April 3, 2012

Howe's tribute to Clarke: hero in the fight

James Freeman Clarke would have turned 100 years old in 1910; instead, he died in 1888 after a long life as a religious leader, author, and reformer. Nevertheless, his admirers gathered in Boston without him to celebrate the centennial anniversary of his birth on April 3, 1910 (a day early). Among the group was Julia Ward Howe, an author and reformer herself. About a half a century earlier, Clarke had suggested that Howe write new words for the tune "John Brown's Body"; the result was Howe's most well-remembered work, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." For the celebration of his 100th birthday, she presented her poem, "James Freeman Clarke":

Richer gift can no man give
Than he doth from God receive.
We in greatness would have pleasure,
But we must accept our measure.
Let us question, then, the grave,
Querying what the Master gave,
Whom, in his immortal state,
Grateful love would celebrate.

Only human life was his,
With its thin-worn mysteries.
Shall we not describe him, "Man,
Built to last a little span,
Like our Earth, his dwelling-place,
Swung aloft, 'twixt Time and Space,
Tuned for ecstasy and pain,
Ever prompted to attain
For the blessing or the curse
That Eternities rehearse?"
Lifting from the Past its veil,
What of his does now avail?

Just a mirror in his breast
That revealed a heavenly guest,
And the love that made us free
Of the same high company.
These he brought us, these he left
When we were of him bereft.

He was resolute and bright,
Was a hero in the fight,
Trained his gifts of speech and song
Holy lessons to prolong,
Made the great Apostle's dream
Present still and potent seem.
Human fortunes we must share,
Must endeavor, must forbear;
Days of weakness, nights of pain,
Try, and turn, and try again;
But Golconda has no mine
Could that legacy outshine,
Did we keep, through good and ill,
James Freeman's angel with us still.

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