September 17, 2011

Whittier: Oh, for the death the righteous die!

Thomas Shipley was from Philadelphia and advocated for the emancipation of enslaved people very early in American history. When he died on September 17, 1836, it was said that thousands of "colored people" attended his funeral. Around this time, poet John Greenleaf Whittier had taken up the same cause of immediate emancipation, eventually moving from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. Both Whittier and Shipley were founding members of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Inspired, Whittier wrote a poem, "To the Memory of Thomas Shipley":

...Gentlest of spirits! not for thee
Our tears are shed, our sighs are given;
Why mourn to know thou art a free
Partaker of the joys of heaven?

Instead, Whittier says, "Woe for us!": Those who "linger still" and have "feebler strength" and "minds less steadfast to the will." The poem then shifts to Shipley's goal of ending slavery and how other should take up the cause:

And at the bondman's tale of woe,
And for the outcast and forsaken,
Not warm like thine, but cold and slow,
Our weaker sympathies awaken.

Darkly upon our struggling way
The storm of human hate is sweeping;
Hunted and branded, and a prey,
Our watch amidst the darkness keeping,
Oh, for that hidden strength which can
Nerve unto death the inner man!
Oh, for thy spirit, tried and true,
And constant in the hour of trial,
Prepared to suffer, or to do,
In meekness and in self-denial.

Oh, for that spirit, meek and mild,
Derided, spurned, yet uncomplaining;
By man deserted and reviled,
Yet faithful to its trust remaining.
Still prompt and resolute to save
From scourge and chain the hunted slave;
Unwavering in the Truth's defence,
Even where the fires of Hate were burning,
The unquailing eye of innocence
Alone upon the oppressor turning!

O loved of thousands! to thy grave,
Sorrowing of heart, thy brethren bore thee.
The poor man and the rescued slave
Wept as the broken earth closed o'er thee;
And grateful tears, like summer rain,
Quickened its dying grass again!
And there, as to some pilgrim-shrine,
Shall come the outcast and the lowly,
Of gentle deeds and words of thine
Recalling memories sweet and holy!

Oh, for the death the righteous die!
An end, like autumn's day declining,
On human hearts, as on the sky,
With holier, tenderer beauty shining;
As to the parting soul were given
The radiance of an opening heaven!
As if that pure and blessed light,
From off the Eternal altar flowing,
Were bathing, in its upward flight,
The spirit to its worship going!

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