Verse > Anthologies > James and Mary Ford, eds. > Every Day in the Year
James and Mary Ford, eds.  Every Day in the Year.  1902.
May 30
Decoration Day
By Eugene Fitch Ware (“Ironquill”) (1841–1911)
Recited at Arlington

  IT is needless I should tell you
  Of the history of Sumter,
How the chorus of the cannon shook its walls;
  How the scattered navies gathered,
  How the iron-ranked battalions        5
Rose responsive to the country’s urgent calls.
  It is needless that I tell you,
  For the time is still too recent,
How was heard the first vindictive cannon’s peal;
  How two brothers stopped debating        10
  On a sad, unsettled question,
And referred it to the arbitrating steel.
  It is needless that I tell you
  Of the somber days that followed—
Stormy days that in such slow succession ran;        15
  Of Antietam, Chickamauga,
  Gettysburg, and Murfreesboro’,
Or the rocky, cannon-shaken Rapidan.
  It was not a war of conquest:
  It was fought to save the Union,        20
It was waged for an idea of the right;
  And the graves so widely scattered
  Show how fruitful an idea
In peace, or war, may be in moral might.
  Brief indeed the war had lasted        25
  Had it raged in hope of plunder;
Briefer still, had glory been its only aim.
  But its long and sad duration
  And the graves it has bequeathed us,
Other motives, other principles proclaim.        30
  Need I mention this idea,
  The invincible idea,
That seemed to hold and save the Nation’s life;
  That, resistless and unblenching,
  Undisheartened by disaster,        35
Seemed the soul and inspiration of the strife?
  This idea was of freedom—
  Was that men should all stand equal,
That the world was interested in the fight;
  That the present and the future        40
  Were electors who had chosen
Us to argue and decide the case aright.
  And the theories of freedom
  Those now silent bugles uttered
Will reverberate with ever-glowing tones;        45
  They can never be forgotten,
  But will work among the nations
Till they sweep the world of shackles and of thrones.
  It is meet that we do honor
  To the comrades who have fallen—        50
Meet that we the sadly woven garlands twine.
  Where they buried lie is sacred,
  Whether ’neath the Northern marble
Or beneath the Southern cypress-tree or pine.
  Nations are the same as children—        55
  Always living in the future,
Living in their aspirations and their hopes;
  Picturing some future greatness,
  Reaching forth for future prizes,
With a wish for higher aims and grander scopes.        60
  It is better for the people
  That they reach for an ideal,
That they give their future nations better lives;
  Though the standard be unreal,
  Though the hope meets no fulfillment,        65
Though the fact in empty dreams alone survives.
  If the people rest contented
  With the good they have accomplished,
Then they retrograde and slowly sink away.
  Give a nation an ideal,        70
  Some grand, noble, central project;
It, like adamant, refuses to decay.
  ’Tis the duty of the poet,
  ’Tis the duty of the statesman,
To inspire a nation’s life with nobler aims;        75
  And dishonor will o’ershadow
  Him who dares not, or who falsely
His immortal-fruited mission misproclaims.

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