Monday, May 28, 2012

a bearded man, armed to the teeth

I read this last month and thought it appropriate for Memorial Day. Even in this abbreviated form it's a bit long for the non-poetry inclined;  if that's you, try just the first and last stanzas--they're my favorites. 

The Antiquity of Freedom
by Willam Cullen Bryant, 1842

O Freedom! thou art not, as poets dream,
A fair young girl, with light and delicate limbs,
And wavy tresses gushing from the cap
With which the Roman master crowned his slave
When he took off the gyves. A bearded man,
Armed to the teeth, art thou; one mailed hand
Grasps the broad shield, and one the sword; the brown,
Glorious in beauty though it be, is scarred
With tokens of old wars; they massive limbs
Are strong with struggling...

Thy birthright was not given by human hands:
thou wert twin-born with man. In pleasant fields,
While yet our race was few, thou sat'st with him,
To tend the quiet flock and watch the stars,
And teach the reed to utter simple airs.
Thou by his side, amid the tangled wood,
Didst war upon the panther and the wolf,
His only foes; and thou with him didst draw
The earliest furrow on the mountain-side,
Soft with the deluge. Tyranny himself,
Thy enemy, although of reverend look,
Hoary with many years, and far obeyed,
Is later born than thou; and as he meets
The grave defiance of thing elder eye,
The usurper trembles in his fastness.

Thou shalt wax stronger with the lapse of years,
But he shall fade into a feebler age---
Feebler, yet subtler. He shall weave his snares,
And spring them on thy careless steps, and clap
His withered hands, and from their ambush call
His hordes to fall upon thee. He shall send
Quaint maskers, wearing fair and gallant forms
To catch they gaze, and uttering graceful words
To charm they ear; while his sly imps, by stealth,
Twine round thee threads of steel, light thread on thread,
That grow to fetters;  or bind down they arms
With chains concealed in chaplets.

                                                        Oh! not yet
Mayst thou unbrace they corslet, nor lay by
They sword; nor yet, O Freedom! close they lids
In slumber; for thine enemy never sleeps,
And thou must watch and combat till the day
Of the new earth and heaven. But wouldst thou rest
Awhile from tumult and the frauds of men,
These old and friendly solitudes invite
Thy visit. They, while yet the forest-trees
Were young upon the unviolated earth,
And yet the moss-stains on the rock were new,
Beheld they glorious childhood, and rejoiced.


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