An Ode in Time of Hesitation

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
(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.)
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.
22A telltale patter drips from off the trees;
23The air is touched with southland spiceries,
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.
32Hill lads at dawn shall hearken the wild goose
33Go honking northward over Tennessee;
36And yonder where, gigantic, wilful, young,
37Chicago sitteth at the northwest gates,
38With restless violent hands and casual tongue
39Moulding her mighty fates,
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
46Dim rites unto the thunder and the sun;
47Nor shall the primal gods lack sacrifice
52Unrolling rivers clear
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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?
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!
186Came up the tropic wind, "Now help us, for we die!"
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
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!
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!
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. Back to Line
21] runnelled: furrowed, in channels. Back to Line
24] frond: combined stem-foliage leaf. Back to Line
30] Cape Ann: a large Atlantic island north of Boston at the top of Massachusetts Bay, with large towns like Gloucester and Rockport. Back to Line
31] arbutus: a type of evergreen. Back to Line
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. Back to Line
35] Pictured Rocks: 42 miles of sandstone cliffs on the south shore of Lake Superior at Munising, Michigan, now Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Back to Line
40] the Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Erie. Back to Line
45] mesas: high table-lands. Back to Line
48] Sierras: Sierra Nevada mountain range in eastern California. Back to Line
49] Rockies: western American mountain chain from Alaska to Mexico. Back to Line
50] unveiled ark: an allusion to the hidden Ark of the Covenant, containing the sacred tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Back to Line
51] shawms: medieval reed musical instruments. Back to Line
53] phylacteries: memorial blue ribbons worn by the Israelites (an erroneous, but common use of this term). Back to Line
54] Shasta: town and lake in norther California near Redding. Back to Line
57] Mariposa: town southwest of Yosemite National Park in California. Back to Line
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. Back to Line
73] pinions: wings. Back to Line
91] her perfect son: Shaw. Back to Line
108] bastion: Fort Wagner, Charleston. Back to Line
136] stave: blow from a rod. Back to Line
146] Walt Whitman. Back to Line
147] John Greenleaf Whittier. Back to Line
165] pulse: edible seed. Back to Line
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])
Back to Line
177] maw: stomach. Back to Line
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. Back to Line
187] Alabama: two of this state's citizens, "Fighting Joe" Wheeler and Richmond Pearson Hobson, became decorated heroes of the war to free Cuba. Back to Line
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. Back to Line
194] San Juan: On May 20, 1898, the U.S.S. Yosemite exchanged fire with the fortress of San Cristobal in San Juan. Back to Line
203] chaffer: trafficing, buying and selling Back to Line
212] the island men: the Philippines' insurgents. Back to Line
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 2001