A Poem by John Greenleaf Whittier
When first I saw our banner wave
Above the nation’s council-hall,
I heard beneath its marble wall
The clanking fetters of the slave!
In the foul market-place I stood,
And saw the Christian mother sold,
And childhood with its locks of gold,
Blue-eyed and fair with Saxon blood.
I shut my eyes, I held my breath,
And, smothering down the wrath and shame
That set my Northern blood aflame,
Stood silent, where to speak was death.
Beside me gloomed the prison-cell
Where wasted one in slow decline
For uttering simple words of mine,
And loving freedom all too well.
The flag that floated from the dome
Flapped menace in the morning air;
I stood a perilled stranger where
The human broker made his home.
For crime was virtue: Gown and Sword
And Law their threefold sanction gave,
And to the quarry of the slave
Went hawking with our symbol-bird.
On the oppressor’s side was power;
And yet I knew that every wrong,
However old, however strong,
But waited God’s avenging hour.
I knew that truth would crush the lie,
Somehow, some time, the end would be;
Yet scarcely dared I hope to see
The triumph with my mortal eye.
But now I see it! In the sun
A free flag floats from yonder dome,
And at the nation’s hearth and home
The justice long delayed is done.
Not as we hoped, in calm of prayer,
The message of deliverance comes,
But heralded by roll of drums
On waves of battle-troubled air!
Midst sounds that madden and appall,
The song that Bethlehem’s shepherds knew !
The harp of David melting through
The demon-agonies of Saul!
Not as we hoped; but what are we?
Above our broken dreams and plans
God lays, with wiser hand than man’s,
The corner-stones of liberty.
I cavil not with Him: the voice
That freedom’s blessed gospel tells
Is sweet to me as silver bells,
Rejoicing! yea, I will rejoice!
Dear friends still toiling in the sun;
Ye dearer ones who, gone before,
Are watching from the eternal shore
The slow work by your hands begun,
Rejoice with me! The chastening rod
Blossoms with love; the furnace heat
Grows cool beneath His blessed feet
Whose form is as the Son of God!
Rejoice! Our Marah’s bitter springs
Are sweetened; on our ground of grief
Rise day by day in strong relief
The prophecies of better things.
Rejoice in hope! The day and night
Are one with God, and one with them
Who see by faith the cloudy hem
Of Judgment fringed with Mercy’s light
[Analysis of Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862]