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Short poem

William Vaughn Moody (1869-1910)

An Ode in Time of Hesitation

(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.)

              1Before the solemn bronze Saint Gaudens made
              2To thrill the heedless passer's heart with awe,
              3And set here in the city's talk and trade
              4To the good memory of Robert Shaw,
              5This bright March morn I stand,
              6And hear the distant spring come up the land;
              7Knowing that what I hear is not unheard
              8Of this boy soldier and his negro band,
              9For all their gaze is fixed so stern ahead,
            10For all the fatal rhythm of their tread.
            11The land they died to save from death and shame
            12Trembles and waits, hearing the spring's great name,
            13And by her pangs these resolute ghosts are stirred.

            14Through street and mall the tides of people go
            15Heedless; the trees upon the Common show
            16No hint of green; but to my listening heart
            17The still earth doth impart
            18Assurance of her jubilant emprise,
            19And it is clear to my long-searching eyes
            20That love at last has might upon the skies.
            21The ice is runneled on the little pond;
            22A telltale patter drips from off the trees;
            23The air is touched with southland spiceries,
            24As if but yesterday it tossed the frond
            25Of pendant mosses where the live-oaks grow
            26Beyond Virginia and the Carolines,
            27Or had its will among the fruits and vines
            28Of aromatic isles asleep beyond
            29Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

            30Soon shall the Cape Ann children shout in glee,
            31Spying the arbutus, spring's dear recluse;
            32Hill lads at dawn shall hearken the wild goose
            33Go honking northward over Tennessee;
            34West from Oswego to Sault Sainte-Marie,
            35And on to where the Pictured Rocks are hung,
            36And yonder where, gigantic, wilful, young,
            37Chicago sitteth at the northwest gates,
            38With restless violent hands and casual tongue
            39Moulding her mighty fates,
            40The Lakes shall robe them in ethereal sheen;
            41And like a larger sea, the vital green
            42Of springing wheat shall vastly be outflung
            43Over Dakota and the prairie states.
            44By desert people immemorial
            45On Arizonan mesas shall be done
            46Dim rites unto the thunder and the sun;
            47Nor shall the primal gods lack sacrifice
            48More splendid, when the white Sierras call
            49Unto the Rockies straightway to arise
            50And dance before the unveiled ark of the year,
            51Sounding their windy cedars as for shawms,
            52Unrolling rivers clear
            53For flutter of broad phylacteries;
            54While Shasta signals to Alaskan seas
            55That watch old sluggish glaciers downward creep
            56To fling their icebergs thundering from the steep,
            5757  And Mariposa through the purple calms
            58Gazes at far Hawaii crowned with palms
            59Where East and West are met, --
            60A rich seal on the ocean's bosom set
            61To say that East and West are twain,
            62With different loss and gain:
            63The Lord hath sundered them; let them be sundered yet.

            64Alas! what sounds are these that come
            65Sullenly over the Pacific seas, --
            66Sounds of ignoble battle, striking dumb
            67The season's half-awakened ecstasies?
            68Must I be humble, then,
            69Now when my heart hath need of pride?
            70Wild love falls on me from these sculptured men;
            71By loving much the land for which they died
            72I would be justified.
            73My spirit was away on pinions wide
            74To soothe in praise of her its passionate mood
            75And ease it of its ache of gratitude.
            76Too sorely heavy is the debt they lay
            77On me and the companions of my day.
            78I would remember now
            79My country's goodliness, make sweet her name.
            80Alas! what shade art thou
            81Of sorrow or of blame
            82Liftest the lyric leafage from her brow,
            83And pointest a slow finger at her shame?

            84Lies! lies! It cannot be! The wars we wage
            85Are noble, and our battles still are won
            86By justice for us, ere we lift the gage.
            87We have not sold our loftiest heritage.
            88The proud republic hath not stooped to cheat
            89And scramble in the market-place of war;
            90Her forehead weareth yet its solemn star.
            91Here is her witness: this, her perfect son,
            92This delicate and proud New England soul
            93Who leads despisèd men, with just-unshackled feet,
            94Up the large ways where death and glory meet,
            95To show all peoples that our shame is done,
            96That once more we are clean and spirit-whole.

            97Crouched in the sea fog on the moaning sand
            98All night he lay, speaking some simple word
            99From hour to hour to the slow minds that heard,
          100Holding each poor life gently in his hand
          101And breathing on the base rejected clay
          102Till each dark face shone mystical and grand
          103Against the breaking day;
          104And lo, the shard the potter cast away
          105Was grown a fiery chalice crystal-fine
          106Fulfilled of the divine
          107Great wine of battle wrath by God's ring-finger stirred.
          108Then upward, where the shadowy bastion loomed
          109Huge on the mountain in the wet sea light,
          110Whence now, and now, infernal flowerage bloomed,
          111Bloomed, burst, and scattered down its deadly seed, --
          112They swept, and died like freemen on the height,
          113Like freemen, and like men of noble breed;
          114And when the battle fell away at night
          115By hasty and contemptuous hands were thrust
          116Obscurely in a common grave with him
          117The fair-haired keeper of their love and trust.
          118Now limb doth mingle with dissolvèd limb
          119In nature's busy old democracy
          120To flush the mountain laurel when she blows
          121Sweet by the southern sea,
          122And heart with crumbled heart climbs in the rose: --
          123The untaught hearts with the high heart that knew
          124This mountain fortress for no earthly hold
          125Of temporal quarrel, but the bastion old
          126Of spiritual wrong,
          127Built by an unjust nation sheer and strong,
          128Expugnable but by a nation's rue
          129And bowing down before that equal shrine
          130By all men held divine,
          131Whereof his band and he were the most holy sign.

          132O bitter, bitter shade!
          133Wilt thou not put the scorn
          134And instant tragic question from thine eye?
          135Do thy dark brows yet crave
          136That swift and angry stave  --
          137Unmeet for this desirous morn  --
          138That I have striven, striven to evade?
          139Gazing on him, must I not deem they err
          140Whose careless lips in street and shop aver
          141As common tidings, deeds to make his cheek
          142Flush from the bronze, and his dead throat to speak?
          143Surely some elder singer would arise,
          144Whose harp hath leave to threaten and to mourn
          145Above this people when they go astray.
          146Is Whitman, the strong spirit, overworn?
          147Has Whittier put his yearning wrath away?
          148I will not and I dare not yet believe!
          149Though furtively the sunlight seems to grieve,
          150And the spring-laden breeze
          151Out of the gladdening west is sinister
          152With sounds of nameless battle overseas;
          153Though when we turn and question in suspense
          154If these things be indeed after these ways,
          155And what things are to follow after these,
          156Our fluent men of place and consequence
          157Fumble and fill their mouths with hollow phrase,
          158Or for the end-all of deep arguments
          159Intone their dull commercial liturgies  --
          160I dare not yet believe! My ears are shut!
          161I will not hear the thin satiric praise
          162And muffled laughter of our enemies,
          163Bidding us never sheathe our valiant sword
          164Till we have changed our birthright for a gourd
          165Of wild pulse stolen from a barbarian's hut;
          166Showing how wise it is to cast away
          167The symbols of our spiritual sway,
          168That so our hands with better ease
          169May wield the driver's whip and grasp the jailer's keys.

          170Was it for this our fathers kept the law?
          171This crown shall crown their struggle and their ruth?
          172Are we the eagle nation Milton saw
          173Mewing its mighty youth,
          174Soon to possess the mountain winds of truth,
          175And be a swift familiar of the sun
          176Where aye before God's face his trumpets run?
          177Or have we but the talons and the maw,
          178And for the abject likeness of our heart
          179Shall some less lordly bird be set apart?  --
          180Some gross-billed wader where the swamps are fat?
          181Some gorger in the sun? Some prowler with the bat?

          182Ah no!
          183We have not fallen so.
          184We are our fathers' sons: let those who lead us know!
          185'T was only yesterday sick Cuba's cry
          186Came up the tropic wind, "Now help us, for we die!"
          187Then Alabama heard,
          188And rising, pale, to Maine and Idaho
          189Shouted a burning word.
          190Proud state with proud impassioned state conferred,
          191And at the lifting of a hand sprang forth,
          192East, west, and south, and north,
          193Beautiful armies. Oh, by the sweet blood and young
          194Shed on the awful hill slope at San Juan,
          195By the unforgotten names of eager boys
          196Who might have tasted girls' love and been stung
          197With the old mystic joys
          198And starry griefs, now the spring nights come on,
          199But that the heart of youth is generous,  --
          200We charge you, ye who lead us,
          201Breathe on their chivalry no hint of stain!
          202Turn not their new-world victories to gain!
          203One least leaf plucked for chaffer from the bays
          204Of their dear praise,
          205One jot of their pure conquest put to hire,
          206The implacable republic will require;
          207With clamor, in the glare and gaze of noon,
          208Or subtly, coming as a thief at night,
          209But surely, very surely, slow or soon
          210That insult deep we deeply will requite.
          211Tempt not our weakness, our cupidity!
          212For save we let the island men go free,
          213Those baffled and dislaureled ghosts
          214Will curse us from the lamentable coasts
          215Where walk the frustrate dead.
          216The cup of trembling shall be drainèd quite,
          217Eaten the sour bread of astonishment,
          218With ashes of the hearth shall be made white
          219Our hair, and wailing shall be in the tent;
          220Then on your guiltier head
          221Shall our intolerable self-disdain
          222Wreak suddenly its anger and its pain;
          223For manifest in that disastrous light
          224We shall discern the right
          225And do it, tardily.  -- O ye who lead,
          226Take heed!
          227Blindness we may forgive, but baseness we will smite.


1] Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), sculptor of the Shaw Memorial, which was dedicated on May 31, 1897, and stands in Boston Common. Shaw was killed in battle outside Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863. Matthew Broderick played Shaw in the film Glory, based on Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Edward Kirstein, and directed by Edward Zwick.

21] runnelled: furrowed, in channels.

24] frond: combined stem-foliage leaf.

30] Cape Ann: a large Atlantic island north of Boston at the top of Massachusetts Bay, with large towns like Gloucester and Rockport.

31] arbutus: a type of evergreen.

34] Oswego: town in New York state north of Syracuse and lying on the shore of Lake Ontario.
Sault Saint-Marie: at the eastern end of Lake Superior, a city extending across Ontario in Canada and Michigan in the United States.

35] Pictured Rocks: 42 miles of sandstone cliffs on the south shore of Lake Superior at Munising, Michigan, now Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

40] the Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Erie.

45] mesas: high table-lands.

48] Sierras: Sierra Nevada mountain range in eastern California.

49] Rockies: western American mountain chain from Alaska to Mexico.

50] unveiled ark: an allusion to the hidden Ark of the Covenant, containing the sacred tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

51] shawms: medieval reed musical instruments.

53] phylacteries: memorial blue ribbons worn by the Israelites (an erroneous, but common use of this term).

54] Shasta: town and lake in norther California near Redding.

57] Mariposa: town southwest of Yosemite National Park in California.

64] what sounds are these: the American Anti-Imperialist League, which included Andrew Carnegie, William James, and Mark Twain, profoundly objected to United States actions in suppressing Philippine rebels who declared their island a republic on Feb. 4, 1899. This insurrection followed the Treaty of Paris, which transferred to the United States such territories as Guam, Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico following the Spanish-American war, declared by Anmerica on April 25, 1898, and ended on Dec. 10, 1898, in Paris. US forces under Arthur MacArthur, the Governor of the Philippines, seized Luzon on November 24, 1899, but anti-war pressures at home softened the US military position. Insurgents were granted an amnesty on June 21, 1900, and the war ended a year later. The Philippines finally gained autonomy from the United States in 1934 and complete independence in 1946. See the Library of Congress "The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War" for a detailed, well-illustrated account of this conflict.

73] pinions: wings.

91] her perfect son: Shaw.

108] bastion: Fort Wagner, Charleston.

136] stave: blow from a rod.

146] Walt Whitman.

147] John Greenleaf Whittier.

165] pulse: edible seed.


Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks: methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and unscaling her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms. (Milton, Areopagitica [1644])

177] maw: stomach.

185] sick Cuba's cry: the United States warship the Maine, in Havana harbour to help safeguard Americans in Cuba as a result of a revolt against the Spanish, blew up on Feb. 15, 1898, causing the death of 252 men. The ensuing Spanish-American war led to a defeat for Spain and to the independence of Cuba, granted by the United States on Jan. 1, 1899.

187] Alabama: two of this state's citizens, "Fighting Joe" Wheeler and Richmond Pearson Hobson, became decorated heroes of the war to free Cuba.

188] Maine: see note to line 185. See The Spanish-American War Centennial Website.
Idaho committed itself to two battalions of infantry of four companies each on the day the US declared war.

194] San Juan: On May 20, 1898, the U.S.S. Yosemite exchanged fire with the fortress of San Cristobal in San Juan.

203] chaffer: trafficing, buying and selling

212] the island men: the Philippines' insurgents.

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 Poems and Plays of William Vaughn Moody, intro. by John M. Manly, Vol. I: Poems and Poetic Dramas (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1912): 15-25. British Library
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 2001
Recent editing: 2:2002/2/21*1:2002/12/15

Composition date: 1900
Form: couplets

Other poems by William Vaughn Moody