Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
 
II. May-Day and Other Pieces
Voluntaries
 
I
LOW 1 and mournful be the strain,
Haughty thought be far from me;
Tones of penitence and pain,
Moanings of the tropic sea;
Low and tender in the cell        5
Where a captive sits in chains,
Crooning ditties treasured well
From his Afric’s torrid plains.
Sole estate his sire bequeathed,—
Hapless sire to hapless son,—        10
Was the wailing song he breathed,
And his chain when life was done.
 
  What his fault, or what his crime?
Or what ill planet crossed his prime?
Heart too soft and will too weak        15
To front the fate that crouches near,—
Dove beneath the vulture’s beak;—
Will song dissuade the thirsty spear?
Dragged from his mother’s arms and breast,
Displaced, disfurnished here,        20
His wistful toil to do his best
Chilled by a ribald jeer.
Great men in the Senate sate,
Sage and hero, side by side,
Building for their sons the State,        25
Which they shall rule with pride.
They forbore to break the chain
Which bound the dusky tribe,
Checked by the owners’ fierce disdain,
Lured by ‘Union’ as the bribe.        30
Destiny sat by, and said,
‘Pang for pang your seed shall pay,
Hide in false peace your coward head,
I bring round the harvest day.’
 
II
FREEDOM all winged expands,
        35
Nor perches in a narrow place;
Her broad van seeks unplanted lands;
She loves a poor and virtuous race.
Clinging to a colder zone
Whose dark sky sheds the snowflake down,        40
The snowflake is her banner’s star,
Her stripes the boreal streamers are.
Long she loved the Northman well;
Now the iron age is done,
She will not refuse to dwell        45
With the offspring of the Sun;
Foundling of the desert far,
Where palms plume, siroccos blaze,
He roves unhurt the burning ways
In climates of the summer star.        50
He has avenues to God
Hid from men of Northern brain,
Far beholding, without cloud,
What these with slowest steps attain.
If once the generous chief arrive        55
To lead him willing to be led,
For freedom he will strike and strive,
And drain his heart till he be dead. 2
 
III
IN an age of fops and toys,
Wanting wisdom, void of right,        60
Who shall nerve heroic boys
To hazard all in Freedom’s fight,—
Break sharply off their jolly games,
Forsake their comrades gay
And quit proud homes and youthful dames        65
For famine, toil and fray?
Yet on the nimble air benign
Speed nimbler messages,
That waft the breath of grace divine
To hearts in sloth and ease.        70
So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can.
 
IV
O, WELL for the fortunate soul
        75
Which Music’s wings infold,
Stealing away the memory
Of sorrows new and old!
Yet happier he whose inward sight,
Stayed on his subtile thought,        80
Shuts his sense on toys of time,
To vacant bosoms brought.
But best befriended of the God
He who, in evil times,
Warned by an inward voice,        85
Heeds not the darkness and the dread,
Biding by his rule and choice,
Feeling only the fiery thread
Leading over heroic ground,
Walled with mortal terror round,        90
To the aim which him allures,
And the sweet heaven his deed secures.
Peril around, all else appalling,
Cannon in front and leaden rain
Him duty through the clarion calling        95
To the van called not in vain. 3
 
  Stainless soldier on the walls,
Knowing this,—and knows no more,—
Whoever fights, whoever falls,
Justice conquers evermore,        100
Justice after as before,—
And he who battles on her side,
God, though he were ten times slain,
Crowns him victor glorified,
Victor over death and pain.        105
 
V
BLOOMS the laurel which belongs
To the valiant chief who fights;
I see the wreath, I hear the songs
Lauding the Eternal Rights,
Victors over daily wrongs:        110
Awful victors, they misguide
Whom they will destroy,
And their coming triumph hide
In our downfall, or our joy:
They reach no term, they never sleep,        115
In equal strength through space abide;
Though, feigning dwarfs, they crouch and creep,
The strong they slay, the swift outstride:
Fate’s grass grows rank in valley clods,
And rankly on the castled steep,—        120
Speak it firmly, these are gods,
All are ghosts beside. 4
 
Note 1. This poem was printed in the Atlantic Monthly for October, 1863. [back]
Note 2. In July, 1863, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who in face of a half-hostile public opinion had given up his commission in a favorite Massachusetts regiment to take command of one of the first enlisted colored regiments, largely made up of ex-slaves, had been killed with many of his officers and men on the slopes of Fort Wagner. This poem may be regarded as their dirge.
  Mrs. Ednah Cheney describes a meeting, during the Civil War, presided over by Father Taylor, of the friends of this regiment. She says that, during the meeting, “Mr. Emerson came in from the ante-room with his face on fire with indignation, as I never saw it on any other occasion, and announced to the audience that he had just learned that South Carolina had given out the threat that colored soldiers, if captured, should not be treated as prisoners, but be put to death. ‘What answer does Massachusetts send back to South Carolina?’ he said. ‘Two for one!’ shouted voices in the audience. ‘Is that the answer that Massachusetts sends?’ he asked; and the audience responded with applause. He retired from the platform, it seemed to me a little appalled at the spirit he had raised.” [back]
Note 3. The last four lines of the stanza were added by Mr. Emerson in Selected Poems. [back]
Note 4. The last stanza suggests the following passages, the first being from the journal of January, 1861, three months before the outbreak of war.
  “The furious slaveholder does not see that the one thing he is doing by night and by day is to destroy slavery. They who help and they who hinder are all equally diligent in hastening its downfall. Blessed be the inevitabilities.”
  “The word Fate, or Destiny, expresses the sense of mankind … that the laws of the world do not always befriend, but often hurt and crush us. Fate, in the shape of Kinde or Nature, grows over us like grass….
  “Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.”—Representative Men, pp. 177, 185, 186. [back]
 
 
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