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Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

The Cambridge Churchyard

By Oliver Wendell Holmes


OUR ancient church! its lowly tower,
Beneath the loftier spire,
Is shadowed when the sunset hour
Clothes the tall shaft in fire;
It sinks beyond the distant eye
Long ere the glistenng vane,
High wheeling in the western sky,
Has faded o'er the plain.

Like Sentinel and Nun, they keep
Their vigil on the green;
One seems to guard, and one to weep,
The dead that lie between
And both roll out, so full and near,
Their music's mingling waves,
They shake the grass, whose pennoned spear
Leans on the narrow graves.

The stranger parts the flaunting weeds,
Whose seeds the winds have strown
So thick, beneath the line he reads,
They shade the sculptured stone;
The child unveils his clustered brow,
And ponders for a while
The graven willow's pendant bough,
Or rudest cherub's smile.

But what to them the dirge, the knell?
These were the mourner's share,--
The sullen clang, whose heavy swell
Throbbed through the beating air;
The rattling cord, the rolling stone,
The shelving sand that slid,
And, far beneath, with hollow tone
Rung on the coffin's lid.

The slumberer's mound grows fresh and green,
Then slowly disappears;
The mosses creep, the gray stones lean,
Earth hides his date and years;
But, long before the once-loved name
Is sunk or worn away,
No lip the silent dust may claim,
That pressed the breathing clay.

Go where the ancient pathway guides,
See where our sires laid down
Their smiling babes, their cherished brides,
The patriarchs of the town;
Hast thou a tear for buried love?
A sigh for transient power?
All that a century left above,
Go, read it in an hour!

The Indian's shaft, the Briton's ball,
The sabre's thirsting edge,
The hot shell, shattering in its fall,
The bayonet's rending wedge,--
Here scattered death; yet, seek the spot,
No trace thine eye can see,
No altar,-- and they need it not
Who leave their children free!

Look where the turbid rain-drops stand
In many a chiselled square;
The knightly crest, the shield, the brand
Of honored names were there;--
Alas! for every tear is dried
Those blazoned tablets knew,
Save when the icy marble's side
Drips with the evening dew.

Or gaze upon yon pillared stone,
The empty urn of pride;
There stand the Goblet and the Sun,--
What need of more beside?
Where lives the memory of the dead,
Who made their tomb a toy?
Whose ashes press that nameless bed?
Go, ask the village boy!

Lean o'er the slender western wall,
Ye ever-roaming girls
The breath that bids the blossom fall
May lift your floating curls,
To sweep the simple lines that tell
An exile's date and doom;
And sigh, for where his daughters dwell,
They wreathe the stranger's tomb.

And one amid these shades was born,
Beneath this turf who lies,
Once beaming as the summer's morn,
That closed her gentle eyes;
If sinless angels love as we,
Who stood thy grave beside,
Three seraph welcomes waited thee,
The daughter, sister, bride!

I wandered to thy buried mound
When earth was hid below
The level of the glaring ground,
Choked to its gates with snow,
And when with summer's flowery waves
The lake of verdure rolled,
As if a Sultan's white-robed slaves
Had scattered pearls and gold.

Nay, the soft pinions of the air,
That lift this trembling tone,
Its breath of love may almost bear
To kiss thy funeral stone;
And, now thy smiles have passed away,
For all the joy they gave,
May sweetest dews and warmest ray
Lie on thine early grave!

When damps beneath and storms above
Have bowed these fragile towers,
Still o'er the graves you locust grove
Shall swing its Orient flowers;
And I would ask no mouldering bust,
If e'er this humble line,
Which breathed a sigh o'er others' dust,
Might call a tear on mine.

Note from the Complete Poetical Works

[Or gaze upon yon pillared stone. The tomb of the Vassall family is marked by a freestone tablet, supported by five pillars, and bearing nothing but the sculptured reliefs of the Goblet and the Sun,--Vas-Sol--which designated a powerful family, now almost forgotten.

The exile referred to in the next stanza was a native of Honfleur in Normandy.

[This poem was included as an interlude at the close of the first section in Poetry: a Metrical Essay, when that was published in book form.]