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I know the dictionary answer is vetch, an alfalfa-like plant. Is he making a comparison between "wheat" and "tares?" I realize this sounds like a homework question, but I'm over 60, and maybe a little nerdy.

We have among us 600 years, good & sound, left in the bank of life. Take 30 of them—the richest birth-day gift ever offered to poet in this world—& sit down & wait. Wait till you see that great figure appear, & catch the far glint of the sun upon his banner; then you may depart satisfied, as knowing you have seen him for whom the earth was made, & that he will proclaim that human wheat is worth more than human tares, & proceed to organize human values on that basis.

Mark Twain to Walt Whitman on the occasion of Whitman's 70th birthday, May 24, 1889

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Perhaps you'd be kind enough to quote the relevant segment of Twain's letter so that we can see the word in context? –  Erik Kowal May 7 at 1:41
    
You are quick. There wasn't more than 10 seconds between my post and my edit. I had the ctrl-v ready to go. –  Michael Owen Sartin May 7 at 1:46
    
I for one would like someone to explain what Twain is getting at in the quotation as a whole! What are the 600 years? What are the 30 years? Who is that "great figure"? What banner is he speaking of? Is to "depart satisfied" to die? Why the contrast between wheat and tares? –  rhetorician May 7 at 2:06
    
@rhetorician - it's a birthday letter. Twain is congratulating Whitman on a life of memorable events, and Twain wants to give the great and beloved poet a gift. Among 30 friends of Whitman's, totaling the years of life left among them, there were ~600 years. Twain was saying, figuratively, we offer to you 30 of our years as a birthday present, so that you can live to see the wonders which will come about in the next 30 years (hopefully, as well, to see man's attitude towards "the body electric" to change in keeping with the poet's controversial views in Leaves of Grass). Happy Birthday! –  medica May 7 at 9:29
    
@medica: Thank you for your explanation. The quotation makes much more sense now! Don –  rhetorician May 7 at 16:30

1 Answer 1

He is probably referring to the Parable of the Tares. Tares are a specific kind of weed that misleadingly looks like wheat, and in this context "human wheat" would be good/godly/saved people while "human tares" would be bad/sinful/damned people.

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Now it makes sense. Thank you. The dictionary definition of tares suggests they are legumes . . . which makes no sense. –  Michael Owen Sartin May 7 at 2:00
    
I'm pretty sure your surmise is correct. The part that is puzzling me is the sentence that reads: We have among us 600 years, good & sound, left in the bank of life. Even two people who live to a 'ripe old age' will not be able to account for more than about 200 years between them, so it's not clear to me what the figure of 600 years might refer to. Besides, Twain was born in 1835, so he would have been about 54 when Whitman turned 70 -- a total of 124 years; and yet, "We have among us 600 years [...] left in the bank of life". Do you have any idea what he was talking about? –  Erik Kowal May 7 at 2:05
    
@ErikKowal Here is a link to the HuffPost article that got me thinking. huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/06/mark-twain-letter_n_5268842.html –  Michael Owen Sartin May 7 at 2:08
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@ErikKowal - Twain is speaking figuratively. Among 30 friends of Whitman's, totaling the years of life left among them, there were ~600 years. Twain was saying, we offer to you 30 of these years as a birthday present, so that you can live to see the wonders which will come about in the next 30 years. Happy Birthday! Of course, this can't be done literally. Whitman died 3 years later, and was quite ready to go. –  medica May 7 at 2:11
    
@MichaelOwenSartin tares probably are legumes... that doesn't stop them from looking like wheat in a field in a certain state of ripeness. –  Sparr May 7 at 2:14

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