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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

What the Birds Said


              1The birds against the April wind
              2  Flew northward, singing as they flew;
              3They sang, "The land we leave behind
              4  Has swords for corn-blades, blood for dew."

              5"O wild-birds, flying from the South,
              6  What saw and heard ye, gazing down?"
              7"We saw the mortar's upturned mouth,
              8  The sickened camp, the blazing town!

              9"Beneath the bivouac's starry lamps,
            10  We saw your march-worn children die;
            11In shrouds of moss, in cypress swamps,
            12  We saw your dead uncoffined lie.

            13"We heard the starving prisoner's sighs
            14  And saw, from line and trench, your sons
            15Follow our flight with home-sick eyes
            16  Beyond the battery's smoking guns."

            17"And heard and saw ye only wrong
            18  And pain," I cried, "O wing-worn flocks?"
            19"We heard," they sang, "the freedman's song,
            20  The crash of Slavery's broken locks!

            21"We saw from new, uprising States
            22  The treason-nursing mischief spurned,
            23As, crowding Freedom's ample gates,
            24  The long-estranged and lost returned.

            25"O'er dusky faces, seamed and old,
            26  And hands horn-hard with unpaid toil,
            27With hope in every rustling fold,
            28  We saw your star-dropt flag uncoil.

            29"And struggling up through sounds accursed,
            30  A grateful murmur clomb the air;
            31A whisper scarcely heard at first,
            32  It filled the listening heavens with prayer.

            33"And sweet and far, as from a star,
            34  Replied a voice which shall not cease,
            35Till, drowning all the noise of war,
            36  It sings the blessed song of peace!"

            37So to me, in a doubtful day
            38  Of chill and slowly greening spring,
            39Low stooping from the cloudy gray,
            40  The wild-birds sang or seemed to sing.

            41They vanished in the misty air,
            42  The song went with them in their flight;
            43But lo! they left the sunset fair,
            44  And in the evening there was light.

Notes

9] bivouac: encampment.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, Cambridge edition, ed. H. E. S. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1894): 343-44. PS 3250 E94 1894 Robarts Library.
First publication date: 1864
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1998.
Recent editing: 2:2002/2/27

Rhyme: abab


Other poems by John Greenleaf Whittier