"Let Him Not Boast Who Puts His Armor On"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Longfellow graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825. In October, 1874, he was urged to write a poem for the fiftieth anniversary of his graduating class, the reunion of which was to take place the following summer. Longfellow felt a strong aversion to writing poems for special occasions, and at first said he could not undertake this one. However, an inspiration evidently came to him; it has been suggested that he may have seen a representation of the painting by Gerome which depicts the Roman gladiators hailing Caesar. At any rate, he not only wrote the poem, but read it for the occasion–a performance he very rarely undertook. The poem begins with a translation of its title: "'O Caesar, we who are about to die/ Salute you!' was the gladiators' cry/ In the arena, standing face to face/ With death and with the Roman populace." Longfellow then describes the natural beauties of the college and its setting, and adds, "we who are about to die,/ Salute you." The college is the same, but he and his companions are one with the vanished past; they are old and their lives are nearly over; the college, however old it may become, will always be the world of youth. The teachers he and his companions knew are all gone save one, to whom Longfellow pays tribute. He then tells of Dante finding his old teacher among the shades and of Dante's reverence for this man who had instructed him in his youth. "To-day," says Longfellow, "we make the poet's words our own." He then applies them to the teachers he and his companions knew: "Nor to the living only be they said,/ But to the other living called the dead,/ Whose dear, paternal images appear/ Not wrapped in gloom, but robed in sunshine here;/ Whose simple lives, complete and without flaw,/ Were part and parcel of great Nature's law." Finally he addresses another generation which still has most of life before it:

And ye who fill the places we once filled,
And follow in the furrows that we tilled,
Young men, whose generous hearts are beating high,
We who are old, and are about to die,
Salute you; . . .
. . .
How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams
With its illusions, aspirations, dreams!
Book of Beginnings, Story without End,
Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!
Aladdin's Lamp, and Fortunatus' Purse,
That holds the treasures of the universe!
All possibilities are in its hands,
No danger daunts it, and no foe withstands;
In its sublime audacity of faith,
"Be thou removed!" it to the mountain saith,
And with ambitious feet, secure and proud,
Ascends the ladder leaning on the cloud!
. . .
Let him not boast who puts his armor on
As he who puts it off, the battle done.
Study yourselves; and most of all note well
Wherein kind Nature meant you to excel.
Not every blossom ripens into fruit; . . .