May 30, 2011

All o'er the tranquil land on this Memorial Day

Just as in 2011, May 30 was Memorial Day in 1881. A celebration for veterans in Boston included a reading of Thomas Wentworth Higginson's "Memorial Ode." Colonel Higginson was a veteran of the Civil War, having commanded the 1st South Carolina Volunteers (the first federally authorized black regiment). He describes a gathering of former soldiers:

...All o'er the tranquil land
   On this Memorial Day,
   Coming from near and far,
Men gather in the mimic guise of war.
   They bear no polished steel,
Yet by the elbow's touch they march, they wheel,
   Or side by side they stand.
They now are peaceful men, fair Order's sons;
But as they halt in motionless array,
   Or bow their heads to pray,
   Into their dream intrudes
The swift sharp crack of rifle-shots in woods;
   Into their memory swells
The trumpet's call, the screaming of the shells;
And ever and anon they seem to hear
The far-off thunder of besieging guns, —
All sounds of bygone war, all memories of the ear.

Thoughts of war, Higginson says, seem long past and he optimistically hopes that Peace (with a capital "P") has returned. It is honor of those "million men" who have laid down their arms that Memorial Day is celebrated with cooled blood an "no regretful tears." Though he invokes Massachusetts history for patriotic sentiment — in particular, he mentioned Paul Revere, Robert Gould Shaw, and Charles Sumner — Higginson notes we should not focus on the past but on the future:

They say our city's star begins to wane,
Our heroes pass away, our poets die,
Our passionate ardors mount no more so high.
'T is but an old alarm, the affright of wealth,
The cowardice of culture, wasted pain!
   Freedom is hope and health!
The sea on which yon ocean steamers ride
Is the same sea that rocked the shallops frail
Of the bold Pilgrims; yonder is its tide,
And here are we, their sons; it grows not pale,
Nor we who walk its borders. Never fear!
   Courage and truth are all!
Trust in the great hereafter, and whene'er
   In some high hour of need,
   That tests the heroic breed,
The Boston of the future sounds its call,
Bartletts and Lowells yet shall answer, " Here!"

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