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An Ode in Time of Hesitation

Written by: William Vaughn Moody | Biography
 After seeing at Boston the statue of Robert Gould Shaw, killed while storming Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863, at the head of the first enlisted negro regiment, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts.


I 

Before the solemn bronze Saint Gaudens made 
To thrill the heedless passer's heart with awe, 
And set here in the city's talk and trade 
To the good memory of Robert Shaw, 
This bright March morn I stand, 
And hear the distant spring come up the land; 
Knowing that what I hear is not unheard 
Of this boy soldier and his negro band, 
For all their gaze is fixed so stern ahead, 
For all the fatal rhythm of their tread. 
The land they died to save from death and shame 
Trembles and waits, hearing the spring's great name, 
And by her pangs these resolute ghosts are stirred. 


II 

Through street and mall the tides of people go 
Heedless; the trees upon the Common show 
No hint of green; but to my listening heart 
The still earth doth impart 
Assurance of her jubilant emprise, 
And it is clear to my long-searching eyes 
That love at last has might upon the skies. 
The ice is runneled on the little pond; 
A telltale patter drips from off the trees; 
The air is touched with southland spiceries, 
As if but yesterday it tossed the frond 
Of pendant mosses where the live-oaks grow 
Beyond Virginia and the Carolines, 
Or had its will among the fruits and vines 
Of aromatic isles asleep beyond 
Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. 


III 

Soon shall the Cape Ann children shout in glee, 
Spying the arbutus, spring's dear recluse; 
Hill lads at dawn shall hearken the wild goose 
Go honking northward over Tennessee; 
West from Oswego to Sault Sainte-Marie, 
And on to where the Pictured Rocks are hung, 
And yonder where, gigantic, wilful, young, 
Chicago sitteth at the northwest gates, 
With restless violent hands and casual tongue 
Moulding her mighty fates, 
The Lakes shall robe them in ethereal sheen; 
And like a larger sea, the vital green 
Of springing wheat shall vastly be outflung 
Over Dakota and the prairie states. 
By desert people immemorial 
On Arizonan mesas shall be done 
Dim rites unto the thunder and the sun; 
Nor shall the primal gods lack sacrifice 
More splendid, when the white Sierras call 
Unto the Rockies straightway to arise 
And dance before the unveiled ark of the year, 
Sounding their windy cedars as for shawms, 
Unrolling rivers clear 
For flutter of broad phylacteries; 
While Shasta signals to Alaskan seas 
That watch old sluggish glaciers downward creep 
To fling their icebergs thundering from the steep, 
And Mariposa through the purple calms 
Gazes at far Hawaii crowned with palms 
Where East and West are met, -- 
A rich seal on the ocean's bosom set 
To say that East and West are twain, 
With different loss and gain: 
The Lord hath sundered them; let them be sundered yet. 


IV 

Alas! what sounds are these that come 
Sullenly over the Pacific seas, -- 
Sounds of ignoble battle, striking dumb 
The season's half-awakened ecstasies? 
Must I be humble, then, 
Now when my heart hath need of pride? 
Wild love falls on me from these sculptured men; 
By loving much the land for which they died 
I would be justified. 
My spirit was away on pinions wide 
To soothe in praise of her its passionate mood 
And ease it of its ache of gratitude. 
Too sorely heavy is the debt they lay 
On me and the companions of my day. 
I would remember now 
My country's goodliness, make sweet her name. 
Alas! what shade art thou 
Of sorrow or of blame 
Liftest the lyric leafage from her brow, 
And pointest a slow finger at her shame? 


V 

Lies! lies! It cannot be! The wars we wage 
Are noble, and our battles still are won 
By justice for us, ere we lift the gage. 
We have not sold our loftiest heritage. 
The proud republic hath not stooped to cheat 
And scramble in the market-place of war; 
Her forehead weareth yet its solemn star. 
Here is her witness: this, her perfect son, 
This delicate and proud New England soul 
Who leads despisèd men, with just-unshackled feet, 
Up the large ways where death and glory meet, 
To show all peoples that our shame is done, 
That once more we are clean and spirit-whole. 


VI 

Crouched in the sea fog on the moaning sand 
All night he lay, speaking some simple word 
From hour to hour to the slow minds that heard, 
Holding each poor life gently in his hand 
And breathing on the base rejected clay 
Till each dark face shone mystical and grand 
Against the breaking day; 
And lo, the shard the potter cast away 
Was grown a fiery chalice crystal-fine 
Fulfilled of the divine 
Great wine of battle wrath by God's ring-finger stirred. 
Then upward, where the shadowy bastion loomed 
Huge on the mountain in the wet sea light, 
Whence now, and now, infernal flowerage bloomed, 
Bloomed, burst, and scattered down its deadly seed, -- 
They swept, and died like freemen on the height, 
Like freemen, and like men of noble breed; 
And when the battle fell away at night 
By hasty and contemptuous hands were thrust 
Obscurely in a common grave with him 
The fair-haired keeper of their love and trust. 
Now limb doth mingle with dissolvèd limb 
In nature's busy old democracy 
To flush the mountain laurel when she blows 
Sweet by the southern sea, 
And heart with crumbled heart climbs in the rose: -- 
The untaught hearts with the high heart that knew 
This mountain fortress for no earthly hold 
Of temporal quarrel, but the bastion old 
Of spiritual wrong, 
Built by an unjust nation sheer and strong, 
Expugnable but by a nation's rue 
And bowing down before that equal shrine 
By all men held divine, 
Whereof his band and he were the most holy sign. 


VII 

O bitter, bitter shade! 
Wilt thou not put the scorn 
And instant tragic question from thine eye? 
Do thy dark brows yet crave 
That swift and angry stave -- 
Unmeet for this desirous morn -- 
That I have striven, striven to evade? 
Gazing on him, must I not deem they err 
Whose careless lips in street and shop aver 
As common tidings, deeds to make his cheek 
Flush from the bronze, and his dead throat to speak? 
Surely some elder singer would arise, 
Whose harp hath leave to threaten and to mourn 
Above this people when they go astray. 
Is Whitman, the strong spirit, overworn? 
Has Whittier put his yearning wrath away? 
I will not and I dare not yet believe! 
Though furtively the sunlight seems to grieve, 
And the spring-laden breeze 
Out of the gladdening west is sinister 
With sounds of nameless battle overseas; 
Though when we turn and question in suspense 
If these things be indeed after these ways, 
And what things are to follow after these, 
Our fluent men of place and consequence 
Fumble and fill their mouths with hollow phrase, 
Or for the end-all of deep arguments 
Intone their dull commercial liturgies -- 
I dare not yet believe! My ears are shut! 
I will not hear the thin satiric praise 
And muffled laughter of our enemies, 
Bidding us never sheathe our valiant sword 
Till we have changed our birthright for a gourd 
Of wild pulse stolen from a barbarian's hut; 
Showing how wise it is to cast away 
The symbols of our spiritual sway, 
That so our hands with better ease 
May wield the driver's whip and grasp the jailer's keys. 


VIII 

Was it for this our fathers kept the law? 
This crown shall crown their struggle and their ruth? 
Are we the eagle nation Milton saw 
Mewing its mighty youth, 
Soon to possess the mountain winds of truth, 
And be a swift familiar of the sun 
Where aye before God's face his trumpets run? 
Or have we but the talons and the maw, 
And for the abject likeness of our heart 
Shall some less lordly bird be set apart? -- 
Some gross-billed wader where the swamps are fat? 
Some gorger in the sun? Some prowler with the bat? 


IX 

Ah no! 
We have not fallen so. 
We are our fathers' sons: let those who lead us know! 
'T was only yesterday sick Cuba's cry 
Came up the tropic wind, "Now help us, for we die!" 
Then Alabama heard, 
And rising, pale, to Maine and Idaho 
Shouted a burning word. 
Proud state with proud impassioned state conferred, 
And at the lifting of a hand sprang forth, 
East, west, and south, and north, 
Beautiful armies. Oh, by the sweet blood and young 
Shed on the awful hill slope at San Juan, 
By the unforgotten names of eager boys 
Who might have tasted girls' love and been stung 
With the old mystic joys 
And starry griefs, now the spring nights come on, 
But that the heart of youth is generous, -- 
We charge you, ye who lead us, 
Breathe on their chivalry no hint of stain! 
Turn not their new-world victories to gain! 
One least leaf plucked for chaffer from the bays 
Of their dear praise, 
One jot of their pure conquest put to hire, 
The implacable republic will require; 
With clamor, in the glare and gaze of noon, 
Or subtly, coming as a thief at night, 
But surely, very surely, slow or soon 
That insult deep we deeply will requite. 
Tempt not our weakness, our cupidity! 
For save we let the island men go free, 
Those baffled and dislaureled ghosts 
Will curse us from the lamentable coasts 
Where walk the frustrate dead. 
The cup of trembling shall be drainèd quite, 
Eaten the sour bread of astonishment, 
With ashes of the hearth shall be made white 
Our hair, and wailing shall be in the tent; 
Then on your guiltier head 
Shall our intolerable self-disdain 
Wreak suddenly its anger and its pain; 
For manifest in that disastrous light 
We shall discern the right 
And do it, tardily. -- O ye who lead, 
Take heed! 
Blindness we may forgive, but baseness we will smite.



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