Monday, October 6, 2008


by Joseph Bert Smiley (my great-grandfather)

Saint Peter stood guard by the golden gate
With a solemn mien and an 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 Saint Peter, so great and good,
In hope the City of Peace to win–
and asked Saint Peter to let them in.

The woman was tall, and lank, and thin,
With a scraggly 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 genial smile.
The choirs in the distance the echoes woke,
And the man kept still while the woman spoke.

“O thou who guardest the gate,” said she,
“We two come hither, beseeching thee
To let us enter the heavenly land
And play our harps with the angel band.
Of me, Saint Peter, there is no doubt,
There’s 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’d repent of their evil way.
I’ve told my neighbors – I’ve told them all
‘Bout Adam and Eve, and the primal fall,
I’ve shown them what they’d better 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 them, loud and long,
For my lungs are good and my voice is strong.
So good Saint 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 if 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 oh, Saint 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 unrepenting must fry below,
But isn’t there some way you can see,
That he may enter, who’s dear to me?

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

And say, Saint Peter, it seems to me
This 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, Saint 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 crowns to win,
So open, Saint Peter, and we’ll pass in.”

Saint 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 the imp who answered the bell,
“Escort this female around to hell.”

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 down to the regions dim,
There wasn’t a ghost of a show for him.
Slowly he turned, as by habit bent,
To follow the woman wherever she went.
Saint Peter, standing on duty there,
Observed that the top of his head was bare.
He called the gentleman back and said,
“Friend, how long, may I ask, hast thou been wed?”
“Thirty years,” (with a weary sigh)—
And then he thoughtfully added, “Why?”

Saint 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. Smoke’s not good.
He smoked and he swore – I should think he would.

“Thirty years with that tongue so sharp?
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 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 realm of day,
“Well, this beats cucumbers, any way.”
And so the scriptures had come to pass.
The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

The story behind this poem:

In 1893, my great-grandfather, Joseph "Bert" Smiley, began courting Nina Burdick, of Galesburg, Michigan. Her mother, Lucinda, objected because of his nervous twitch. She broke off the match. My great-grandfather took his revenge by writing this poem, in which Lucinda Burdick was easily recognizable to all the citizens of Galesburg, much to their delight. The reference to cucumbers was also recognizable; Dr. Burdick, Nina’s father, had been overheard to complain in public about his wife going off to meeting without having prepared him any meals. Cucumbers, he said, were all he'd had to eat for three days.

This poem became a national best-seller and a portion of it was quoted in
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations until, I think, 1974. (But I’d have to look up that date to be sure of it.) Many of Joseph Bert Smiley’s descendants, including my grandmother, my father, and me, have, if not the same talent, at least the same penchant for writing humorous verses. (As a matter of fact, Bert Smiley's father, George, wrote a few, too.)

In 1896, my great-grandfather married Fern Hawks, my great-grandmother. In 1903, he suffered a nervous breakdown and put a bullet through his brain. Fern was left to support two small children. By hard work and frugality she managed, although barely.

Nina Burdick, my great-grandfather’s first love, never married, but lived to old age in relative comfort. When she died, she left everything to my great-grandmother Fern.


Unknown said...

I am glad to find this poem. I joined a poem recitation when I was in 6th grade and I won second place competing with many students around our city. This was my poem. I find it a unique piece cause most of my opponents recited a dramatic piece. This poem is a comedy one.

Thanks for letting me reminisce my past in a great way!

Mirzah Torres
from the Philippines

Tobyone said...

I am so glad that I found this!!! I have been working on the genealogy of my family (from Hastings Michigan) for a few years now. We are lucky enough to have several family members recorded on old real to real format. I have been trying to find a particular tape that was of my great grandmother reciting poems. One of them is St. Peter at the Gate. My mom finally found the tape tonight and I hurried home to master it to digital. I wanted to name the audio tracks after I translate them to digital and looked this one up on the web and much to my surprise this one was from a local writer your great grandfather. I feel horrible about the way that he left this world but am glad that I can actually give credit to him. I am recording these poems onto cds for my family and will be putting your write up on him on the cd as well if you don't mind. It is sad that Michigan has such a rich history that has fallen by the way side it seems. My great grandmother was 81 when she recorded this before I was born around 1970. She had been reciting your great grandfather's poem since she was in grade school and was still reciting it at 81 from memory. Thanks for posting this and take care. Incidentally if you would like a copy of her audio reciting this (it is kind of neat as she was a turn of the century farm lady with a very rural dialect and emotion as she recited it) I'd be happy to send you one. Take care, Brian Tobias

Dana Montgomery said...

Like the other people who commented, my Grandfather George Montgomery was an avid reader who often amused us children with his remarkable wit and gift for recitation. "St Peter at the Gate" was one of our favorites to listen to. I am proud to say that he was successful in instilling a love of poetry and recitation in us as well. Thank you for having the full text of the poem for me to enjoy and remember. Dana Montgomery

Webmaster B Javamanmonk said...

I remember my grandmother reciting this poem to me frequently when I was a small child. Not having heard it since the mid 50's, I could only remember a few of the words, He said to the imp... It is terrific that you have posted this on-line, thank you very much... Webmaster B. javamanmonk

Anonymous said...

My Scottish Uncle used to recite this poem from memory in a thick Scottish brogue from memory when I was very young. It always got roaring laughter. He was small and feisty, just as you'd picture him. Thanks for posting it. I want to share it with my children. His last name was Syme and was in Bridger Valley, WY.
Thanks. JAN

Michelle Braakman said...

My Grandfather quoted the entire poem in a 40 page booklet he wrote in 1903. He didn't however, name the author, so I went searching. I'm glad you posted this poem on-line. He obviously liked it and so do I.
Michelle Braakman

Sandra said...

My daddy taught me a version of this poem when I was about eight years old. His mother had taught it to him. None of us had ever seen it written down, so we have always left out some of the verses. It is nice to have them all put here on the Internet.
I just recited this at our semi-annual poetry reading and it was a huge success. Thank you.

Sandra Vedane

Unknown said...

i took thus poem to the National Catholic Forensic League finals in 1980 at Boston College. It was , probably the high point of my dramatic career. So fun to reminisce.