The Watchers

John Greenleaf Whittier - 1807-1892

Beside a stricken field I stood;
On the torn turf, on grass and wood,
Hung heavily the dew of blood.

Still in their fresh mounds lay the slain,
But all the air was quick with pain
And gusty sighs and tearful rain.

Two angels, each with drooping head
And folded wings and noiseless treads,
Watched by that valley of the dead.

The one, with forehead saintly bland
And lips of blessing, not command,
Leaned, weeping, on her olive wand.

The other’s brows were scarred and knit,
His restless eyes were watch-fires lit,
His hands for battle-gauntlets fit.

“How long!”—I knew the voice of Peace,
“Is there no respite? no release?
When shall the hopeless quarrel cease?

“O Lord, how long! One human soul
Is more than any parchment scroll,
Or any flag thy winds unroll.

“What price was Ellsworth’s, young and brave?
How weigh the gift that Lyon gave,
Or count the cost of Winthrop’s grave?

“O brother! if thine eye can see,
Tell how and when the end shall be,
What hope remains for thee and me.”

Then Freedom sternly said: “I shun
No strife nor pang beneath the sun,
When human rights are staked and won.

“I knelt with Ziska’s hunted flock,
I watched in Toussaint’s cell of rock,
I walked with Sidney to the block.

“The moor of Marston felt my tread,
Through Jersey snows the march I led,
My voice Magenta’s charges sped.

“But now, through weary day and night,
I watch a vague and aimless fight
For leave to strike one blow aright.

“On either side my foe they own:
One guards through love his ghastly throne,
And one through fear to reverence grown.

“Why wait we longer, mocked, betrayed,
By open foes, or those afraid
To speed thy coming through my aid?

“Why watch to see who win or fall?
I shake the dust against them all,
I leave them to their senseless brawl.”

“Nay,” Peace implored: “yet longer wait;
The doom is near, the stake is great:
God knoweth if it be too late.

“Still wait and watch; the way prepare
Where I with folded wings of prayer
May follow, weaponless and bare.”

“Too late!” the stern, sad voice replied,
“Too late!” its mournful echo sighed,
In low lament the answer died.

A rustling as of wings in flight,
An upward gleam of lessening white,
So passed the vision, sound and sight.

But round me, like a silver bell
Rung down the listening sky to tell
Of holy help, a sweet voice fell.

“Still hope and trust,” it sang; “the rod
Must fall, the wine-press must be trod,
But all is possible with God!”

More by John Greenleaf Whittier

Snow-Bound [The sun that brief December day]

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
    A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
    The coming of the snow-storm told.
The wind blew east: we heard the roar
Of Ocean on his wintry shore, 
And felt the strong pulse throbbing there
Beat with low rhythm our inland air.
Meanwhile we did your nightly chores,--
Brought in the wood from out of doors,
Littered the stalls, and from the mows
Raked down the herd's-grass for the cows;
Heard the horse whinnying for his corn;
And, sharply clashing horn on horn,
Impatient down the stanchion rows
The cattle shake their walnut bows;
While, peering from his early perch
Upon the scaffold's pole of birch,
The cock his crested helmet bent
And down his querulous challenge sent.

Unwarmed by any sunset light
The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag, wavering to and fro
Crossed and recrossed the wingèd snow:
And ere the early bed-time came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.

        *
			   
As night drew on, and, from the crest
Of wooded knolls that ridged the west,
The sun, a snow-blown traveller, sank
From sight beneath the smothering bank,
We piled, with care, our nightly stack
Of wood against the chimney-back,--
The oaken log, green, huge, and thick,
And on its top the stout back-stick;
The knotty forestick laid apart,
And filled between with curious art
The ragged brush; then, hovering near,
We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;
While radiant with a mimic flame
Outside the sparkling drift became,
And through the bare-boughed lilac-tree
Our own warm hearth seemed blazing free.
The crane and pendent trammels showed,
The Turks' heads on the andirons glowed;
While childish fancy, prompt to tell
The meaning of the miracle,
Whispered the old rhyme: "Under the tree,
When fire outdoors burns merrily,
There the witches are making tea."
The moon above the eastern wood
Shone at its full; the hill-range stood
Transfigured in the silver flood,
Its blown snows flashing cold and keen,
Dead white, save where some sharp ravine
Took shadow, or the somber green
Of hemlocks turned to pitchy black
Against the whiteness at their back.
For such a world and such a night
Most fitting that unwarming light,
Which only seemed where'er it fell
To make the coldness visible.

Among the Hills: Prelude [excerpt]


No time is this for hands long overworn
To task their strength; and (unto Him be praise
Who giveth quietness!) the stress and strain
Of years that did the work of centuries
Have ceased, and we can draw our breath once more
Freely and full. So, as yon harvesters
Make glad their nooning underneath the elms
With tale and riddle and old snatch of song,
I lay aside grave themes, and idly turn
The leaves of Memory's sketch-book, dreaming o'er
Old summer pictures of the quiet hills,
And human life, as quiet, at their feet.

The Pumpkin

Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun, 
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run, 
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold, 
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold, 
Like that which o'er Nineveh's prophet once grew, 
While he waited to know that his warning was true, 
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain 
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain. 

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden 
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden; 
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold 
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold; 
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North, 
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth, 
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines, 
And the sun of September melts down on his vines. 

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West, 
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest; 
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board 
The old broken links of affection restored, 
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more, 
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before, 
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye? 
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? 

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling, 
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling! 
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin, 
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within! 
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune, 
Our chair a broad pumpkin,—our lantern the moon, 
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam 
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team! 

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better 
E'er smoked from an oven or circled a platter! 
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine, 
Brighter eyes never watched o'er its baking, than thine! 
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express, 
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less, 
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below, 
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow, 
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky 
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!