Passport of Words
for Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith (1810-1879)
What’s this, Elihu? I Google your name
on the internet—instant library
that makes equals of anyone who can manage
a computer and the monthly service fee.
But I find I have no rank or standing.
“Access denied,” a website tells me.
The open hands of institutional learning
don’t reach out to welcome me.
How far you walked, Elihu, to educate
yourself: from New Britain a hundred miles
to Boston, forty more to the Antiquarian
Society with its fabulous collections.
How much a man can teach himself,
when he’s willing to walk a universe
of shelves: mathematics, astronomy, Hebrew,
Bohemian, Arabic, Greek, Syriac,
Norse—those sagas of discovery,
sailing to a New World, you translated
into English, our passport to “old Sigurd’s
doing, daring and dying,”
But how complicated is our
new world, Elihu. All knowledge
at my fingertips, just asking for
the password. What a poor traveler am I.