Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE SPARROW HARK IN THE RAIN (ALEXANDER STEPHENS HEARS NEWS), by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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THE SPARROW HARK IN THE RAIN (ALEXANDER STEPHENS HEARS NEWS), by             Poet's Biography
First Line: That's done! And well, I'd rather not have gone
Last Line: And I arose and left.
Subject(s): American Civil War; Stephens, Alexander Hamilton (1812-1883); United States - History


That's done! And well, I'd rather not have gone
To take such news. But now I'm glad you picked me --
I saw and heard him. I was ushered in,
And after hems and haws, I said at last,
"Lee has surrendered."

What a face he had
When I said that: "Lee has surrendered." Once,
When I was just a boy, I shot a sparhawk,
Just tore his breast away, and did not kill him.
He hopped up to a twig and perched, I peered
Through bushes for my victim -- there he was
His breast shot all away, so I could see
His heart a-beating -- but the sparhawk's eyes
Were bright as dew, with pain! I thought of this
When I saw Alec Stephens, said to him,
"Lee has surrendered."

There the midget sat
His face as wrinkled as thin cream, as yellow
As squirrel skin -- But ah, that piercing eye!
As restless as my sparhawk's, not with moving
But just with light, such pained uneasiness.
So there he sat, a thin, pale, little man,
Wrapped in a monstrous cloak, as wide and dark
As his own melancholy -- I shed tears
For such soul sickness, sorrow and such eyes,
That breast all shot away, that heart exposed
For eyes to see it beat, those burning eyes!

I stood there with my hat within my hand,
Said: "Mr. Stephens, I have come to tell you,
Lee has surrendered." He just looked at me
Then in a thin, cracked voice he said at once,
"It had to come." That's all, "It had to come."
"Pray have a seat," he added. For you see
He's known me for some years, I am his friend.
"It had to come." He only said that once.
Then, after silence, he chirped up again:
"I knew when I came back from Hampton Roads
It soon would be. Home-coming is the thing
When all is over in the world you've loved,
And worked with. And this Liberty Hall is good.
My sleeplessness is not so tiring here,
My pain more tolerable, and as for thought,
That goes on anywhere, and thought is life,
And while I think, I live."

He paused a minute,
I took a seat, enthralled with what he said,
A sparhawk in the rain, breast torn away,
His beating heart in view, his burning eyes!
"But everyone will see, the North will see,
Our cause was theirs, the South's cause was the cause
Of everyone both north and south. They'll see
Their liberties not long survive our own.
There is no difference, and cannot be
Between empire, consolidation, none
Between imperialism, centralism, none!"

I saw he was disposed to talk, let fall
My hat upon the floor. There in that cloak
All huddled like a child he sat and talked
In that thin voice. Bent over, hands on knees,
I listened like a man bewitched.

He said:
"As I am sick, cannot endure the strain
Of practice at the bar, am face to face
With silence after thunder, after war,
This terrifying calm, and after days
Top full of problems, duties in my place
In the South, vice-president, adviser,
Upon insoluble things, now after these
I cannot sit here idle, so I plan
To write a book. For, if I tell the truth,
My book will live, will be a shaft of granite
Which guns can never batter. First, perhaps,
I'll have to go to prison, let it be.
The North is now a maniac -- here I am,
Easy to capture, but I'll think in prison,
Perhaps they'll let me write, but anyway
I'll try to write a book and answer questions.

"A soldier at Manassas shot to death
Asked, as he died, 'What is it all about?'
Thousands of boys, I fancy, asked the same
Dying at Petersburg and Antietam,
Cold Harbor, Gettysburg. I'll answer them.
I'll dedicate the book to all true friends
Of Liberty wherever they may be,
Especially to those with eyes to look
Upon a federation of free states as means
Surest and purest to preserve mankind
Against the monarch principle."

Just then
A darkey came to bring him broth, he drank
And I arose to go. He waved his hand
And asked me: "Would you like to hear about
The book I plan to write?"

I longed to stay
And hear him talk, but feared to tire him out.
I hinted this, he smiled a little smile
And said: "If I'm alone, I think, and thought
Without you talk it out is like a hopper
That is not emptied and may overflow,
Or choke the grinding stones. Be seated, sir,
If you would please to listen."

So I stayed.
When he had drunk the broth, he settled back
To talk to me and tell me of his book,
A sparhawk, as I said, with burning eyes!
"First I will show the nature of the league,
The compact, constitution, the republic
Called federative even by Washington.
I only sketch the plan to you. Take this:
States make the Declaration, therefore states
Existed at the time to make it. States
Signed up the Articles of Confederation
In seventeen seventy-eight, and to what end?
Why for 'perpetual union.' Was it so?
No, nine years after, states, the very same
Withdrew, seceded from 'perpetual union'
Under the Articles and acceded to,
Ratified, what you will, the Constitution,
And formed not a 'perpetual union' but
'More perfect union.'

"If there is a man
Or ever was more gifted with the power
Of cunning words that reach the heart than Lincoln,
I do not know him. Don't you see it wins,
Captures the swelling feelings to declare
The Union older than the states? -- it's false,
But Lincoln says it. Here's another strain
That moves the mob: 'The Constitution has
No word providing for its own destruction,
The ending of the government thereunder.'
This Lincoln is a sophist, and in truth
With all this moral cry against the curse
Of slavery and these arguments of Lincoln
We were put down, just as a hue and cry
Will stifle Reason; but you can be sure
Reason will have her way and punishment
Will fall for her betrayal.

"Let us see:
'Was there provisions in the Articles
Of that perpetual union for the end
Of that perpetual union? Not at all!
How did these states then end it? By seceding
To form a better one! Is there provision
For getting out, withdrawing from the Union
Formed by the Constitution? No! Why not?
Could not states do what they had done before,
Leave 'a more perfect union,' as they left
'Perpetual union?' What's a state in fact?
A state's a sovereign, look in Vattell, look
In any great authority. So a sovereign
May take back what it delegated, mark you,
Not what it deeded, parted with, but only
Delegated. In regard to that
All powers not delegated were reserved.
Well, to resume, no word is in the charter
To end the charter. And a contract has
No word to end it by, how do you end it?
You end it by rescinding, when one party
Has broken it. Is this a contract, compact?
Even the mighty Webster said it was.
And further, if the Northern States, he said,
Refuse to carry in effect the part
Respecting restoration of fugitive slaves,
The South would be no longer bound to keep --
What did he say? the compact, that's the word!
Next then, what caused the war? I'll show and prove
It was not slavery of the blacks, but slavery
The North would force on us. For seventy years
Fierce, bitter conflict waged between the forces
Of those who would maintain the Federal form,
And those who would absorb in the Federal head
All power of government; between the forces
Of sovereignty in the people and control,
And sovereignty in a central hand. Why, look,
No sooner was the perfect union formed
Than monarchists began to play their arts
Through tariffs, banks, assumption bills, the Act
That made the Federal Courts. And none of these
Had warrant in the charter; yet you see
They overleaped its bounds. And so it was
To make all clear, explicit, when we framed
For these Confederate States our charter, we
Forbade expressly tariffs, meant to foster
Industrial adventures.

"No, my friend,
Our slavery was not the cause of war.
They would have Empire and the slavery
That comes from it: unlicensed power to deal
With fortunes, lives, economies and rights.
We fought them in the Congress seventy years;
We fought them at the hustings, with the ballot;
And when they shouldered guns, we shouldered guns,
And fought them to the last -- now we have lost,
And so I write my book.

"What is the difference
Between a mob, an army shouting God,
Fired by a moral erethism fixed
On slaughter for the triumph of its dream,
A riddance of its hate -- what is the difference
Between an army like this and a man
Who dreams God moves, inspires him to an act
Of foul assassination? None at all!
Why, there's your Northern army shouting God,
Your pure New England with its tariff spoils,
Its banks and growing wealth, uplifting hands,
Invoking God against us till they flame
A crazy party and a maddened army,
To war upon us. But if slavery
Be sinful, where's the word of Christ to say
That slavery is sinful? Not a word
From him who scourged the Scribes and Pharisees
For robbing widows' houses, but no word
Against the sin of slavery. Yet behold
He found no faith in all of Israel
To equal that -- of whom? -- a man who owned
Slaves, as we did. I mean the Centurion.
And is this all? St. Paul who speaks for God
With equal inspiration with New England,
As I should judge, enjoins the slaves to count
Their masters worthy of all honor, that
God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.

"But
If it be wrong to hold as property
A service, even a man to keep the service --
Let us be clear and fair -- then is it wrong
To hold indentures of apprenticeship?
And if, as Lincoln says, it is a right
Given of God for every man to have,
Eat if he will the bread he earns, then God
Is blasphemed in the North where labor's paid
Not what it earns, but what it must accept,
Chained by necessity, and so enslaved.
And all these tariff laws are slavery
By which my bread is taken, all the banks
That profit by their issues, special rights,
Enslave us, in the future will enslave
Both North and South, when darkeys shall be free
To choose their masters, but must choose, no less.
Take what the master hand consents to pay,
And eat what bread is given. Yes, you know
Our slavery was a gentle thing, belied
As bloody, sullen, selfish -- yet you know
It was a gentle thing, a way to keep
A race inferior in a place of work,
Duly controlled. For once that race is freed
It will go forth to mingle, mix and wed
With whites and claim equality, the ballot,
Places of trust and profit, judgment seats.
Lincoln denies he favors this, no less
We'll come to that. And all the while the mills
And factories in the North will bring to us
The helpless poor of Europe, and enslave them
By pauper wages, and enslave us all
With tariff-favored products. Slavery!
God's curse is on us for our Slavery!
What do you think?

"They say we broke the law,
Were rebels, insurrectionists; I'll treat
Those subjects in my book. But let us see,
They did not keep the law; they had their banks,
They had their tariffs, they infracted laws
Respecting slaves who ran away, they joined
Posses and leagues to break those laws, and we
In virtue of these breaches, were released
From this, the compact, just as Webster says.
Did Lincoln keep the law and keep his oath
The Constitution to support, obey?
He did not keep it, and he broke his oath.
Did he have lawful power to call the troops?
Did he have lawful warrant to blockade
Our southern ports? No one pretends he did.
His Congress by a special act made valid
These tyrant usurpations. Had he power
To strike the habeas corpus, gag the press? --
No power at all -- he only seized the power
To reach what he conceived was all supreme,
The saving of the Union -- more of this.
Well, then, what are these words: You break the law
On those who break it and confess they do?
You have two ideas: Union and Secession,
Or two republics made from one, that's all.
And those who think secession criminal
Turn criminals themselves to stay the crime,
And shout the Union. To this end I come,
This figment called the Union, which obsessed
The brain of Lincoln.

"For the point is this,
You may take Truth or Liberty or Union
For a battle cry, kill and be killed therefor,
But if our reasons rule, if we are men,
We take them at our peril. We must stake
Our souls upon the choice, be clear of mind
That what we cry as Truth is Truth indeed,
That Liberty is Liberty, that the Union
Is not a noun, a word, a subtlety,
But is a status, substance, living temple
Reared from the bottom up on stones of fate,
Predestined. Yet the truth is only this:
The Union is a noun and nothing more,
And stands for what? A federative thing
Formed of the wills of states, not otherwise.
Existing; and to kill to save the Union
Is but the exercise of a hue and cry,
An arbitrary passion, sophist's dream.
And Robespierre, who killed for liberty,
And Caesar, who destroyed the Roman liberties
To have his way, are of the quality
Of Lincoln, whom I know. Take Robespierre,
Was he not by a sense of justice moved,
Pure, and as frigid as a bust of stone?
And Caesar had devoted friends, and Caesar,
The accomplished orator, general and scholar,
Charming and gentle in his private walks,
Destroyed the hopes of Rome.

"Now, mark me friend,
I do not think that Lincoln meant to crush
The institutions of his country -- no,
His fault was this -- the Union, yes the noun,
Rose to religious mysticism, and enthralled
With sentiment his soul. And his ideas
Of its formation, structure in his logic
Rested upon a subtle solecism.
And for this noun, in spite of virtues great
Of head and heart, he used his other self,
His Caesar self, his self of Robespierre,
In the great office which he exercised,
To bring us Oak Hill, Corinth, Fredericksburg.
Think you, if when he kept the store at Salem
A humble, studious man, he had been told
He would make wails of horror, wake the cries
Of pestilence and famine in the camps,
Bring devastation, rapine, fire and death --
Had he been told this, he had said -- 'My soul!
Never,' and with Hazael said, 'Behold,
Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?'
Power changes men! And when the people give
Power or surrender it, they scarcely know
The thing they give, surrender.
"But I ask
What is there in the Union, what indeed
In any government's supremacy
Or maintenance that justifies these acts --
These horrors, slaughters -- near a million men
Slaughtered for what? The Union. Treasure spent
Beyond all counting for the Union. When
No life had been destroyed, no dollar spent
If they had let us go, left us alone
To go our way. You see they did to us
What England did; succeeded, where she failed.
And thus you see that human life is cheap,
And suffering a sequence when a dream,
An Idea takes a man, a mob, an army.
Which makes our life a jest, our boasted Reason
An instrument too weak for savagery.
Then for the rest -- you see -- I think you see. -- "
Sleep now was taking him. My little sparhawk
Was worn out, and his eyes began to droop,
His voice to fail him. In a moment then
He sank down in his cloak and fell asleep --
And I arose and left.





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