July 18, 2013

Moody on Shaw: The wars we wage are noble

Robert Gould Shaw died leading the famous Massachusetts 54th Regiment at the Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. However, it was not this heroic death which inspired poet William Vaughan Moody but the memorial to Shaw and the 54th on the Boston Common, directly across from the Massachusetts State House. His poem, "An Ode in Time of Hesitation," was published in 1900 (three years after the dedication of the statue) and also referenced the nation's involvement with the Philippines during the Philippine–American War.

I before the solemn bronze Saint Gaudens made
To thrill the heedless passer's heart with awe,
And set here in the city's talk and trade
To the good memory of Robert Shaw,
This bright March morn I stand,
And hear the distant spring come up the land;
Knowing that what I hear is not unheard
Of this boy soldier and his negro band,
For all their gaze is fixed so stern ahead,
For all the fatal rhythm of their tread.
The land they died to save from death and shame
Trembles and waits, hearing the spring's great name,
And by her pangs these resolute ghosts are stirred.

Though the general passersby in the poem do not take particular notice of the memorial, the speaker begins to hear the triumph of their heroic deeds in the trees around him and in nature in general. The sound takes him on an imaginary journey throughout the United States, in places like Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, the Dakotas, throughout the Rockies to Alaska and even to Hawaii. He soon thinks of the Philippines:

Alas! what sounds are these that come
Sullenly over the Pacific seas,—
Sounds of ignoble battle, striking dumb
The season's half-awakened ecstasies?
Must I be humble, then,
Now when my heart hath need of pride?
Wild love falls on me from these sculptured men;
By loving much the land for which they died
I would be justified.
My spirit was away on pinions wide
To soothe in praise of her its passionate mood
And ease it of its ache of gratitude.
Too sorely heavy is the debt they lay
On me and the companions of my day.
I would remember now
My country's goodliness, make sweet her name.
Alas! what shade art thou
Of sorrow or of blame
Liftest the lyric leafage from her brow,
And pointest a slow finger at her shame?

The speaker struggles to understand the role his country is playing in the greater world. Are they continuing the work laid out by men like the 54th, or are they engaging in something which is less honorable?

Lies! lies! It cannot be! The wars we wage
Are noble, and our battles still are won
By justice for us, ere we lift the gage.
We have not sold our loftiest heritage.
The proud republic hath not stooped to cheat
And scramble in the market-place of war;
Her forehead weareth yet its solemn star.
Here is her witness: this, her perfect son,
This delicate and proud New England soul
Who leads despis├Ęd men, with just-unshackled feet,
Up the large ways where death and glory meet,
To show all peoples that our shame is done,
That once more we are clean and spirit-whole.

The full poem is significantly longer, broken into nine parts of varying length.

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