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?
Ho! 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 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.
Monday, October 6, 2008
by Joseph Bert Smiley (my great-grandfather)