whitest of women, because she was not a gypsy and gave me no swarthy ferocity? Or my father because he came of a lettered race and had no porter’s shoulders?” [back]
Note 3. There are in the verse-book lines in the last stanza which Mr. Emerson omitted in the poem. One pair, containing the nautical image, follows the line in the text,—
    Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime,
    ‘Is the sky dark?’ it saith, ‘More near will stand
  The pilot with unerring hand.’
  Another pair drop this image, for home surroundings, thus:—
    Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime,
  And hide myself among my thrifty pears,
  Each fault of mine masked by a growth of theirs.

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