Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, HANDS ACROSS SEA, by ROBERT UNDERWOOD JOHNSON



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HANDS ACROSS SEA, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: England, thou breeder of heroes and of bards
Last Line: "that was the noblest conquest of her rule""?"
Subject(s): American Revolution


I

ENGLAND, thou breeder of heroes and of bards,
Had ever nation manlier shield or song!
For thee such rivalry have sword and pen,
Fame, from her heaped green, crowns with equal hand
The deathless deed and the immortal word,
For which dost thou thy Sidney hold more dear,
Defense of England or of Poesie?
Cromwell or Milton -- if man's guiding stars
Could vanish as they came -- which wouldst thou spare?
Lost Kempenfelt indeed, were Cowper mute!
To victory, not alone on shuddering seas
Rode Nelson, but on Campbell's tossing rhyme.
Hark to thy great Duke's greater dirge, and doubt
For which was Waterloo the worthier won,
To change the tyrant on a foreign throne,
Or add a faultless ode to English song.
Great deeds make poets: by whose nobler word,
In turn, the blood of heroes is transfused
Into the veins of sluggards, till they rise,
Surprised, exalted to the height of men.

Nor can Columbia choose between the two
Which give more glory to thy Minster gloom.
They are our brave, our deathless, our divine --
Our Saxon grasp on their embattled swords,
Our Saxon numbers in their lyric speech.
We grudge no storied wreath, nay, would withhold
Of bay or laurel not one envied leaf.
Then, on thy proud cliff fronting Europe-ward,
Strong in thyself, not by some weaker prop,
Give to the greeting of a kindred voice
A moment in the ebb of thy disdain.

II

Is it but chance that in thy treasured verse
There is no paean, no exulting line,
No phrase of martial fervor, to record
The Briton's prowess on our Western shore?
There was no lapse of valiance in thy race --
Or else had Time forgot to mark the years.
Nor hast thou since had lack of many a voice
Whose words, like wings to seed, on every air
From land to hospitable land import
Thy progeny of courage, justice, truth.
Why, then, when all our songs were resonant,
Were all thy singers silent? Candor, speak!
There is a daemon makes the Muses dumb
When they would praise the wrong: but Liberty
From Nature has inheritance of speech --
The forest harp, the flood's processional,
The glorious antiphone of every shore,
When these are dumb, then poets may be mute!

III

TAUGHT by thy heroes, summoned by thy bards,
Against the imperious folly of thy kings
Twice our reluctant banners were arrayed.
What matter if the victors were not thine,
If thine the victories? Thou art more secure
Saved from the canker of successful wrong.
Thou dost not blush for Naseby, where, of old,
England most conquered, conquering Englishmen.
So when thou hear'st the trumpets in our verse
In praise of our new land's deliverance,
Hard won from Winter, Hunger, and from thee,
And from those allies thou didst hire and scorn,
Deem it not hatred, nor the vulgar pride
Of the arena, nor the greed of fame.
('Twixt men or nations, there's no victory
Save when an angel overcomes in both.)
Would all our strife were blameless! Some, alas!
Hath trophies hoarded only to be hid,
For courage cannot hallow wanton war.
Be proud our hand against thee ne'er was raised
But to wrench English justice from thy grasp.
And, as to landsmen, far from windy shores,
The breathing shell may bear the murmuring sea,
Still in our patriot song reverberates
The mighty voice that sang at Hampden's side.

IV

TRUE, there are those of our impassioned blood
Who can forget but slowly that thy great
Misread the omens of our later strife,
And knew not Freedom when she called to thee.
These think they hate thee! -- these, who have embraced
Before the altar their fraternal foes!
Not white of York and red of Lancaster
More kindly mingle in thy rose of peace
Than blend in cloudless dawn our blue and gray.
Already Time and History contend
For sinking rampart and the grassy ridge
That with its challenge startles pilgrim feet
Along the fringes of the wounded wood.
The bedtime wonder of our children holds
Vicksburg coeval with the siege of Troy,
And the scorned slave so hastened to forgive
The scar has lost remembrance of the lash.
Since Love has drawn the sting of that distress,
For one with wrath to compass sea and years
Were but to make of injury a jest,
Holding the occasion guiltier than the cause.
But Hate's a weed that withers in the sun;
A cell of which the prisoner holds the key,
His will his jailer; nay, a frowning tower
Invincible by legions, but with still
One secret weakness: who can hate may love.
Oh, pausing in thy cordon of the globe,
Let one full drop of English blood be spilled
For Liberty, not England: men would lose
Their fancied hatred in an ardor new,
As Minas Channel turns to Fundy's tide.
Hate thee? Hast thou forgot red Pei-ho's stream,
The triple horror of the ambuscade,
The hell of battle, the foredoomed assault,
When thou didst stand the champion of the world,
Though the awed sea for once deserted thee?
Who then sprang to thee, breaking from the bonds
Of old observance, with a human cry,
Thirsting to share thy glorious defeat
As men are wont to covet victory?
Hate thee? Hast thou forgot Samoa's reef,
The day more dark than any starless night,
The black storm buffeting the hopeless ships,
The struggle of thy sons, and, as they won,
Gaining the refuge of the furious deep,
The immortal cheers that shook the Trenton's deck,
As Death might plead with Nature for the brave?
Stands there no monument upon that strand?
Then let remembrance build a beacon high,
That long its warning message may remind
How common danger stirs the brother heart.

V

WHY turn the leaf back to an earlier page?
To-day, not moved by memory or fear,
But by the vision of a nobler time,
Millions cry toward thee in a passion of peace.
We need thee, England, not in armed array
To stand beside us in the empty quarrels
That kings pursue, ere War itself expire
Like an o'er-armored knight in desperate lunge
Beneath the weight of helmet and of lance;
But now, in conflict with an inner foe
Who shall in conquering either conquer both.
For it is written in the book of fate:
By no sword save her own falls Liberty.
A wondrous century trembles at its dawn,
Conflicting currents telling its approach;
And while men take new reckonings from the peaks,
Reweigh the jewel and retaste the wine,
Be ours to guard against the impious hands
That, like rash children, tamper with that blade.
Thou, too, hast seen the vision: shall it be
Only a dream, caught in the web of night,
Lost through the coarser meshes of the day?
Or like the beauty of the prismic bow,
Which the sun's ardor, that creates, consumes?
Oh, may it be the thing we image it! --
The beckoning spirit of our common race
Floating before us in a fringe of light
With Duty's brow, Love's eyes, the smile of Peace;
Benignant figure of compelling mien,
Star-crowned, star-girdled, and o'erstrewn with stars,
As though a constellation should descend
To be fit courier to a glorious age.

VI

O THOU that keepest record of the brave,
Something of us to thee is lost, more worth
Than all the fabled wealth of sibyls' leaves.
Not with dull figures, but with heroes' deeds,
Fill up those empty annals. Teach thy youth
To know not North's but Byron's Washington;
To follow Hale's proud step as tearfully
As we pale Andre's. And when next thy sons
Stand in Manhattan gazing at the swirl
Of eddying trade from Trinity's brown porch,
Astonished, with the praise that half defames,
At the material greatness of the scene, --
The roar, the fret, the Babel-towers of trade, --
Let one stretch forth a hand and touch the stone
That covers Lawrence, saying, "To this height
Our English blood has risen." And to know
The sea still speaks of courage, let them learn
What murmurs it of Craven in one bay,
And what of Cushing shouts another shore.
(Find but one star, how soon the sky is full!
One hero summons hundreds to the field:
So to the memory.) Let them muse on Shaw,
Whose bones the deep did so begrudge the land
It sent its boldest waves to bring them back
Unto the blue-domed Pantheon where they lie,
The while his soul still leads in martial bronze;
Tell them of sweet-dirged Winthrop, whom to name
Is to be braver, as one grows more pure
Breathing the thought of lover or of saint;
Grim Jackson, Covenanter of the South,
And her well-christened Sidney, fallen soon;
Kearny and Lyon. Of such hearts as these
Who would not boast were braggart of all else.
Each fought for Right -- and conquered with the Best.
Such graves are all the ruins that we have --
Our broken arch and battlement -- to tell
That ours, like thine, have come of Arthur's race.

O England, wakened from thy lull of song,
Thy scepter, sword, and spindle, fasces-like,
Bound with fresh laurel as thy sign of strength,
When shalt thou win us with a theme of ours,
Reclaiming thus thine own, till men shall say:
"That was the noblest conquest of her rule"?





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