Friday, December 29, 2006

St Peter at the Gate

This poem originally appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle,
under the title of "Thirty Years With a Shrew". (around 1930)
It was founded upon the incidents of a case in the local
police court. A woman had her husband haled before a
city magistrate for the alleged offenses of cruelty
and neglect. The wife was such a garrulous witness
against her husband that the judge became wearied
with the woman's tongue, and he asked the husband
how long he had been married. 'Thirty years," replied
the defendant. 'Well," said the judge, 'a man who has
lived with this woman for thirty years has had
punishment enough. Defendant, you are discharged."

St. Peter at the Gate

ST. PETER stood guard at the golden gate,
With solemn mien and air sedate,
When up to the top of the golden stair,
A man and a woman ascending there,

Applied for admission. They came and stood
Before St. Peter, so great and good,
In hopes the City of Peace to win,
And asked St. Peter to let them in.

The woman was tall, and lank, and thin,
With a scraggy beardlet upon her chin.
The man was short, and thick, and stout,
His stomach was built so it rounded out;

His face was pleasant, and all the while
He wore a kindly and pleasant smile.
The choirs in the distance the echoes awoke,
And the man kept still while the woman spoke.

'O thou who guards the gate," said she,
'We two came hither, beseeching thee
To let us enter the heavenly land
And play our harps with the angel band.

Of me, St. Peter, there is no doubt.
There is nothing from heaven to bar me out;
I've been to meeting three times a week,
And almost always I'd rise and speak.

'I've told the sinners about the day
When they repent of their evil way;
I've told my neighbors-I've told 'em all-
'Bout Adam and Eve and the Primal Fall;

I've shown them what they'd have to do
If they'd pass in with the chosen few;
I've marked their path of duty clear-
Laid out the plan for their whole career.

'I've talked and talked to 'em loud and long
For my lungs are good, and my voice is strong,
So good, St. Peter, you'll clearly see
The gate of heaven is open for me.

But my old man, I regret to say,
Hasn't walked in exactly the narrow way-,
He smokes and he swears, and grave faults he's got,
And I don't know whether he'll pass or not.

"He never would pray with an earnest vim,
Or go to revival, or join in a hymn,
So I had to leave him in sorrow there
While I, with the chosen, united in prayer,

He ate what the pantry chanced to afford,
While I, in my purity, sang to the Lord.
'And if cucumbers were all he got
It's a chance if he merited them or not.

But, 0 St. Peter, I love him so.
To the pleasures of heaven, please let him go.
I've done enough, a saint I've been,
Won't that atone? Can't you let him in?

By my grim gospel I know 'tis so
That the unrepentant must try below.
But isn't there some way you can see
That he may enter, who's dear to me?

'It's narrow gospel by which I pray,
But the chosen expect to find some way
Of coaxing, or fooling, or bribing you
So that their relations can amble through,

And say, St. Peter, it seems to me
The gate isn't kept as it ought to be.
You ought to stand by the opening there,
And never sit down in that easy chair.

"And say, St. Peter, my sight is dimmed,
But I don't like the way your whiskers are trimmed;
They're cut too wide and outward toss;
They'd look better narrow, cut straight across.

Well, we must be going, our crown to win,
So open, St. Peter, and we'll pass in."
St. Peter sat quiet and stroked his staff,
But, in spite of his office, he had to laugh,

Then said with a fiery gleam in his eye,
"Who's tending this gateway, you or I?"
And then he arose in his stature tall,
And pressed a button upon the wall,

And said to an imp, who came all aglow,
"Escort this woman to the regions below.'
The man stood still as a piece of stone-
Stood sadly, gloomily, there alone.

A lifelong settled idea he had
That his wife was good and he was bad;
He thought if the woman went down below
That he would certainly have to go;

That if she went to the regions dim
There wasn't a ghost of a chance for him.
Slowly he turned, by habit bent,
To follow wherever the woman went.

St. Peter, standing on duty there,
Observed that the top of his head was bare.
He called the gentleman back and said:
"Friend, how long have you been wed?"

"Thirty years" (with a heavy sigh),
And then he thoughtfully added, 'Why?'
St. Peter was silent. With head bent down,
He raised his hand and scratched his crown.

Then, seeming a different thought to take,
Slowly, half to himself, he spake:
"Thirty years with that woman there?
No wonder the man hasn't any hair.

Swearing is wicked; smoking's not good;
He smoked and swore-I should think he would.
"Thirty years with that tongue so sharp?
0 Angel Gabriel, give him a harp,

A jeweled harp with a golden string.
Good sir, pass in where the angels sing;
Gabriel, give him a seat alone-
One with a cushion-up near the throne.

Call up some angels to play their best;
Let him enjoy the music-and rest.
'See that on the finest ambrosia he feeds;
He's had about all the hell he needs;

It isn't just hardly the thing to do-
To roast him on earth and the future, too."
They gave him a harp with golden strings,
A glittering robe and a pair of wings,

And he said as he entered the Realms of Day:
"Well, this beats cucumbers, anyway."
And so the Scriptures had come to pass-
"The last shall be first and the first shall be last."



Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Thanks for posting this wonderful poem.

It is actually by my great grandfather, Joseph Bert Smiley. In 1893, he lived in Galesburg, Michigan, whose population was then 400, and felll in love with Nina Burdick. But her mother, Lucinda Burdick, quashed the romance. She didn't like Bert because of his nervous twitch (chorea, aka St. Vitus' Dance) and his occasional stammering.

One day at the post office, he and others heard Nina's father, Dr. William A. Burdick, comment that he wished the current series of revivals would come to an end, as he "Hadn't had anything at home but Jesus and cucumbers for six weeks." That triggered the writing of this poem; my great grandfather wanted to put that line in verbatim, but decided it was too profane.

My great grandfather was the publisher and editor of a local newspaper, Smiley's Kalamazoo County Enterprise. Printing it there was (I regert to say) his revenge upon Mrs. Burdick, because of course everyone in town knew who the poem was about.

Interestingly enough, Miss Nina Burdick remained a school teacher and single all her life. When she died, she left everything she had to Smiley's widow, Fern, my great grandmother.

Anastasia Theodoridis
Richmond, Virdinia

paramedicgirl said...

Wow! That's a really interesting story. I have always loved that poem, and my dad used to read it to us when we were small. It was part of a collection of poems that tell a story in the book "The Best Loved Poems of The American People." I still read from that book occasionally.