Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE PRESENT CRISIS, by JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL



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THE PRESENT CRISIS, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: When a deed is done for freedom, through the broad earth's aching breast
Last Line: Blood-rusted key.
Subject(s): Freedom; Justice; Religion; United States; Liberty; Theology; America


WHEN a deed is done for Freedom, through the
broad earth's aching breast
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from
east to west,
And the slave, where'er he cowers, feels the soul
within him climb
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy
sublime
Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny
stem of Time.

Through the walls of hut and palace shoots the
instantaneous throe,
When the travail of the Ages wrings earth's sys-
tems to and fro;
At the birth of each new Era, with a recognizing
start,
Nation wildly looks at nation, standing with mute
lips apart,
And glad Truth's yet mightier man-child leaps be-
neath the Future's heart

So the Evil's triumph sendeth, with a terror and
a chill,
Under continent to continent, the sense of coming
ill,
And the slave, where'er he cowers, feels his sym-
pathies with God
In hot tear-drops ebbing earthward, to be drunk
up by the sod,
Till a corpse crawls round unburied, delving in
the nobler clod.

For mankind are one in spirit, and an instinct
bears along,
Round the earth's electric circle, the swift flush
of right or wrong;
Wherever conscious or unconscious, yet Human-
ity's vast frame
Through its ocean-sundered fibres feels the gush
of joy or shame; --
In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have
equal claim.

Once to every man and nation comes the moment
to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the
good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering
each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep
upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever 'twixt that dark-
ness and that light.

Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party
thou shalt stand,
Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the
dust against our land?
Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet 't is Truth
alone is strong,
And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around
her throng
Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to enshield her
from all wrong.

Backward look across the ages and the beacon-
moments see,
That, like peaks of some sunk continent, jut
through Oblivion's sea;
Not an ear in court or market for the low fore-
boding cry
Of those Crises, God's stern winnowers, from
whose feet earth's chaff must fly;
Never shows the choice momentous till the judg-
ment hath passed by.

Careless seems the great Avenger; history's pages
but record
One death-grapple in the darkness 'twixt old sys-
tems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on
the throne, --
Yet that scaffold sways the Future, and, behind
the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch
above his own.

We see dimly in the Present what is small and
what is great,
Slow of faith, how weak an arm may turn the iron
helm of fate,
But the soul is still oracular; amid the market's
din,
List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic
cave within, --
"They enslave their children's children who make
compromise with sin."

Slavery, the earthborn Cyclops, tellest of the giant
brood,
Sons of brutish Force and Darkness, who have
drenched the earth with blood,
Famished in his self-made desert, blinded by our
purer day,
Gropes in yet unblasted regions for his miserable
prey; --
Shall we guide his gory fingers where our helpless
children play?

Then to side with Truth is noble when we share
her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 't is pros-
perous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward
stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is cru-
cified,
And the multitude make virtue of the faith they
had denied.

Count me o'er earth's chosen heroes, -- they were
souls that stood alone
While the men they agonized for hurled the con-
tumelious stone,
Stood serene, and down the future saw the golden
beam incline
To the side of perfect justice, mastered by their
faith divine,
By one man's plain truth to manhood and to God's
supreme design.

By the light of burning heretics Christ's bleeding
feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that
turns not back,
And these mounts of anguish number how each
generation learned
One new word of that grand Credo which in
prophet-hearts hath burned
Since the first man stood God-conquered with his
face to heaven upturned.

For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the
martyr stands,
On the morrow crouches Judas with the silver in
his hands;
Far in front the cross stands ready and the crack-
ling fagots burn,
While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe
return
To glean up the scattered ashes into History's
golden urn.

'T is as easy to be heroes as to sit the idle slaves
Of a legendary virtue carved upon our fathers'
graves,
Worshippers of light ancestral make the present
light a crime; --
Was the Mayflower launched by cowards, steered
by men behind their time?
Turn those tracks toward Past or Future, that
make Plymouth rock sublime?

They were men of present valor, stalwart old
iconoclasts,
Unconvinced by axe or gibbet that all virtue was
the Past's;
But we make their truth our falsehood, thinking
that hath made us free
Hoarding it in mouldy parchments, while our ten-
der spirits flee
The rude grasp of that Impulse which drove them
across the sea.

They have rights who dare maintain them; we are
traitors to our sires,
Smothering in their holy ashes Freedom's new-
lit altar-fires;
Shall we make their creed our jailer? Shall we,
in our haste to slay,
From the tombs of the old prophets steal the
funeral lamps away
To light up the martyr-fagots round the prophets
of to-day?

New occasions teach new duties; Time makes an-
cient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would
keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves
must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through
the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future's portal with the Past's
blood-rusted key.




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