June 8, 2011

Dunbar: a martyr's lifeless clay

The Dayton Herald in Ohio published "Our Martyred Soldiers" on June 8, 1888, a poem written by a 16-year old named Paul Laurence Dunbar. It was Dunbar's first widely-circulated poem. His previous works were confined to a school newspaper — the beginning of a short but celebrated career. "Our Martyred Soldiers" was about Union soldiers during the Civil War but really was an homage to "colored" soldiers during that conflict — including the poet's father. Joshua Dunbar had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad. After making his way to Canada, he returned specifically to fight with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, later the 5th Cavalry.

In homes all green, but cold in death,
Robbed of the blessed boon of breath—
Resting in peace from field and fray,
Our martyred soldiers sleeping lay.

Beneath the dew, the rain, the snow,
They heed no more the bloody foe,
Their sleep is calm, to them alone
'Tis giv'n to lie without a moan.

The sun may shine in all his might—
They know no day, they know no night,
But wait a still more lasting ray,
The coming of eternal day.

No longer marches break their rest,
Or passioned hate thrills through the breast,
They lie all clothed in calm repose,
All safe from shots of lurking foes.

The grave's a sacred place where none
Of earth may touch the sleeping one;
Where silence reigns, enthroned, sedate,
An angel guarding heaven's gate.

The wind may blow, the hail may fall,
But at the tomb is silence all;
Man finds no nobler place to pray,
Then o'er a martyr's lifeless clay.

Sleep on, ye soldiers, men of God,
A nation's tears bedew the sod;
'Tis but a short, short time till ye
Shall through the shining portals flee.

And when this memory lost shall be,
We turn, oh Father, God, to thee!
Oh find in heaven some nobler thing
Then martyrs of which men can sing.

*A great resource for this entry was Hope & Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (2009), edited by Martin H. Blatt, Thomas J. Brown, and Donald Yacovone.

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