Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, A CERTAIN POET ON THE DEBATES, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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A CERTAIN POET ON THE DEBATES, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Why do I speak with such authority?
Last Line: And drop a tear on all the sorry waste.
Subject(s): Lincoln-douglas Debates; Slavery; Serfs


Why do I speak with such authority?
I know this matter through from A to Z;
I know it just as well as Lincoln knows it.
There's not a document I have not studied
From Elliott's Debates to this Le Compton
Kansas constitution that has escaped
My mind's analysis. And you will see
Lincoln is beaten now. You are absurd
To think he'll win the presidency for losing
The senatorship -- clean crazy all of you!

Who am I? Well, it makes no difference.
I am a mind, a mere intelligence
Going about this year of fifty-eight
An observer and a listener. Gabriel
Could be no more impersonal than I.
I've followed up these fellows like the boy
That trails the circus, clear from Ottawa
To Freeport, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, Alton;
And made my way at first with sawing wood,
Later by selling razors, soap and strops;
And just to hear the speaking, see the crowds --
These crowds that leave the shop and farms, these crowds
Solemn and noisy, rapt, tumultuous,
Sober and drunk, who carry whips and spit
Tobacco juice around and drink and eat.
The babies squall, wagons and democrats
Befog the air with dust, and oh, the heat!
Yet though these crowds will settle like the dust
In graves all over Illinois, nothing leave
Of what, or who they were, no less these crowds
Have reason at the centre like the sun;
Dimmed to the eyes this side; the sun is there!
But yet the sun knows it is there -- the dust
Rises and shows the sun -- there you have thought
Which is now, will be handed down of this --
These days. Oh, yes, the dust will rise at last
When evening -- that's reflection, settles down;
And then you'll see a star -- first magnitude,
The name is Lincoln!

I have read. I know.
Never in Rome or Greece were such debates,
Never in all this world. Look at the theme:
Slavery in a republic! As for men,
Where is their equal? Is it Pericles,
Demosthenes or Cicero, here with us,
Great Webster? And the setting, think of that!
Here in this western prairie state they pass
From town to town, stand up before the mass,
And battle with their wits -- set falcons loose
Of swift and ravenous logic to devour
The other's flights. The crowds perceive the trend,
Gather enough to guide them and persuade,
But much of it is over them. You heard
Lincoln to-day, when he had subtilized
The point to deadly ether, say to them:
"An audience like this will scarcely see
The force of what I say, but minds well trained
Will follow me and see." That is the point.
Out of this popular oratory rises
A durable spire of truth. This Lincoln leaves
Great thought and beauty to the race. And yet
Douglas will be our senator, and Seward
Our President two years from now. As Webster
Could never win the prize, this Lincoln too
Will fail to win it.

Why, you silly fools!
Lincoln has sprained his arms and back for good --
But he has laid the South out flat and cold,
And broken the slavocracy in two.
He did it with one question; asking that
He made the Little Giant cough and stammer,
And blush his guilt before America.
Oh, yes, he answered well enough to win
This contest here in Illinois; but look,
The Southern press is after him already,
They scent the carcass moved, withdrawn a little;
They croak like buzzards -- and there will be war
Between the eagles and the buzzards now,
Perhaps when Seward is elected; truly
If Lincoln should be chosen, as he won't.
It isn't that this Douglas isn't a master.
It is that he is caught between the mill-stones.
The upper is this Kansas and Nebraska,
The lower is Dred Scott -- and I am glad!
Why did he father Kansas and Nebraska?
Why did he flout the ancient ordinance
Of 1787, which kept out
This curse of slavery, out of Illinois,
But brought us liberty of press and speech,
The bill of rights? Did Congress have the power
To pass this ordinance of '87?
Or did it lack the power, because the states
That came into the union with their slaves
Might keep their slaves, reclaim as fugitive
Their slaves on freedom's soil? Well, if it be
That Congress had the power to plaster down
The ordinance of 1787
Upon this Illinois, this great Northwest,
It had the power to say the western land
Of Kansas and Nebraska should be free
As territories ruled from Washington
And no imperialism! So, I say again
It serves this Douglas right to be destroyed,
And ground to powder for this act of his,
This Kansas and Nebraska.

Well, all right.
It sounds all right, it makes the idiots whoop
To hear the Little Giant say he favors
The people's rule in Kansas and Nebraska.
Their right to say they'll have this slavery
Or have it not -- yes, popular sovereignty! --
But why not let the people vote on God,
Or choose a king, or take me, all the whites,
And make us slaves? It may be so, if truth
Is just a mockery and there's nothing real
In human thought at all -- one thing is true
As anything, and everything is false.

Thus ruin smites the temple of our life,
And all of us lie down as beasts and grunt
Around its broken arches and its columns!

All right! He gets his Kansas and Nebraska.
That makes him president! Not on your life!
Momus is watching, growls a horrid laugh
And whispers something to Slavocracy,
Which whispers it to Taney -- and behold
The prophets and the guardians of the ark
Of the covenant declare a slave's a slave,
And can be taken to a territory,
And kept there in the face of national law
That makes the territory free. Or else,
Were this not so, the Congress is supreme,
Has slipped the chain of the organic law,
Which recognizes slavery. What is this
But just imperialism?

God Almighty!
They're all for freedom, a republic too.
Kansas, Nebraska -- let the people rule.
Dred Scott: -- the Congress is a Parliament
Like England has, unless it pins and tucks
The constitution round its pocky body.
That may be true, but then the question is:
Is slavery charactered upon the robe,
And must the figure of the slave be seen
Wherever Congress walks?

I'll come to that.
The point is now that Douglas has been caught
Between his Kansas and Nebraska act,
And Dred Scott never his. And being lawful,
Obedient to the law and to the courts --
You heard him hammer Lincoln as a man
Who flouted courts -- while he, the Little Giant,
Obeyed the laws -- oh, yes! -- So, being lawful,
As I began, must hold in level hands
Dred Scott in one, and in the other hand
This Kansas and Nebraska.

Very good.
Lincoln has got him now, and out of all
This rhetoric, these sorties half successful,
These scrimmages with Lincoln, half perplexed,
You find your Little Giant on his back
With Lincoln over him and pinning shoulders
Down to the floor.

Here is the wrestling trick:
Can any territory keep this slavery
Out lawfully, that is, against the wish
Of any citizen? What is the answer?
If you say yes, where is Dred Scott? If no,
How do the people rule?

What is his answer?
Why, yes, he says, a territory can
Keep slavery out. Dred Scott still sends it there,
But then the people rule, and if the people
There in Nebraska make it hot for slavery
By local law and custom, frowns and blows,
It will not thrive. That satisfied the crowd;
Enough at least, elects him Senator,
But loses him the South, the golden prize,
Splits up the country, gives us war in time,
When argument is silenced cannon boom --
And when your Seward comes to Washington
The South secedes.

Now, listen for a moment!
What is Abe Lincoln's genealogy
In faith political? Sired by the Federalists,
And mothered by the Whigs. A tariff man;
Believes too in the Bank -- tariffs and banks
Filched from the plenary stores of privilege
By hands that break the shackles of the law.
He's born a Whig, has turned Republican,
What is his blood? Why, liberal construction,
Twisting the constitution out of shape,
And tearing holes in it to let the Congress
Escape and wander -- where? Why, anywhere!
And though it be that touching slavery
There's nothing which forbids the Congress acting
In freedom's way -- and that's the very point --
And granting that the Constitution's over
The territories, still the Congress can
Bring freedom there -- this theory is akin
To loose construction, scarcely can be told
From loose construction. For you see, if freedom,
Since Congress is not hampered, can be brought,
Why not then slavery, if it be not hampered?
And why not colonies, dependencies,
Ruled just as Congress wills, if never a word
Lies in our charter to forbid or grant
The power to do it.

Well, there'll be a war,
And hell thereafter. So you like my talk!
What is my name? Why, Satan is my name --
And I go wandering on the earth to see,
Walk to and fro and laugh and drop a tear
In spite of all my laughter. Tears and laughter
For ideas in the heads of men that seethe,
Pop, crackle, ferment, blow up bottles, kegs,
Spill and destroy bacteria on the floor
Of epochs, ruin wisdoms, cultures, faiths.
Time scrubs the floor of all such verses -- Time
Matures fresh grapes, new ferments, and repeats
The old catastrophes; and hence I laugh,
And drop a tear on all the sorry waste.





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