Verse > John Greenleaf Whittier > The Poetical Works in Four Volumes
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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).  The Poetical Works in Four Volumes.  1892.
 
Occasional Poems
The Quaker Alumni
 
   Read at the Friends’ School Anniversary, Providence, R. I., 6th mo., 1860.

FROM the well-springs of Hudson, the sea-cliffs of Maine,
Grave men, sober matrons, you gather again;
And, with hearts warmer grown as your heads grow more cool,
Play over the old game of going to school.
 
All your strifes and vexations, your whims and complaints,        5
(You were not saints yourselves, if the children of saints!)
All your petty self-seekings and rivalries done,
Round the dear Alma Mater your hearts beat as one!
 
How widely soe’er you have strayed from the fold,
Though your “thee” has grown “you,” and your drab blue and gold,        10
To the old friendly speech and the garb’s sober form,
Like the heart of Argyle to the tartan, you warm.
 
But, the first greetings over, you glance round the hall;
Your hearts call the roll, but they answer not all:
Through the turf green above them the dead cannot hear;        15
Name by name, in the silence, falls sad as a tear!
 
In love, let us trust, they were summoned so soon
From the morning of life, while we toil through its noon;
They were frail like ourselves, they had needs like our own,
And they rest as we rest in God’s mercy alone.        20
 
Unchanged by our changes of spirit and frame,
Past, now, and henceforward the Lord is the same;
Though we sink in the darkness, His arms break our fall,
And in death as in life, He is Father of all!
 
We are older: our footsteps, so light in the play        25
Of the far-away school-time, move slower to-day;—
Here a beard touched with frost, there a bald, shining crown,
And beneath the cap’s border gray mingles with brown.
 
But faith should be cheerful, and trust should be glad,
And our follies and sins, not our years, make us sad.        30
Should the heart closer shut as the bonnet grows prim,
And the face grow in length as the hat grows in brim?
 
Life is brief, duty grave; but, with rain-folded wings,
Of yesterday’s sunshine the grateful heart sings;
And we, of all others, have reason to pay        35
The tribute of thanks, and rejoice on our way;
 
For the counsels that turned from the follies of youth;
For the beauty of patience, the whiteness of truth;
For the wounds of rebuke, when love tempered its edge;
For the household’s restraint, and the discipline’s hedge;        40
 
For the lessons of kindness vouchsafed to the least
Of the creatures of God, whether human or beast,
Bringing hope to the poor, lending strength to the frail,
In the lanes of the city, the slave-hut, and jail;
 
For a womanhood higher and holier, by all        45
Her knowledge of good, than was Eve ere her fall,—
Whose task-work of duty moves lightly as play,
Serene as the moonlight and warm as the day;
 
And, yet more, for the faith which embraces the whole,
Of the creeds of the ages the life and the soul,        50
Wherein letter and spirit the same channel run,
And man has not severed what God has made one!
 
For a sense of the Goodness revealed everywhere,
As sunshine impartial, and free as the air;
For a trust in humanity, Heathen or Jew,        55
And a hope for all darkness the Light shineth through.
 
Who scoffs at our birthright?—the words of the seers,
And the songs of the bards in the twilight of years,
All the foregleams of wisdom in santon and sage,
In prophet and priest, are our true heritage.        60
 
The Word which the reason of Plato discerned;
The truth, as whose symbol the Mithra-fire burned;
The soul of the world which the Stoic but guessed,
In the Light Universal the Quaker confessed!
 
No honors of war to our worthies belong;        65
Their plain stem of life never flowered into song;
But the fountains they opened still gush by the way,
And the world for their healing is better to-day.
 
He who lies where the minster’s groined arches curve down
To the tomb-crowded transept of England’s renown,        70
The glorious essayist, by genius enthroned,
Whose pen as a sceptre the Muses all owned,—
 
Who through the world’s pantheon walked in his pride,
Setting new statues up, thrusting old ones aside,
And in fiction the pencils of history dipped,        75
To gild o’er or blacken each saint in his crypt,—
 
How vainly he labored to sully with blame
The white bust of Penn, in the niche of his fame!
Self-will is self-wounding, perversity blind:
On himself fell the stain for the Quaker designed!        80
 
For the sake of his true-hearted father before him;
For the sake of the dear Quaker mother that bore him;
For the sake of his gifts, and the works that outlive him,
And his brave words for freedom, we freely forgive him!
 
There are those who take note that our numbers are small,—        85
New Gibbons who write our decline and our fall;
But the Lord of the seed-field takes care of His own,
And the world shall yet reap what our sowers have sown.
 
The last of the sect to his fathers may go,
Leaving only his coat for some Barnum to show;        90
But the truth will outlive him, and broaden with years,
Till the false dies away, and the wrong disappears.
 
Nothing fails of its end. Out of sight sinks the stone,
In the deep sea of time, but the circles sweep on,
Till the low-rippled murmurs along the shores run,        95
And the dark and dead waters leap glad in the sun.
 
Meanwhile shall we learn, in our ease, to forget
To the martyrs of Truth and of Freedom our debt?—
Hide their words out of sight, like the garb that they wore,
And for Barclay’s Apology offer one more?        100
 
Shall we fawn round the priestcraft that glutted the shears,
And festooned the stocks with our grandfathers’ ears?
Talk of Woolman’s unsoundness? count Penn heterodox?
And take Cotton Mather in place of George Fox?
 
Make our preachers war-chaplains? quote Scripture to take        105
The hunted slave back, for Onesimus’ sake?
Go to burning church-candles, and chanting in choir,
And on the old meeting-house stick up a spire?
 
No! the old paths we ’ll keep until better are shown,
Credit good where we find it, abroad or our own;        110
And while “Lo here” and “Lo there” the multitude call,
Be true to ourselves, and do justice to all.
 
The good round about us we need not refuse,
Nor talk of our Zion as if we were Jews;
But why shirk the badge which our fathers have worn,        115
Or beg the world’s pardon for having been born?
 
We need not pray over the Pharisee’s prayer,
Nor claim that our wisdom is Benjamin’s share;
Truth to us and to others is equal and one:
Shall we bottle the free air, or hoard up the sun?        120
 
Well know we our birthright may serve but to show
How the meanest of weeds in the richest soil grow;
But we need not disparage the good which we hold;
Though the vessels be earthen, the treasure is gold!
 
Enough and too much of the sect and the name.        125
What matters our label, so truth be our aim?
The creed may be wrong, but the life may be true,
And hearts beat the same under drab coats or blue.
 
So the man be a man, let him worship, at will,
In Jerusalem’s courts, or on Gerizim’s hill.        130
When she makes up her jewels, what cares yon good town
For the Baptist of Wayland, the Quaker of Brown?
 
And this green, favored island, so fresh and sea-blown,
When she counts up the worthies her annals have known,
Never waits for the pitiful gaugers of sect        135
To measure her love, and mete out her respect.
 
Three shades at this moment seem walking her strand,
Each with head halo-crowned, and with palms in his hand,—
Wise Berkeley, grave Hopkins, and, smiling serene
On prelate and puritan, Channing is seen.        140
 
One holy name bearing, no longer they need
Credentials of party, and pass-words of creed:
The new song they sing hath a threefold accord,
And they own one baptism, one faith, and one Lord!
 
But the golden sands run out: occasions like these        145
Glide swift into shadow, like sails on the seas:
While we sport with the mosses and pebbles ashore,
They lessen and fade, and we see them no more.
 
Forgive me, dear friends, if my vagrant thoughts seem
Like a school-boy’s who idles and plays with his theme.        150
Forgive the light measure whose changes display
The sunshine and rain of our brief April day.
 
There are moments in life when the lip and the eye
Try the question of whether to smile or to cry;
And scenes and reunions that prompt like our own        155
The tender in feeling, the playful in tone.
 
I, who never sat down with the boys and the girls
At the feet of your Slocums, and Cartlands, and Earles,—
By courtesy only permitted to lay
On your festival’s altar my poor gift, to-day,—        160
 
I would joy in your joy: let me have a friend’s part
In the warmth of your welcome of hand and of heart,—
On your play-ground of boyhood unbend the brow’s care,
And shift the old burdens our shoulders must bear.
 
Long live the good School! giving out year by year        165
Recruits to true manhood and womanhood dear:
Brave boys, modest maidens, in beauty sent forth,
The living epistles and proof of its worth!
 
In and out let the young life as steadily flow
As in broad Narragansett the tides come and go;        170
And its sons and its daughters in prairie and town
Remember its honor, and guard its renown.
 
Not vainly the gift of its founder was made;
Not prayerless the stones of its corner were laid:
The blessing of Him whom in secret they sought        175
Has owned the good work which the fathers have wrought.
 
To Him be the glory forever! We bear
To the Lord of the Harvest our wheat with the tare.
What we lack in our work may He find in our will,
And winnow in mercy our good from the ill!        180
 
 
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