Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration

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Weak-winged is song,Nor aims at that clear-ethered heightWhither the brave deed climbs for light: We seem to do them wrong,Bringing our robin's-leaf to deck their hearseWho in warm life-blood wrote their nobler verse,Our trivial song to honor those who comeWith ears attuned to strenuous trump and drum,And shaped in squadron-strophes their desire,Live battle-odes whose lines were steel and fire: Yet sometimes feathered words are strong,A gracious memory to buoy up and saveFrom Lethe's dreamless ooze, the common grave Of the unventurous throng.


To-day our Reverend Mother welcomes back Her wisest Scholars, those who understoodThe deeper teaching of her mystic tome, And offered their fresh lives to make it good: No lore of Greece or Rome,No science peddling with the names of things,Or reading stars to find inglorious fates, Can lift our life with wingsFar from Death's idle gulf that for the many waits, And lengthen out our datesWith that clear fame whose memory singsIn manly hearts to come, and nerves them and dilates:Nor such thy teaching, Mother of us all! Not such the trumpet-call Of thy diviner mood, That could thy sons enticeFrom happy homes and toils, the fruitful nestOf those half-virtues which the world calls best, Into War's tumult rude; But rather far that stern deviceThe sponsors chose that round thy cradle stood In the dim, unventured wood, The VERITAS that lurks beneath The letter's unprolific sheath, Life of whate'er makes life worth living,Seed-grain of high emprise, immortal food, One heavenly thing whereof earth hath the giving.


Many loved Truth, and lavished life's best oil Amid the dust of books to find her,Content at last, for guerdon of their toil, With the cast mantle she hath left behind her. Many in sad faith sought for her, Many with crossed hands sighed for her; But these, our brothers, fought for her, At life's dear peril wrought for her, So loved her that they died for her, Tasting the raptured fleetness Of her divine completeness: Their higher instinct knewThose love her best who to themselves are true,And what they dare to dream of dare to do; They followed her and found her Where all may hope to find,Not in the ashes of the burnt-out mind,But beautiful, with danger's sweetness round her; Where faith made whole with deed Breathes its awakening breath Into the lifeless creed, They saw her plumed and mailed, With sweet stern face unveiled,And all-repaying eyes, look proud on them in death.


Our slender life runs rippling by, and glides Into the silent hollow of the past; What is there that abides To make the next age better for the last? Is earth too poor to give us Something to live for here that shall outlive us? Some more substantial boonThan such as flows and ebbs with Fortune's fickle moon? The little that we see From doubt is never free; The little that we do Is but half-nobly true; With our laborious hivingWhat men call treasure, and the gods call dross, Life seems a jest of Fate's contriving, Only secure in every one's conniving,A long account of nothings paid with loss,Where we poor puppets, jerked by unseen wires, After our little hour of strut and rave,With all our pasteboard passions and desires,Loves, hates, ambitions, and immortal fires, Are tossed pell-mell together in the grave. But stay! no age was e'er degenerate, Unless men held it at too cheap a rate, For in our likeness still we shape our fate; Ah, there is something here Unfathomed by the cynic's sneer, Something that gives our feeble light A high immunity from Night, Something that leaps life's narrow bars To claim its birthright with the hosts of heaven; A seed of sunshine that doth leaven Our earthly dulness with the beams of stars, And glorify our clay With light from fountains elder than the Day; A conscience more divine than we, A gladness fed with secret tears, A vexing, forward-reaching sense Of some more noble permanence; A light across the sea, Which haunts the soul and will not let it be,Still glimmering from the heights of undegenerate years.


Whither leads the path To ampler fates that leads? Not down through flowery meads, To reap an aftermath Of youth's vainglorious weeds, But up the steep, amid the wrath And shock of deadly-hostile creeds, Where the world's best hope and stayBy battle's flashes gropes a desperate way,And every turf the fierce foot clings-to bleeds. Peace hath her not ignoble wreath, Ere yet the sharp, decisive wordLight the black lips of cannon, and the sword Dreams in its easeful sheath;But some day the live coal behind the thought, Whether from Baäl's stone obscene, Or from the shrine serene Of God's pure altar brought,Bursts up in flame; the war of tongue and penLearns with what deadly purpose it was fraught,And, helpless in the fiery passion caught,Shakes all the pillared state with shock of men:Some day the soft Ideal that we wooedConfronts us fiercely, foe-beset, pursued,And cries reproachful: "Was it, then, my praise,And not myself was loved? Prove now thy truth;I claim of thee the promise of thy youth;Give me thy life, or cower in empty phrase,The victim of thy genius, not its mate!" Life may be given in many ways, And loyalty to Truth be sealedAs bravely in the closet as the field, So bountiful is Fate; But then to stand beside her, When craven churls deride her,To front a lie in arms and not to yield, This shows, methinks, God's plan And measure of a stalwart man, Limbed like the old heroic breeds, Who stands self-poised on manhood's solid earth, Not forced to frame excuses for his birth,Fed from within with all the strength he needs.


Such was he, our Martyr-Chief, Whom late the Nation he had led, With ashes on her head,Wept with the passion of an angry grief:Forgive me, if from present things I turnTo speak what in my heart will beat and burn,And hang my wreath on his world-honored urn. Nature, they say, doth dote, And cannot make a man Save on some worn-out plan, Repeating us by rote:For him her Old World moulds aside she threw, And, choosing sweet clay from the breast Of the unexhausted West,With stuff untainted shaped a hero new,Wise, steadfast in the strength of God, and true. How beautiful to seeOnce more a shepherd of mankind indeed,Who loved his charge, but never loved to lead;One whose meek flock the people joyed to be, Not lured by any cheat of birth, But by his clear-grained human worth,And brave old wisdom of sincerity! They knew that outward grace is dust; They could not choose but trustIn that sure-footed mind's unfaltering skill, And supple-tempered willThat bent like perfect steel to spring again and thrust. His was no lonely mountain-peak of mind, Thrusting to thin air o'er our cloudy bars, A sea-mark now, now lost in vapors blind; Broad prairie rather, genial, level-lined, Fruitful and friendly for all human kind,Yet also nigh to Heaven and loved of loftiest stars. Nothing of Europe here,Or, then, of Europe fronting mornward still, Ere any names of Serf and Peer Could Nature's equal scheme deface; Here was a type of the true elder race,And one of Plutarch's men talked with us face to face. I praise him not; it were too late;And some innative weakness there must beIn him who condescends to victorySuch as the Present gives, and cannot wait, Safe in himself as in a fate. So always firmly he: He knew to bide his time, And can his fame abide,Still patient in his simple faith sublime, Till the wise years decide. Great captains, with their guns and drums, Disturb our judgment for the hour, But at last silence comes; These all are gone, and, standing like a tower, Our children shall behold his fame, The kindly-earnest, brave, foreseeing man, Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame, New birth of our new soil, the first American.


Long as man's hope insatiate can discern Or only guess some more inspiring goal Outside of Self, enduring as the pole,Along whose course the flying axles burnOf spirits bravely-pitched, earth's manlier brood; Long as below we cannot findThe meed that stills the inexorable mind;So long this faith to some ideal Good, Under whatever mortal names it masks, Freedom, Law, Country, this ethereal moodThat thanks the Fates for their severer tasks, Feeling its challenged pulses leap, While others skulk in subterfuges cheap,And, set in Danger's van, has all the boon it asks, Shall win man's praise and woman's love, Shall be a wisdom that we set aboveAll other skills and gifts to culture dear, A virtue round whose forehead we inwreathe Laurels that with a living passion breatheWhen other crowns grow, while we twine them, sear. What brings us thronging these high rites to pay,And seal these hours the noblest of our year, Save that our brothers found this better way?


We sit here in the Promised Land That flows with Freedom's honey and milk; But 't was they won it, sword in hand,Making the nettle danger soft for us as silk. We welcome back our bravest and our best; Ah me! not all! some come not with the rest,Who went forth brave and bright as any here!I strive to mix some gladness with my strain, But the sad strings complain, And will not please the ear;I sweep them for a pæan, but they wane Again and yet againInto a dirge, and die away in pain.In these brave ranks I only see the gaps,Thinking of dear ones whom the dumb turf wraps,Dark to the triumph which they died to gain: Fitlier may others greet the living, For me the past is unforgiving; I with uncovered head Salute the sacred dead,Who went, and who return not. -- Say not so!'T is not the grapes of Canaan that repay,But the high faith that failed not by the way;Virtue treads paths that end not in the grave;No ban of endless night exiles the brave; And to the saner mindWe rather seem the dead that stayed behind.Blow, trumpets, all your exultations blow!For never shall their aureoled presence lack:I see them muster in a gleaming row,With ever-youthful brows that nobler show;We find in our dull road their shining track; In every nobler moodWe feel the orient of their spirit glow,Part of our life's unalterable good,Of all our saintlier aspiration; They come transfigured back,Secure from change in their high-hearted ways,Beautiful evermore, and with the raysOf morn on their white Shields of Expectation!


But is there hope to save Even this ethereal essence from the grave? What ever 'scaped Oblivion's subtle wrongSave a few clarion names, or golden threads of song? Before my musing eye The mighty ones of old sweep by, Disvoicëd now and insubstantial things, As noisy once as we; poor ghosts of kings, Shadows of empire wholly gone to dust, And many races, nameless long ago, To darkness driven by that imperious gust Of ever-rushing Time that here doth blow: O visionary world, condition strange, Where naught abiding is but only Change,Where the deep-bolted stars themselves still shift and range! Shall we to more continuance make pretence?Renown builds tombs; a life-estate is Wit; And, bit by bit,The cunning years steal all from us but woe; Leaves are we, whose decays no harvest sow. But, when we vanish hence, Shall they lie forceless in the dark below, Save to make green their little length of sods, Or deepen pansies for a year or two, Who now to us are shining-sweet as gods? Was dying all they had the skill to do? That were not fruitless: but the Soul resents Such short-lived service, as if blind events Ruled without her, or earth could so endure; She claims a more divine investiture Of longer tenure than Fame's airy rents; Whate'er she touches doth her nature share; Her inspiration haunts the ennobled air, Gives eyes to mountains blind, Ears to the deaf earth, voices to the wind, And her clear trump sings succor everywhere By lonely bivouacs to the wakeful mind; For soul inherits all that soul could dare: Yea, Manhood hath a wider span And larger privilege of life than man. The single deed, the private sacrifice, So radiant now through proudly-hidden tears, Is covered up erelong from mortal eyes With thoughtless drift of the deciduous years; But that high privilege that makes all men peers, That leap of heart whereby a people rise Up to a noble anger's height,And, flamed on by the Fates, not shrink, but grow more bright, That swift validity in noble veins, Of choosing danger and disdaining shame, Of being set on flame By the pure fire that flies all contact base,But wraps its chosen with angelic might, These are imperishable gains, Sure as the sun, medicinal as light, These hold great futures in their lusty reinsAnd certify to earth a new imperial race.


Who now shall sneer? Who dare again to say we trace Our lines to a plebeian race? Roundhead and Cavalier!Dumb are those names erewhile in battle loud;Dream-footed as the shadow of a cloud, They flit across the ear:That is best blood that hath most iron in 'tTo edge resolve with, pouring without stint For what makes manhood dear. Tell us not of Plantagenets,Hapsburgs, and Guelfs, whose thin bloods crawlDown from some victor in a border-brawl! How poor their outworn coronets,Matched with one leaf of that plain civic wreathOur brave for honor's blazon shall bequeath, Through whose desert a rescued Nation setsHer heel on treason, and the trumpet hearsShout victory, tingling Europe's sullen ears With vain resentments and more vain regrets!


Not in anger, not in pride, Pure from passion's mixture rude Ever to base earth allied, But with far-heard gratitude, Still with heart and voice renewed, To heroes living and dear martyrs dead,The strain should close that consecrates our brave. Lift the heart and lift the head! Lofty be its mood and grave, Not without a martial ring, Not without a prouder tread And a peal of exultation: Little right has he to sing Through whose heart in such an hour Beats no march of conscious power, Sweeps no tumult of elation! 'T is no Man we celebrate, By his country's victories great, A hero half, and half the whim of Fate, But the pith and marrow of a Nation Drawing force from all her men, Highest, humblest, weakest, all, For her time of need, and then Pulsing it again through them,Till the basest can no longer cower,Feeling his soul spring up divinely tall,Touched but in passing by her mantle-hem.Come back, then, noble pride, for 't is her dower! How could poet ever tower, If his passions, hopes, and fears, If his triumphs and his tears, Kept not measure with his people?Boom, cannon, boom to all the winds and waves!Clash out, glad bells, from every rocking steeple!Banners, adance with triumph, bend your staves! And from every mountain-peak Let beacon-fire to answering beacon speak, Katahdin tell Monadnock, Whiteface he,And so leap on in light from sea to sea, Till the glad news be sent Across a kindling continent,Making earth feel more firm and air breathe braver:"Be proud! for she is saved, and all have helped to save her! She that lifts up the manhood of the poor, She of the open soul and open door, With room about her hearth for all mankind! The fire is dreadful in her eyes no more; From her bold front the helm she doth unbind, Sends all her handmaid armies back to spin, And bids her navies, that so lately hurled Their crashing battle, hold their thunders in, Swimming like birds of calm along the unharmful shore. No challenge sends she to the elder world, That looked askance and hated; a light scorn Plays o'er her mouth, as round her mighty knees She calls her children back, and waits the mornOf nobler day, enthroned between her subject seas."


Bow down, dear Land, for thou hast found release! Thy God, in these distempered days, Hath taught thee the sure wisdom of His ways,And through thine enemies hath wrought thy peace! Bow down in prayer and praise!No poorest in thy borders but may nowLift to the juster skies a man's enfranchised brow.Beautiful! my Country! ours once more!Smoothing thy gold of war-dishevelled hairO'er such sweet brows as never other wore, And letting thy set lips, Freed from wrath's pale eclipse,The rosy edges of their smile lay bare,What words divine of lover or of poetCould tell our love and make thee know it,Among the Nations bright beyond compare? What were our lives without thee? What all our lives to save thee? We reck not what we gave thee; We will not dare to doubt thee,But ask whatever else, and we will dare!

© James Russell Lowell