February 8, 2012

Death of Howe: the friend our earth has lost

Samuel Gridley Howe was an active abolitionist (he was a member of the Secret Six which financed John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry) along with his wife Julia Ward Howe. He was also well-respected as a physician and educator who worked particularly with the blind. When he died in 1876, Boston's elite mourned him in a three-hour ceremony at Boston Music Hall. At that program, held February 8, 1876, fellow physician Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes offered a poem titled "A Memorial Tribute":

Leader of armies, Israel's God,
   Thy soldier's fight is won!
Master, whose lowly path he trod,
   Thy servant's work is done!

No voice is heard from Sinai's steep
   Our wandering feet to guide;
From Horeb's rock no waters leap,
   No Jordan's waves divide;

No prophet cleaves our western sky
   On wheels of whirling fire;
No shepherds hear the song on high
   Of heaven's angelic choir.

Yet here as to the patriarch's tent
   God's angel comes a guest;
He comes on Heaven's high errand sent,
   In earth's poor raiment drest.

We see no halo round his brow
   Till love its own recalls,
And like a leaf that quits the bough,
   The mortal vesture falls.

In autumn's chill declining day,
   Ere winter's killing frost,
The message came; so passed away
   The friend our earth has lost.

Still, Father, in thy love we trust;
   Forgive us if we mourn
The saddening hour that laid in dust
   His robe of flesh outworn.

How long the wreck-strewn journey seems
   To reach the far-off past
That woke his youth from peaceful dreams
   With Freedom's trumpet-blast!

Along her classic hillsides rung
   The Paynim's battle-cry,
And like a red-cross knight he sprung
   For her to live or die.

No trustier service claimed the wreath
   For Sparta's bravest son;
No truer soldier sleeps beneath
   The mound of Marathon;

Yet not for him the warrior's grave
   In front of angry foes;
To lift, to shield, to help, to save,
   The holier task he chose.

He touched the eyelids of the blind,
   And lo! the veil withdrawn,
As o'er the midnight of the mind
   He led the light of dawn.

He asked not whence the fountains roll
   No traveller's foot has found,
But mapped the desert of the soul
   Untracked by sight or sound.

What prayers have reached the sapphire throne,
   By silent fingers spelt,
For him who first through depths unknown
   His doubtful pathway felt.

Who sought the slumbering sense that lay
   Close shut with bolt and bar,
And showed awakening thought the ray
   Of reason's morning star!

Where'er he moved, his shadowy form
   The sightless orbs would seek,
And smiles of welcome light and warm
   The lips that could not speak.

No labored line, no sculptor's art,
   Such hallowed memory needs;
His tablet is the human heart,
   His record loving deeds.

The rest that earth denied is thine,—
   Ah, is it rest? we ask,
Or, traced by knowledge more divine,
   Some larger, nobler task?

Had but those boundless fields of blue
   One darkened sphere like this;
But what has heaven for thee to do
   In realms of perfect bliss?

No cloud to lift, no mind to clear,
   No rugged path to smooth,
No struggling soul to help and cheer,
   No mortal grief to soothe!

Enough; is there a world of love,
   No more we ask to know;
The hand will guide thy ways above
   That shaped thy task below.

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