July 5, 2012

And the sleeper heard the call * * *

The Chattanooga Saturday News for July 5, 1891 included a poem tiled "The Prayer of Milo Cooper." It was the final poem by Columbus Drew, a lawyer and politician who also dabbled as a writer. The poem was inspired by a man who had been enslaved by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Hearing of his former master's illness, Milo Cooper traveled from Florida to be at his bedside, but was too late.

There was whispering in the chamber, there was soundless tread of feet
As though the whispers and the tread of soundless steps were meet;
The couch the loving watch bent o'er, with tearful, hopeful eyes,
Was still, as one who resting there breathes a last breath and dies;
For death had filled its mission, and the sleeper heard the call * * *
It came to him a whisper, death entering the door;
Only a peaceful whisper of the simple words, "No more!"

There hurried to the bedside one who traveled far to see
The sick one; faithful visitor!—as faithful as could be—
In times gone by they called him slave, his heart was as before
Bound to his master; f reedman now and called a slave no more.
His hair was white, and Time had seemed to trace his brow more deep
Than when he served. He heard the woe, and came to serve and weep.
A broken tie had made him free of limb to come and go,
The tie of love he kept unbroke, his heart had willed it so.
Even the whispering of the room grew still when the old face
Looked in, permitted gladly near the dead to have a place.
He entered; soon upon his knees beside the bed he prayed
A prayer of blessing for the dead, the grandest ever made—
A prayer that gathered in a look the deeds of good for years
The slave and master did for each, now jeweled in his tears.
Oh, mightiest prayer of him who spoke, the slave who humbly knelt
Beside the master when the bonds of slave were never felt!
But only bonds of loyalty to every trait of good
A noble being cherished, and as nobly understood.
The black and white were types of things well written for the guide
Of lives by golden rule decreed until the master died.
There were whisperings in the chamber, there are whisperings in the breast,
Of the prayer old Milo Cooper prayed beside the dead at rest.
He came self-bonded freeman, the closing eye to see;
He found a glory on the face: the master too was free!

The poem reinforces the strange belief among Southern whites that enslaved people actually enjoyed their enslavement and were especially grateful for their masters. Drew, the poet, was born in Virginia, moved to Florida to establish a newspaper and printing company, and served in the treasury department for the Confederacy. He died only three days after this poem was published.

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