Whittier: “In War Time”

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).

 

“In War Time”

Anniversary Poem

Somewhat revised

               Read before the Alumni of the Friends’ Yearly Meeting School, at the Annual Meeting at Newport, R. I., 15th 6th mo., 1863. [Written during another war, it resonates with a current one, and is edited here to highlight those echoes.]

 

ONCE more, dear friends, you meet beneath
A clouded sky:       

Not yet the sword has found its sheath,
And on the sweet spring airs the breath
Of war floats by.

 Yet trouble springs not from the ground,     Nor pain from chance;      

The Eternal order circles round,
And wave and storm find mete and bound
In Providence.

 Full long our feet the flowery ways
Of peace have trod,           

Content with creed and garb and phrase:
A harder path in earlier days
Led up to God.

 Too cheaply truths, once purchased dear,   Are made our own;
Too long the world has smiled to hear
Our boast of full corn in the ear
By others sown.

To see us stir the martyr fires
Of long ago,
And wrap our satisfied desires
In the singed mantles that our sires
Have dropped below.

 But now the cross our worthies bore
On us is laid;
Profession’s quiet sleep is o’er,
And in the scale of truth once more
Our faith is weighed.         

 The cry of innocent blood afar
Is calling down
An answer in the whirlwind-blast,
The thunder and the shadow cast
From Heaven’s grim frown.

 The land is red with judgments. Who           Stands guiltless forth?
Have we been faithful as we knew,
To God and to our brother true,      

To Heaven and Earth.

 How faint, through din of merchandise        And count of gain,
Have seemed to us the captive’s cries!         How far away the tears and sighs    

    Of souls in pain!

 This day the fearful reckoning comes
To each and all;
We hear amidst our peaceful homes            The summons of the conscript drums,        

    The bugle’s call.

 Our path is plain; the war-net draws            Round us in vain,
If, faithful to the Higher Cause,
We keep our fealty to the laws
Through patient pain.


The levelled gun, the battle-brand, 

 We may not take:
But, calmly loyal, we can stand
And labor for the suffering land       

For conscience’ sake.


Why ask for ease where all is pain?
Shall we alone
Be left to add our gain to gain,
When over Armageddon’s plain      

The trump is blown?


To suffer well is well to serve.
Ask that the Lord
The deadly lines of fire shall curve
To spare us: from our heads shall swerve    The smiting sword.


That light may mingle with the gloom,          And rest from grief;
Divinest compensations loom,
Through thorns of judgment mercies bloom           

In sweet relief.


Thanks for the chance for us to bless,
By word and deed,
The widow in her keen distress,
The refugees and fatherless,

The exiled hearts that bleed.

For fields of duty, opening wide,
Where we may tread the sick-bed floors
Where the wounded pine,
And, down the groaning corridors,
Pour freely from our liberal stores   

 Of wealth and time.          


Who murmurs that in these dark days
His lot is cast?
God’s hand within the shadow lays
The stones whereon His gates of praise      

    Shall rise at last.

 Turn and o’erturn, O outstretched Hand!    Nor stint, nor stay;
The years have dropped their fateful sand  On mortal issues vast and grand
As ours to-day.


Already, on the sable ground
Of much despair
May Freedom’s picture yet be found,
With all its many hands unbound

Upraised in prayer.


Oh, small shall seem all sacrifice
And pain and loss,
When God shall wipe the weeping eyes,
For suffering give the victor’s prize, 

The crown for cross!

 

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