January 19, 2013

Lucas on Lee: Lie still in glory!

Though Robert E. Lee had died in October 1870, Virginia poet Daniel Bedinger Lucas did not write his poem to the former General of the Confederate Army until January 19, 1871 — the day on which Lee would have celebrated his 64th birthday. The three part, 110-line poem "The Death of Lee" praises Lee as "the greatest man," "the greatest spirit," both in war and in peace, and finally as a paragon. Lucas seemed particularly pleased that Lee had died in the "autumn" of his life, "ere age could tame" him.

In the poem, Lee's role as a general portrays him as an underdog ("twice baptized in blood"), struggling with firm resolve against a superior foe, though accepting his victories with modesty ("Then, from the summit smiled on those who stood / Below, and simply said, 'I did the best I could!'"). However, both in success and in defeat, Lee held one major trait which Lucas praised:

Success, defeat, a truer meaning have:
   'Tis Virtue dominates eternally.
'Tis Virtue makes the freeman or the slave,
   From whose green heights of wingless victory,
Our hero, conquered—only shone the more,
As, half-eclipsed, the moon burns ruddier than before!

Those who were more literally enslaved might quibble with Lucas somewhat, the poem is more focused on Lee's character than his accomplishments. He "clamored not for rank nor place," was never envious, never "betrayed a friend, nor laid a rival low." He was never vindictive, never loved war, and hid a tenderness in his heart. Because in his life he was so simple, so down to earth, Lucas writes, "we magnify him dead!" Whether true or not, the poem leaves Lee without fault in his whole life (though Lucas opens a window for a potential rising of the Confederacy, in which the spirit of Lee will return and lead the new war):

Lie still in glory! hero of our hearts,
   Sleep sweetly in thy vaulted chapel-grave!
The splendor of the far-excelling stars departs—
   Not so the lustre of the godlike brave!
Thy glory shall not vanish, but increase,
Thou boldest son of war, and mildest child of peace!

Lie still in glory! patient, prudent, deep!
   O, central form in our immortal strife,
With an eternal weight of glory, sleep
   Within her breast, who gave thee name and life!
Lie very still! no more contend with odds!
Transcendent among men—resplendent with the gods!

Lie still in glory! faithful, fervent, strong!
   Perchance the land we love shall need a name:
Perchance the breath of unresisted wrong
   Shall blow enduring patience into flame:
If so, thy name shall leap from star to star
In thunder, and thy sleeping army wake to war!


  1. Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederacy, not Lee. Am I misunderstanding the posted entry?

  2. See: "former General of the Confederate Army."