Verse > Anthologies > Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. > Parnassus: An Anthology of Poetry
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Ralph Waldo Emerson, comp. (1803–1882).  Parnassus: An Anthology of Poetry.  1880.
 
Never or Now
By Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894)
 
IN vain the common theme my tongue would shun,
All tongues, all thoughts, all hearts can find but one.
Our alcoves, where the noisy world was dumb,
Throb with dull drum-beats, and the echoes come
Laden with sounds of battle and wild cries,        5
That mingle their discordant symphonies.
Old books from yonder shelves are whispering, “Peace!
This is the realm of letters, not of strife.”
Old graves in yonder field are saying, “Cease!
Hic jacet ends the noisiest mortal’s life.”        10
—Shut your old books! What says the telegraph?
We want an Extra, not an epitaph.
Old Classmates, (Time’s unconscious almanacs,
Counting the years we leave behind our backs,
And wearing them in wrinkles on the brow        15
Of friendship with his kind “How are you now?”)
Take us by the hand, and speak of times that were.—
Then comes a moment’s pause: “Pray tell me where
Your boy is now! Wounded, as I am told.”—
“Twenty?” “What—bless me! twenty-one years old!”        20
“Yes,—time moves fast.” “That’s so. Old classmate, say,
Do you remember our Commencement Day?
Were we such boys as these at twenty?” Nay,
God called them to a nobler task than ours,
And gave them holier thoughts and manlier powers,—        25
This is the day of fruits and not of flowers!
These “boys” we talk about like ancient sages
Are the same men we read of in old pages,—
The bronze recast of dead heroic ages!
We grudge them not,—our dearest, bravest, best,—        30
Let but the quarrel’s issue stand contest:
’Tis Earth’s old slave-God battling for his crown,
And Freedom fighting with her visor down!
 
Better the jagged shells their flesh should mangle,—
Better their bones from Rahab-necks should dangle,        35
Better the fairest flower of all our culture
Should cram the black maw of the Southern vulture,
Than Cain act o’er the murder of his brother
Unum on our side—pluribus on the other!
Each of us owes the rest his best endeavor;        40
Take these few lines,—we call them
 
NOW OR NEVER

Listen, young heroes! your country is calling!
  Time strikes the hour for the brave and the true!
Now, while the foremost are fighting and falling,
  Fill up the ranks that have opened for you!        45
 
You whom the fathers made free and defended,
  Stain not the scroll that emblazons their fame!
You whose fair heritage spotless descended,
  Leave not your children a birthright of shame!
 
Stay not for questions while Freedom stands gasping!        50
  Wait not till Honor lies wrapped in his pall!
Brief the lips’ meeting be, swift the hands’ clasping.—
  “Off for the wars” is enough for them all!
 
Break from the arms that would fondly caress you!
  Hark! ’tis the bugle blast! sabres are drawn!        55
Mothers shall pray for you, fathers shall bless you,
  Maidens shall weep for you when you are gone!
 
Never or now! cries the blood of a nation
  Poured on the turf where the red rose should bloom;
Now is the day and the hour of salvation;        60
  Never or now! peals the trumpet of doom!
 
Never or now! roars the hoarse-throated cannon
  Through the black canopy blotting the skies;
Never or now! flaps the shell-blasted pennon
  O’er the deep ooze where the Cumberland lies!        65
 
From the foul dens where our brothers are dying,
  Aliens and foes in the land of their birth,
From the rank swamps where our martyrs are lying
  Pleading in vain for a handful of earth;
 
From the hot plains where they perish outnumbered,        70
  Furrowed and ridged by the battle-field’s plough,
Comes the loud summons; too long you have slumbered,
  Hear the last Angel-trump—Never or Now!
 
 
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