St. Peter at the Gate
by JOSEPH BERT SMILEY (1864-1903)
St. Peter stood guard at the golden gate
With a 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 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, 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 to 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 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 will 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 oh, 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 fry below;
But isn’t there some way you can see
That he may enter whose 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 relations can amble through.
And say, St. Peter, it seems to me
This gate isn’t kept as it ought to be.
You ought to stand right 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? —
Then he arose in his stature tall,
And pressed a button upon the wall.
And said to an imp, who answered the bell,
“Escort this lady around to hell.”
The man stood still as a piece of stone —
Stood sadly, gloomily there alone.
A life-long 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 show for him.
Slowly he turned, by habit bent,
To follow wherever the woman went.
St. Peter, standing in 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 weary 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, smoke’s not good,
He smoked and 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 scripture had come to pass,
That “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
Joseph Bert Smiley was born in Anoka, MN on October 8, 1864. His parents moved to Kalamazoo, MI when he was two years old. He graduated from high school with honors and entered the University of Michigan in the literary department where he earned his degree. In 1885, he commenced newspaper work as city editor of the Battle Creek Union. In 1886, he moved over to the Kalamazoo Herald. He lectured occasionally, and in 1886, published his first book, Meditations of Samwell Wilkins: A Collection of Original Poems, Opinions and Parodies. In 1888, he published A Basket of Chips / A Varied Assortment of Poems and Sketches. Smiley was married in 1896 to Marion Fern Hawks. The couple had two children. Unfortunately, he was stricken with depression and committed suicide in 1903 at the age of 38.
St. Peter at the Gate was his most popular, and most frequently anthologized poem, although often misattributed.