The Trustee's Lament

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The Trustee's Lament
by James Russell Lowell
Featured in Vol 2., No.3 of The Atlantic Monthly.

The Trustee's Lament

Per aspera ad astra.

(Scene: Outside the gate of the Astronomical Observatory at Albany.)


  There was a time when I was blest;
  The stars might rise in East or West
      With all their sines and wonders;
  I cared for neither great nor small,
  As pointedly unmoved by all
  As, on the top of steeple tall,
      A lightning-rod at thunders.

  What did I care for Science then?
  I was a man with fellow-men,
      And called the Bear the Dipper;
  Segment meant piece of pie,--no more;
  Cosine, the parallelogram that bore
  JOHN SMITH & CO. above a door;
      Arc, what called Noah skipper.

  No axes weighed upon my mind,
  (Unless I had a few to grind.)
      And as for my astronomy,
  Had Hedgecock's quadrant then been known,
  I might a lamp-post's height have shown
  By gas-tronomic skill,--if none
      Find fault with the metonymy.

  O hours of innocence! O ways
  How far from these unhappy days
      When all is vicy-versy!
  No flower more peaceful took its due
  Than I, who then no difference knew
  'Twixt Ursy Major and my true
      Old crony, Major Hersey.

  Now in long broils and feuds we roast,
  Like Strasburg geese that living toast
      To make a liver-paté,--
  And all because we fondly strove
  To set the city of our love
  In scientific fame above
      Her sister Cincinnati!

  We built our tower and furnished it
  With everything folks said was fit,
      From coping-stone to grounsel;
  And then, to give a knowing air,
  Just nominally assigned its care
  To that unmanageable affair,
      A Scientific Council.

  We built it, not that one or two
  Astronomers the stars might view
      And count the comets' hair-roots,
  But that it might by all be said
  How very freely we had bled,--
  We were not laying out a bed
      To force their early square-roots.

  The observations we wished made
  Were on the spirit we'd displayed,
      Worthy of Athens' high days;
  But they've put in a man who thinks
  Only of planets' nodes and winks,
  So full of astronomic kinks
      He eats star-fish on Fridays.

  The instruments we did not mean
  For seeing through, but to be seen
      At tap of Trustee's knuckle;
  But the Director locks the gate,
  And makes ourselves and strangers wait
  While he is ciphering on a slate
      The rust of Saturn's buckle.

  So on the wall's outside we stand,
  Admire the keyhole's contour grand
      And gateposts' sturdy granite;--
  But, ah, is Science safe, we say,
  With one who treats Trustees this way?
  Who knows but he may snub, some day,
      A well-conducted planet?

  Who knows what mischief he may brew
  With such a telescope brand-new
      At the four-hundredth power?
  He may bring some new comet down
  So near that it'll singe the town
  And do the Burgess-Corps crisp-brown
      Ere they can storm his tower.

  We wanted (having got our show)
  Some man, that had a name or so,
      To be our public showman;
  But this one shuts and locks the gate:
  Who'll answer but he'll peculate,
  (And, faith, some stars are missed of late,)
      Now that he's watched by no man?

  Our own discoveries he may steal,
  Or put night's candles out, to deal
      At junkshops with the sockets:
  Savants, in other lands or this,
  If any theory you miss
  Whereon your cipher graven is,
      Don't fail to search his pockets!

  Lock up your comets: if that fails,
  Then notch their ears and clip their tails,
      That you at need may swear to 'em;
  And watch your nebulous flocks at night,
  For, if your palings are not tight,
  He may, to gratify his spite,
      Let in the Little Bear to 'em.

  Then he's so quarrelsome, we've fears
  He'll set the very Twins by the ears,--
      So mad, if you resist him,
  He'd get Aquarius to play
  A milkman's trick, some cloudy day,
  And water all the Milky Way
      To starve some sucking system.

  But plaints are vain! through wrath or pride,
  The Council all espouse his side
      And will our missives con no more;
  And who that knows what savants are,
  Each snappish as a Leyden jar,
  Will hope to soothe the wordy war
      'Twixt Ologist and Onomer?

  Search a Reform Convention, where
  He- and she-resiarehs prepare
      To get the world in their power,
  You will not, when 'tis loudest, find
  Such gifts to hug and snarl combined
  As drive each astronomic mind
      With fifty-score Great-Bear-power!

  No! put the Bootees on your foot,
  Elope with Virgo, strive to shoot
      That arrow of O'Ryan's,
  Drain Georgian Ciders to the lees,
  Attempt what crackbrained thing you please,
  But dream not you can e'er appease
      An angry man of science!

  Ah, would I were, as I was once,
  To fair Astronomy a dunce,
      Or launching jeux d'esprit at her,
  Of light zodiacal making light,
  Deaf to all tales of comets bright,
  And knowing but such stars as might
      Roll r-rs at our theatre!

  Then calm I drew my night-cap on,
  Nor bondsman was for what went on
      Ere morning in the heavens;
  Twas no concern of mine to fix
  The Pleiades at seven or six,--
  But now the omnium genitrix
      Seems all at sixes and sevens.

  Alas, 'twas in an evil hour
  We signed the paper for the tower,
      With Mrs. D. to head it!
  For, if the Council have their way,
  We've merely had, as Frenchmen say,
  The painful maladie du pay,
      While they get all the credit!

  Boys, henceforth doomed to spell Trustees,
  Think not it ends in double ease
      To those who hold the office;
  Shun Science as you would Despair,
  Sit not in Cassiopeia's chair,
  Nor hope from Berenice's hair
      To bring away your trophies!

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.