May 28, 2010

To holier tasks that God has willed

The activist William Lloyd Garrison died after a sudden illness. A funeral was held on May 28, 1879 that drew an impressive crowd of admirers, including several fellow abolitionists (Wendell Philips and Lucy Stone, for example).

The poet-abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier was represented too. An original poem was written specifically for the occasion and read by one of the ministers. Whittier had earned his earliest support from Garrison, who published his first poem, helped him get formal schooling, and got him a job with an abolitionist newspaper. In the 1830s, Whittier said he loved Garrison like a brother, making Whittier's poem, titled "Garrison," quite appropriate for the occasion:

The storm and peril overpast,
     The hounding hatred shamed and still,
Go, soul of freedom! take at last
    The place which thou alone canst fill.

Confirm the lesson taught of old —
    Life saved for self is lost, while they
Who lose it in His service hold
    The lease of God's eternal day.

Not for thyself, but for the slave
    Thy words of thunder shook the world;
No selfish griefs or hatred gave
    The strength wherewith thy bolts were hurled.

From lips that Sinai's trumpet blew
    We heard a tenderer undersong;
Thy very wrath from pity grew,
    From love of man thy hate of wrong.

Now past and present are as one;
    The life below is life above;
Thy mortal years have but begun
    The immortality of love.

With somewhat of thy lofty faith
    We lay thy outworn garment by,
Give death but what belongs to death,
    And life the life that cannot die!

Not for a soul like thine the calm
    Of selfish ease and joys of sense;
But duty, more than crown or palm,
    Its own exceeding recompense.

Go up and on! thy day well done,
    Its morning promise well fulfilled,
Arise to triumphs yet unwon,
    To holier tasks that God has willed.

Go, leave behind thee all that mars
    The work below of man for man;
With the white legions of the stars
    Do service such as angels can.

Wherever wrong shall right deny,
    Or suffering spirits urge their plea,
Be thine a voice to smite the lie,
    A hand to set the captive free!

At sunset, Garrison was laid to rest at Forest Hills Cemetery in Massachusetts.

*The bust above was sculpted by Anne Whitney, who also created a statue of fellow abolitionist Charles Sumner, now located in Harvard Square. This image of Garrison was used as the frontispiece for the published version of Garrison's services.

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