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Hymn To Death

Written by: William Cullen Bryant | Biography
 | Quotes (29) |
 Oh! could I hope the wise and pure in heart
Might hear my song without a frown, nor deem
My voice unworthy of the theme it tries,--
I would take up the hymn to Death, and say
To the grim power, The world hath slandered thee
And mocked thee.
On thy dim and shadowy brow They place an iron crown, and call thee king Of terrors, and the spoiler of the world, Deadly assassin, that strik'st down the fair, The loved, the good--that breath'st upon the lights Of virtue set along the vale of life, And they go out in darkness.
I am come, Not with reproaches, not with cries and prayers, Such as have stormed thy stern insensible ear From the beginning.
I am come to speak Thy praises.
True it is, that I have wept Thy conquests, and may weep them yet again: And thou from some I love wilt take a life Dear to me as my own.
Yet while the spell Is on my spirit, and I talk with thee In sight of all thy trophies, face to face, Meet is it that my voice should utter forth Thy nobler triumphs: I will teach the world To thank thee.
--Who are thine accusers?--Who? The living!--they who never felt thy power, And know thee not.
The curses of the wretch Whose crimes are ripe, his sufferings when thy hand Is on him, and the hour he dreads is come, Are writ among thy praises.
But the good-- Does he whom thy kind hand dismissed to peace, Upbraid the gentle violence that took off His fetters, and unbarred his prison cell? Raise then the Hymn to Death.
Deliverer! God hath anointed thee to free the oppressed And crush the oppressor.
When the armed chief, The conqueror of nations, walks the world, And it is changed beneath his feet, and all Its kingdoms melt into one mighty realm-- Thou, while his head is loftiest, and his heart Blasphemes, imagining his own right hand Almighty, sett'st upon him thy stern grasp, And the strong links of that tremendous chain That bound mankind are crumbled; thou dost break Sceptre and crown, and beat his throne to dust.
Then the earth shouts with gladness, and her tribes Gather within their ancient bounds again.
Else had the mighty of the olden time, Nimrod, Sesostris, or the youth who feigned His birth from Lybian Ammon, smote even now The nations with a rod of iron, and driven Their chariot o'er our necks.
Thou dost avenge, In thy good time, the wrongs of those who know No other friend.
Nor dost thou interpose Only to lay the sufferer asleep, Where he who made him wretched troubles not His rest--thou dost strike down his tyrant too.
Oh, there is joy when hands that held the scourge Drop lifeless, and the pitiless heart is cold.
Thou too dost purge from earth its horrible And old idolatries; from the proud fanes Each to his grave their priests go out, till none Is left to teach their worship; then the fires Of sacrifice are chilled, and the green moss O'ercreeps their altars; the fallen images Cumber the weedy courts, and for loud hymns, Chanted by kneeling crowds, the chiding winds Shriek in the solitary aisles.
When he Who gives his life to guilt, and laughs at all The laws that God or man has made, and round Hedges his seat with power, and shines in wealth,-- Lifts up his atheist front to scoff at Heaven, And celebrates his shame in open day, Thou, in the pride of all his crimes, cutt'st off The horrible example.
Touched by thine, The extortioner's hard hand foregoes the gold Wrong from the o'er-worn poor.
The perjurer, Whose tongue was lithe, e'en now, and voluble Against his neighbour's life, and he who laughed And leaped for joy to see a spotless fame Blasted before his own foul calumnies, Are smit with deadly silence.
He, who sold His conscience to preserve a worthless life, Even while he hugs himself on his escape, Trembles, as, doubly terrible, at length, Thy steps o'ertake him, and there is no time For parley--nor will bribes unclench thy grasp.
Oft, too, dost thou reform thy victim, long Ere his last hour.
And when the reveller, Mad in the chase of pleasure, stretches on, And strains each nerve, and clears the path of life Like wind, thou point'st him to the dreadful goal, And shak'st thy hour-glass in his reeling eye, And check'st him in mid course.
Thy skeleton hand Shows to the faint of spirit the right path, And he is warned, and fears to step aside.
Thou sett'st between the ruffian and his crime Thy ghastly countenance, and his slack hand Drops the drawn knife.
But, oh, most fearfully Dost thou show forth Heaven's justice, when thy shafts Drink up the ebbing spirit--then the hard Of heart and violent of hand restores The treasure to the friendless wretch he wronged.
Then from the writhing bosom thou dost pluck The guilty secret; lips, for ages sealed, Are faithless to the dreadful trust at length, And give it up; the felon's latest breath Absolves the innocent man who bears his crime; The slanderer, horror smitten, and in tears, Recalls the deadly obloquy he forged To work his brother's ruin.
Thou dost make Thy penitent victim utter to the air The dark conspiracy that strikes at life, And aims to whelm the laws; ere yet the hour Is come, and the dread sign of murder given.
Thus, from the first of time, hast thou been found On virtue's side; the wicked, but for thee, Had been too strong for the good; the great of earth Had crushed the weak for ever.
Schooled in guile For ages, while each passing year had brought Its baneful lesson, they had filled the world With their abominations; while its tribes, Trodden to earth, imbruted, and despoiled, Had knelt to them in worship; sacrifice Had smoked on many an altar, temple roofs Had echoed with the blasphemous prayer and hymn: But thou, the great reformer of the world, Tak'st off the sons of violence and fraud In their green pupilage, their lore half learned-- Ere guilt has quite o'errun the simple heart God gave them at their birth, and blotted out His image.
Thou dost mark them, flushed with hope, As on the threshold of their vast designs Doubtful and loose they stand, and strik'st them down.
Alas, I little thought that the stern power Whose fearful praise I sung, would try me thus Before the strain was ended.
It must cease-- For he is in his grave who taught my youth The art of verse, and in the bud of life Offered me to the muses.
Oh, cut off Untimely! when thy reason in its strength, Ripened by years of toil and studious search And watch of Nature's silent lessons, taught Thy hand to practise best the lenient art To which thou gavest thy laborious days.
And, last, thy life.
And, therefore, when the earth Received thee, tears were in unyielding eyes And on hard cheeks, and they who deemed thy skill Delayed their death-hour, shuddered and turned pale When thou wert gone.
This faltering verse, which thou Shalt not, as wont, o'erlook, is all I have To offer at thy grave--this--and the hope To copy thy example, and to leave A name of which the wretched shall not think As of an enemy's, whom they forgive As all forgive the dead.
Rest, therefore, thou Whose early guidance trained my infant steps-- Rest, in the bosom of God, till the brief sleep Of death is over, and a happier life Shall dawn to waken thine insensible dust.
Now thou art not--and yet the men whose guilt Has wearied Heaven for vengeance--he who bears False witness--he who takes the orphan's bread, And robs the widow--he who spreads abroad Polluted hands in mockery of prayer, Are left to cumber earth.
Shuddering I look On what is written, yet I blot not out The desultory numbers--let them stand.
The record of an idle revery.



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