Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, UPON THE HILL BEFORE CENTREVILLE, by GEORGE HENRY BOKER



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UPON THE HILL BEFORE CENTREVILLE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: I'll tell you what I heard that day
Last Line: Strike for the crown of victory!
Subject(s): American Civil War; Bull Run, Battles Of; United States - History; Manassas, Batlle Of


I'LL tell you what I heard that day:
I heard the great guns far away,
Boom after boom. Their sullen sound
Shook all the shuddering air around;
And shook, ah me! my shrinking ear,
And downward shook the hanging tear
That, in despite of manhood's pride,
Rolled o'er my face a scalding tide.
And then I prayed. O God! I prayed,
As never stricken saint, who laid
His hot cheek to the holy tomb
Of Jesus, in the midnight gloom.

"What saw I?" Little. Clouds of dust;
Great squares of men, with standards thrust
Against their course; dense columns crowned
With billowing steel. Then bound on bound,
The long black lines of cannon poured
Behind the horses, streaked and gored
With sweaty speed. Anon shot by,
Like a lone meteor of the sky,
A single horseman; and he shone
His bright face on me, and was gone.
All these with rolling drums, with cheers,
With songs familiar to my ears,
Passed under the far-hanging cloud,
And vanished, and my heart was proud!

For mile on mile the line of war
Extended; and a steady roar,
As of some distant stormy sea,
On the south wind came up to me.
And high in air, and over all,
Grew, like a fog, that murky pall,
Beneath whose gloom of dusty smoke
The cannon flamed, the bombshell broke.
And the sharp rattling volley rang,
And shrapnel roared, and bullets sang,
And fierce-eyed men, with panting breath,
Toiled onward at the work of death.
I could not see, but knew too well,
That underneath that cloud of hell,
Which still grew more by great degrees,
Man strove with man in deeds like these.

But when the sun had passed his stand
At noon, behold! on every hand
The dark brown vapor backward bore,
And fainter came the dreadful roar
From the huge sea of striving men.
Thus spoke my rising spirit then:
"Take comfort from that dying sound,
Faint heart, the foe is giving ground!"
And one, who taxed his horse's powers,
Flung at me, "Ho! the day is ours!"
And scoured along. So swift his pace,
I took no memory of his face.
Then turned I once again to Heaven;
All things appeared so just and even;
So clearly from the highest Cause
Traced I the downward-working laws --
Those moral springs, made evident,
In the grand, triumph-crowned event.
So half I shouted, and half sang,
Like Jephtha's daughter, to the clang
Of my spread, cymbal-striking palms,
Some fragments of thanksgiving psalms.

Meanwhile a solemn stillness fell
Upon the land. O'er hill and dell
Failed every sound. My heart stood still,
Waiting before some coming ill.
The silence was more sad and dread,
Under that canopy of lead,
Than the wild tumult of the war
That raged a little while before.
All Nature, in her work of death,
Paused for one last, despairing breath;
And, cowering to the earth, I drew
From her strong breast my strength anew.

When I arose, I wondering saw
Another dusty vapor draw,
From the far right, its sluggish way
Toward the main cloud, that frowning lay
Against the western sloping sun:
And all the war was re-begun,
Ere this fresh marvel of my sense
Caught from my mind significance.
And then -- why ask me? O my God!
Would I had lain beneath the sod,
A patient clod, for many a day,
And from my bones and mouldering clay
The rank field grass and flowers had sprung,
Ere the base sight, that struck and stung
My very soul, confronted me,
Shamed at my own humanity.
O happy dead! who early fell,
Ye have no wretched tale to tell
Of causeless fear and coward flight,
Of victory snatched beneath your sight,
Of martial strength and honor lost,
Of mere life bought at any cost,
Of the deep, lingering mark of shame,
Forever scorched on brow and name,
That no new deeds, however bright,
Shall banish from men's loathful sight!

Ye perished in your conscious pride,
Ere this vile scandal opened wide
A wound that cannot close nor heal.
Ye perished steel to levelled steel,
Stern votaries of the god of war,
Filled with his godhead to the core!
Ye died to live, these lived to die,
Beneath the scorn of every eye!
How eloquent your voices sound
From the low chambers under ground!
How clear each separate title burns
From your high-set and laurelled urns!
While these, who walk about the earth,
Are blushing at their very birth!
And, though they talk, and go, and come,
Their moving lips are worse than dumb.
Ye sleep beneath the valley's dew,
And all the nation mourns for you;
So sleep till God shall wake the lands!
For angels, armed with fiery brands,
Await to take you by the hands.

The right-hand vapor broader grew;
It rose, and joined itself unto
The main cloud with a sudden dash.
Loud and more near the cannon's crash
Came toward me, and I heard a sound
As if all hell had broken bound --
A cry of agony and fear.
Still the dark vapor rolled more near,
Till at my very feet it tossed,
The vanward fragments of our host.
Can man, Thy image, sink so low,
Thou, who hast bent Thy tinted bow
Across the storm and raging main;
Whose laws both loosen and restrain
The powers of earth, without whose will
No sparrow's little life is still?
Was fear of hell, or want of faith,
Or the brute's common dread of death
The passion that began a chase,
Whose goal was ruin and disgrace?
What tongue the fearful sight may tell?
What horrid nightmare ever fell
Upon the restless sleep of crime --
What history of another time --
What dismal vision, darkly seen
By the stern-featured Florentine,
Can give a hint to dimly draw
The likeness of the scene I saw?
I saw, yet saw not. In that sea,
That chaos of humanity,
No more the eye could catch and keep
A single point, than on the deep
The eye may mark a single wave,
Where hurrying myriads leap and rave.
Men of all arms, and all costumes,
Bare-headed, decked with broken plumes;
Soldiers and officers, and those
Who wore but civil-suited clothes;
On foot or mounted -- some bestrode
Steeds severed from their harnessed load;
Wild mobs of white-topped wagons, cars,
Of wounded, red with bleeding scars;
The whole grim panoply of war
Surged on me with a deafening roar!
All shades of fear, disfiguring man,
Glared through their faces' brazen tan.
Not one a moment paused, or stood
To see what enemy pursued.
With shrieks of fear, and yells of pain,
With every muscle on the strain,
Onward the struggling masses bore.
Oh! had the foemen lain before,
They'd trampled them to dust and gore,
And swept their lines and batteries
As autumn sweeps the windy trees!
Here one cast forth his wounded friend.
And with his sword or musket-end
Urged on the horses; there one trod
Upon the likeness of his God,
As if 't were dust; a coward here
Grew valiant with his very fear,
And struck his weaker comrade prone,
And struggled to the front alone.
All had one purpose, one sole aim,
That mocked the decency of shame, --
To fly, by any means to fly;
They cared not how, they asked not why.
I found a voice. My burning blood
Flamed up. Upon a mound I stood;
I could no more restrain my voice
Than could the prophet of God's choice.
"Back, animated dirt!" I cried,
"Back, on your wretched lives, and hide
Your shame beneath your native clay!
Or if the foe affrights you, slay
Your own base selves; and, dying, leave
Your children's tearful cheeks to grieve,
Not quail and blush, when you shall come,
Alive, to their degraded home!
Your wives will look askance with scorn;
Your boys, and infants yet unborn,
Will curse you to God's holy face!
Heaven holds no pardon in its grace
For cowards. Oh! are such as ye
The guardians of our liberty?
Back, if one trace of manhood still
May nerve your arm and brace your will!
You stain your country in the eyes
Of Europe and her monarchies!

The despots laugh, the peoples groan;
Man's cause is lost and overthrown!
I curse you, by the sacred blood
That freely poured its purple flood
Down Bunker's heights, on Monmouth's plain,
From Georgia to the rocks of Maine!
I curse you, by the patriot band
Whose bones are crumbiing in the land!
By those who saved what these had won
In the high name of Washington!"
Then I remember little more.
As the tide's rising waves, that pour
Over some low and rounded rock,
The coming mass, with one great shock,
Flowed o'er the shelter of my mound,
And raised me helpless from the ground.
As the huge shouldering billows bear,
Half in the sea and half in air,
A swimmer on their foaming crest,
So the foul throng beneath me pressed,
Swept me along, with curse and blow,
And flung me -- where, I ne'er shall know.

When I awoke, a steady rain
Made rivulets across the plain;
And it was dark -- oh, very dark.
I was so stunned as scarce to mark
The ghostly figures of the trees,
Or hear the sobbing of the breeze
That flung the wet leaves to and fro.
Upon me lay a dismal woe,
A boundless, superhuman grief,
That drew no promise of relief
From any hope. Then I arose,
As one who struggles up from blows
By unseen hands; and as I stood
Alone, I thought that God was good,
To hide, in clouds and driving rain,
Our low world from the angel train,
Whose souls filled heroes when the earth
Was worthy of their noble birth.
By that dull instinct of the mind,
Which leads aright the helpless blind,
I struggled onward, till the dawn
Across the eastern clouds had drawn
A narrow line of watery gray;
And full before my vision lay
The great dome's gaunt and naked bones
Beneath whose crown the nation thrones
Her queenly person. On I stole,
With hanging head and abject soul,
Across the high embattled ridge,
And o'er the arches of the bridge.
So freshly pricked my sharp disgrace,
I feared to meet the human face,
Skulking, as any woman might,
Who 'd lost her virtue in the night,
And sees the dreadful glare of day
Prepare to light her homeward way,
Alone, heart-broken, shamed, undone,
I staggered into Washington!
Since then long sluggish days have passed,
And on the wings of every blast
Have come the distant nations' sneers
To tingle in our blushing ears.
In woe and ashes, as was meet,
We wore the penitential sheet.
But now I breathe a purer air,
And from the depths of my despair
Awaken to a cheering morn,
Just breaking through the night forlorn,
A morn of hopeful victory.
Awake, my countrymen, with me!
Redeem the honor which you lost.
With any blood, at any cost!
I ask not how the war began,
Nor how the quarrel branched and ran
To this dread height. The wrong or right
Stands clear before God's faultless sight.
I only feel the shameful blow,
I only see the scornful foe,
And vengeance burns in every vein
To die, or wipe away the stain.
The war-wise hero of the west,
Wearing his glories as a crest,
Of trophies gathered in your sight,
Is arming for the coming fight.
Full well his wisdom apprehends
The duty and its mighty ends;
The great occasion of the hour,
That never lay in human power
Since over Yorktown's tented plain
The red cross fell, nor rose again.
My humble pledge of faith I lay,
Dear comrade of my school-boy day,
Before thee, in the nation's view,
And if thy prophet prove untrue,
And from our country's grasp be thrown
The sceptre and the starry crown,
And thou, and all thy marshalled host
Be baffled and in ruin lost;
Oh! let me not outlive the blow
That seals my country's overthrow!
And, lest this woful end come true,
Men of the North, I turn to you.
Display your vaunted flag once more,
Southward your eager columns pour!
Sound trump, and fife, and rallying drum;
From every hill and valley come.
Old men, yield up your treasured gold!
Can liberty be priced and sold?
Fair matrons, maids, and tender brides
Gird weapons to your lovers' sides;
And though your hearts break at the deed,
Give them your blessing and God-speed;
Then point them to the field of flame,
With words like those of Sparta's dame;
And when the ranks are full and strong,
And the whole army moves along,
A vast result of care and skill,
Obedient to the master will;
And your young hero draws the sword,
And gives the last commanding word
That hurls your strength upon the foe --
Oh! let them need no second blow.
Strike, as your fathers struck of old;
Through summer's heat, and winter's cold,
Through pain, disaster, and defeat;
Through marches tracked with blood, feet;
Through every ill that could befall
The holy cause that bound them all!
Strike as they struck for liberty!
Strike as they struck to make you free!
Strike for the crown of victory!





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