Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. VII. Descriptive: Narrative
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume VII. Descriptive: Narrative.  1904.
 
Descriptive Poems: I. Personal: Rulers; Statesmen; Warriors
Washington
James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)
 
   [From “Under the Elm,” read at Cambridge, July 3, 1875, on the Hundredth Anniversary of Washington’s taking Command of the American Army.]

BENEATH our consecrated elm
A century ago he stood,
Famed vaguely for that old fight in the wood,
Which redly foamèd round him but could not overwhelm
The life foredoomed to wield our rough-hewn helm.        5
From colleges, where now the gown
To arms had yielded, from the town,
Our rude self-summoned levies flocked to see
The new-come chiefs and wonder which was he.
No need to question long; close-lipped and tall,        10
Long trained in murder-brooding forests lone
To bridle others’ clamors and his own,
Firmly erect, he towered above them all,
The incarnate discipline that was to free
With iron curb that armed democracy.
*        *        *        *        *
        15
Haughty they said he was, at first, severe,
But owned, as all men owned, the steady hand
Upon the bridle, patient to command,
Prized, as all prize, the justice pure from fear,
And learned to honor first, then love him, then revere.        20
Such power there is in clear-eyed self-restraint,
And purpose clean as light from every selfish taint.
 
Musing beneath the legendary tree,
The years between furl off: I seem to see
The sun-flecks, shaken the stirred foliage through,        25
Dapple with gold his sober buff and blue,
And weave prophetic aureoles round the head
That shines our beacon now, nor darkens with the dead.
O man of silent mood,
A stranger among strangers then,        30
How art thou since renowned the Great, the Good,
Familiar as the day in all the homes of men!
The wingèd years, that winnow praise and blame,
Blow many names out: they but fan to flame
The self-renewing splendors of thy fame.
*        *        *        *        *
        35
O, for a drop of that terse Roman’s ink
Who gave Agricola dateless length of days,
To celebrate him fitly, neither swerve
To phrase unkempt, nor pass discretion’s brink,
With him so statuelike in sad reserve,        40
So diffident to claim, so forward to deserve!
Nor need I shun due influence of his fame
Who, mortal among mortals, seemed as now
The equestrian shape with unimpassioned brow,
That paces silent on through vistas of acclaim.        45
What figure more immovably august
Than that grave strength so patient and so pure,
Calm in good fortune, when it wavered, sure,
That soul serene, impenetrably just,
Modelled on classic lines, so simple they endure?        50
That soul so softly radiant and so white
The track it left seems less of fire than light,
Cold but to such as love distemperature?
And if pure light, as some deem, be the force
That drives rejoicing planets on their course,        55
Why for his power benign seek an impurer source?
His was the true enthusiasm that burns long,
Domestically bright,
Fed from itself and shy of human sight,
The hidden force that makes a lifetime strong,        60
And not the short-lived fuel of a song.
Passionless, say you? What is passion for
But to sublime our natures and control,
To front heroic toils with late return,
Or none, or such as shames the conqueror?        65
That fire was fed with substance of the soul,
And not with holiday stubble, that could burn
Through seven slow years of unadvancing war,
Equal when fields were lost or fields were won,
With breath of popular applause or blame,        70
Nor fanned nor damped, unquenchably the same,
Too inward to be reached by flaws of idle fame.
 
Soldier and statesman, rarest unison;
High-poised example of great duties done
Simply as breathing, a world’s honors worn        75
As life’s indifferent gifts to all men born;
Dumb for himself, unless it were to God,
But for his barefoot soldiers eloquent,
Tramping the snow to coral where they trod,
Held by his awe in hollow-eyed content;        80
Modest, yet firm as Nature’s self; unblamed
Save by the men his nobler temper shamed;
Not honored then or now because he wooed
The popular voice, but that he still withstood;
Broad-minded, higher-souled, there is but one        85
Who was all this, and ours, and all men’s,—Washington.
 
Minds strong by fits, irregularly great,
That flash and darken like revolving lights,
Catch more the vulgar eye unschooled to wait
On the long curve of patient days and nights,        90
Rounding the whole life to the circle fair
Of orbed completeness; and this balanced soul,
So simple in its grandeur, coldly bare
Of draperies theatric, standing there
In perfect symmetry of self-control,        95
Seems not so great at first, but greater grows
Still as we look, and by experience learn
How grand this quiet is, how nobly stern
The discipline that wrought through life-long throes
This energetic passion of repose.        100
A nature too decorous and severe
Too self-respectful in its griefs and joys
For ardent girls and boys,
Who find no genius in a mind so clear
That its grave depths seem obvious and near,        105
Nor a soul great that made so little noise.
They feel no force in that calm, cadenced phrase,
The habitual full-dress of his well-bred mind,
That seems to pace the minuet’s courtly maze
And tell of ampler leisures, roomier length of days.        110
His broad-built brain, to self so little kind
That no tumultuary blood could blind,
Formed to control men, not amaze,
Looms not like those that borrow height of haze:
It was a world of statelier movement then        115
Than this we fret in, he a denizen
Of that ideal Rome that made a man for men.
*        *        *        *        *
Placid completeness, life without a fall
From faith or highest aims, truth’s breachless wall,
Surely if any fame can bear the touch,        120
His will say “Here!” at the last trumpet’s call,
The unexpressive man whose life expressed so much.
 
 
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