"The Ladder of St. Augustine" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet and educator born in Portland, Maine in 1807. He studied at Bowdoin College and then became a professor at Harvard University. Longfellow's poetry was widely popular during his lifetime. His poetry often focused on historical events, legends, and cultural traditions, blending American and European literary styles. This poem was inspired by the teachings of Saint Augustine, an influential figure in the early Christian church. This poem explores the same theme as Augustine's "The Ladder," emphasizing the idea that our past mistakes and transgressions can be used as stepping stones towards a better future. Longfellow's poem also highlights the importance of perseverance and hard work in achieving one's goals, acknowledging that the road to success is not easy. Through his beautiful language and vivid imagery, Longfellow encourages readers to reflect on their own lives and strive for self-improvement, just as Augustine did centuries ago.

Saint Augustine! well hast thou said,
      That of our vices we can frame
A ladder, if we will but tread
      Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

All common things, each day's events,
      That with the hour begin and end,
Our pleasures and our discontents,
      Are rounds by which we may ascend.

The low desire, the base design,
      That makes another's virtues less;
The revel of the ruddy wine,
      And all occasions of excess;

The longing for ignoble things;
      The strife for triumph more than truth;
The hardening of the heart, that brings
      Irreverence for the dreams of youth;

All thoughts of ill; all evil deeds,
      That have their root in thoughts of ill;
Whatever hinders or impedes
      The action of the nobler will; —

All these must first be trampled down
      Beneath our feet, if we would gain
In the bright fields of fair renown
      The right of eminent domain.

We have not wings, we cannot soar;
      But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
      The cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone
      That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known,
      Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear
      Their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear
      As we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept
      Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
      Were toiling upward in the night.

Standing on what too long we bore
      With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern — unseen before —
      A path to higher destinies,

Nor deem the irrevocable Past
      As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
      To something nobler we attain.

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