Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
I. Poems
Inscribed to W. H. Channing

THOUGH 1 loath to grieve
The evil time’s sole patriot,
I cannot leave
My honied thought
For the priest’s cant,        5
Or statesman’s rant.
If I refuse
My study for their politique,
Which at the best is trick,
The angry Muse        10
Puts confusion in my brain.
But who is he that prates
Of the culture of mankind,
Of better arts and life?
Go, blindworm, go,        15
Behold the famous States
Harrying Mexico
With rifle and with knife!
Or who, with accent bolder,
Dare praise the freedom-loving mountaineer?        20
I found by thee, O rushing Contoocook!
And in thy valleys, Agiochook!
The jackals of the negro-holder.
The God who made New Hampshire
Taunted the lofty land        25
With little men;—
Small bat and wren
House in the oak:—
If earth-fire cleave
The upheaved land, and bury the folk,        30
The southern crocodile would grieve.
Virtue palters; Right is hence;
Freedom praised, but hid;
Funeral eloquence
Rattles the coffin-lid. 2        35
What boots thy zeal,
O glowing friend,
That would indignant rend
The northland from the south?
Wherefore? to what good end?        40
Boston Bay and Bunker Hill
Would serve things still;—
Things are of the snake.
The horseman serves the horse,
The neatherd serves the neat,        45
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
’T is the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind;
Things are in the saddle,        50
And ride mankind.
There are two laws discrete,
Not reconciled,—
Law for man, and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet,        55
But it runs wild,
And doth the man unking.
’T is fit the forest fall,
The steep be graded,
The mountain tunnelled,        60
The sand shaded,
The orchard planted,
The glebe tilled,
The prairie granted,
The steamer built.        65
Let man serve law for man;
Live for friendship, live for love,
For truth’s and harmony’s behoof;
The state may follow how it can,
As Olympus follows Jove.        70
  Yet do not I implore
The wrinkled shopman to my sounding woods,
Nor bid the unwilling senator
Ask votes of thrushes in the solitudes.
Every one to his chosen work;—        75
Foolish hands may mix and mar;
Wise and sure the issues are.
Round they roll till dark is light,
Sex to sex, and even to odd;—
The over-god        80
Who marries Right to Might,
Who peoples, unpeoples,—
He who exterminates
Races by stronger races,
Black by white faces,—        85
Knows to bring honey
Out of the lion;
Grafts gentlest scion
On pirate and Turk.
The Cossack eats Poland,        90
Like stolen fruit;
Her last noble is ruined,
Her last poet mute:
Straight, into double band
The victors divide;        95
Half for freedom strike and stand;—
The astonished Muse finds thousands at her side.
Note 1. The circumstance which gave rise to this poem, though not known, can easily be inferred. Rev. William Henry Channing, nephew of the great Unitarian divine, a man most tender in his sympathies, with an apostle’s zeal for right, had, no doubt, been urging his friend to join the brave band of men who were dedicating their lives to the destruction of human slavery in the United States. To these men Mr. Emerson gave honor and sympathy and active aid by word and presence on important occasions. He showed his colors from the first, and spoke fearlessly on the subject in his lectures, but his method was the reverse of theirs, affirmative not negative; he knew his office and followed his genius. He said, “I have quite other slaves to free than those negroes, to wit, imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts.”
  But after the defection of Daniel Webster from the cause of Freedom, when the strife became more earnest, and Slavery more aggressive, he did important service as a free-lance against it. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, he spoke of it in public to his hearers as “a law which every one of you will break on the earliest occasion; a law which no man can abet or obey without forfeiting the name of a gentleman.” [back]
Note 2. He was impatient when men false to the cause of Liberty in their own day praised, in Fourth of July orations, the Fathers of the Republic for their sacrifices on her behalf. He wrote in his journal: “The Americans by means of this lust of extending their territory, and through this nefarious means of compromising with Slavery, enlarge the land but dwarf the men.”
  But when the evil was brought to his own door and by the law of the land any householder who gave help or furtherance to the poor fugitive was a felon, Mr. Emerson felt that men of honor could not leave remedy for this wrong and disgrace to geologic time, but that active help was due from them. [back]

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