Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE CORRIDORS OF CONGRESS (REVISITED IN VACATION), by ROBERT UNDERWOOD JOHNSON



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THE CORRIDORS OF CONGRESS (REVISITED IN VACATION), by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Tread soft, intruding step, this empty haunt
Last Line: The walls that guard the freedom of the land.
Subject(s): United States - Congress


TREAD soft, intruding step, this empty haunt
Of swirling crowds has sanctity of grief;
Precincts of sadness are these gilded halls --
The silent crypts of far and turbulent years.
These stairways have been treadmills of despair,
Runways of greed these narrow passages --
The skirmish-lines of battles fought within,
Where many a hope, sore-wounded, struggled on
To perish in the din of others' joy.

Let Fancy listen at these listening walls
And give us back the record that they bear, --
These phonographs of sorrow, where are writ,
In Time's attenuated echoes, sounds
Not louder than the falling of a tear
Or sigh of lovers hiding from pursuit.
Fancy, our finer ear, may here disclose
Whispers of corner-born conspiracies;
The embrasured window's furtive interview;
The guarded plot; the treacherous promise given;
The tragedy that here was masked as hope.
Here the dark powers conspired, using as bribes
Our dearest virtues -- goodness, friendship, love.
Here many who came with dawn upon the brow,
A voice of confidence, a knightly port,
Noble expectancy in every step,
Their own ambition with their country's, one,
Forgot their holy dreams beneath the stars,
Sunk in a noonday stupor of prudent air,
Or, caught by tyrannous currents of routine,
Swept, first resisting, then resisting not,
Into that pleasant land of Compromise
That neighbors Hell.
Here is the dryasdust
Who thinks in dollars, scorning sentiment;
The township patriot, letting terrors rage
If only he be safe; the timid good
For whose slow suffrage all the bold contend;
The velvet orator whose magniloquence,
Prick it with wit, runs streams of Privilege;
The soft-shod schemer, voice behind his hand,
And flattering arm about his victim's neck;
The vulgar blusterer, to whom we trust
The jewel of the nation's dignity,
Who cannot guard his own; and, faithful clog
About the feet of Progress, he who spurns
All as exotic not in his dooryard found,
Holding the riches of the world as toys:
Books as expedients to divert the mind
From the dull scenery 'twixt town and town;
Art as an adult's picture-book, and Verse
But as a quarry for a funeral speech.

But one may read a cheerier record here:
The statesman rare, compact of bold and wise,
Loving his country like an ancient Greek,
Physician to the body politic,
And with physician-chivalry so imbued
The honest crave his voice, and every rogue
Reckons him enemy; the sturdy drudge
Who knows the elusive fact cannot be caught
In nets of intuition, -- sentinel
Upon the nation's treasure-castle walls,
Alert to stealthy peril in the night
From Waste the Traitor as from Greed the Foe;
The civic soldier, fighting for his land
As truly as the veteran who defied
Ambush of fen or forest, standing firm
To conscience' needle, though from every point
The shifting winds be clamoring for the wrong.
Oh, there's a bravery greater than the assault
On ramparts flaming death when but the touch
Of comrade's shoulder gives the heart support,
When every leaping impulse to go on
Is multiplied to madness by the crowd,
And Life is but an alms by Duty flung.
Peace needs the stouter heart, the cooler mind;
The truceless warfare on the soul's frontiers
Calls for a lonelier fortitude; and oft
The man that will not yield an inch to blows
Can keep no barrier to tears. He that, alone,
Would feed his body to the hungry fire,
Let but a loved one plead, his will is wax.
Oh, in the unimpassioned scales of Time
More than the courage of momentum weighs
The courage of resistance, when to yield
Is easy as to breathe, and angels urge
"Only do naught and let the devil pass."

What Iliads of siege these walls could tell!
What shattered lines a hundred times retrieved
From lingering defeat -- now by the swords,
Now by the shields, of some sworn group of knights --
To sweep at last to wreathed victory!
What single combats while the hosts looked on!
What hopes forlorn that failed so gloriously
That History dropped her stylus to admire!

Of all the hands that held our fasces up,
I mind me of one servant of the State
Who walked these halls erect in body and mind.
Not to corroding ease he gave his days
But paid his country, coin for coin, in toil.
Her cut-purse enemies within her gates,
Her gentlemanly murderers of men's souls, --
Who with foul gold would poison every fount
Of Hope and Justice we have built for all, --
And their accomplices who smilingly
Betray a nation to oblige a friend,
Him came not nigh with their accursed arts,
To tempt, to beg, to threaten, to cajole.
Though richly gifted, he disprized his gifts --
Far vision, loyal reasoning, kindling speech,
And true intent that pilots in the dark.
Not faultless, he could frankly own his fault,
And salve with candor the impetuous wound.
While he was speaking nothing seemed of worth
But the high path he trod -- not happiness,
Nor peace, nor love, nor leisured luxury,
Nor that acclaim of many called success,
But to be leader in the march of Man.
With more ambition, he had been of those
Who from its trance of comfort wake the world,
And leave a name to stir the pulse of youth.

Thoughtless of fame, -- without the artist-sense
Of the deed's value miscalled vanity --
He left to chance the record of those days.
His tribute is the passionate regret
Of comrades fighting still, the respect of foes,
Who miss his swift sword and his dented shield.
Remembering how at one great breach he stood
Pleading for honor when men sued for gain,
I hear not only echoes of his voice
But strains of patriot music from the Past:
The harp of David, laureate of the Lord,
Sounding the spirit's summons to his race;
The lyre of Sophocles, half looking back
To cheer his followers, now as brave as he;
The horn of Roland, clear from brim to brim
Of Pyrenean valleys, with its call,
"Come up and find your courage on the heights."

ENVOI

Not only with a brother's pride and love
Weave I for him this coronal of verse --
Affection's salvage from the wreck of Time --
But with the hope that for some wavering soul,
Tempted to point of tension, it may turn
A cup of trembling to a cup of strength,
And make us prouder of the brave who guard
The walls that guard the freedom of the land.





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