Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
II. May-Day and Other Pieces
Boston Hymn
Read in Music Hall, January 1, 1863

THE WORD 1 of the Lord by night
To the watching Pilgrims came,
As they sat by the seaside,
And filled their hearts with flame.
God said, I am tired of kings,        5
I suffer them no more;
Up to my ear the morning brings
The outrage of the poor.
Think ye I made this ball
A field of havoc and war,        10
Where tyrants great and tyrants small
Might harry the weak and poor?
My angel,—his name is Freedom,—
Choose him to be your king;
He shall cut pathways east and west        15
And fend you with his wing.
Lo! I uncover the land
Which I hid of old time in the West,
As the sculptor uncovers the statue
When he has wrought his best;        20
I show Columbia, of the rocks
Which dip their foot in the seas
And soar to the air-borne flocks
Of clouds and the boreal fleece.
I will divide my goods;        25
Call in the wretch and slave:
None shall rule but the humble,
And none but Toil shall have.
I will have never a noble,
No lineage counted great;        30
Fishers and choppers and ploughmen
Shall constitute a state.
Go, cut down trees in the forest
And trim the straightest boughs;
Cut down trees in the forest        35
And build me a wooden house.
Call the people together,
The young men and the sires,
The digger in the harvest-field,
Hireling and him that hires;        40
And here in a pine state-house
They shall choose men to rule
In every needful faculty,
In church and state and school.
Lo, now! if these poor men        45
Can govern the land and sea
And make just laws below the sun,
As planets faithful be.
And ye shall succor men;
’T is nobleness to serve;        50
Help them who cannot help again:
Beware from right to swerve.
I break your bonds and masterships,
And I unchain the slave:
Free be his heart and hand henceforth        55
As wind and wandering wave.
I cause from every creature
His proper good to flow:
As much as he is and doeth,
So much he shall bestow.        60
But, laying hands on another
To coin his labor and sweat,
He goes in pawn to his victim
For eternal years in debt.
To-day unbind the captive,        65
So only are ye unbound;
Lift up a people from the dust,
Trump of their rescue, sound!
Pay ransom to the owner
And fill the bag to the brim. 2        70
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.
O North! give him beauty for rags,
And honor, O South! for his shame;
Nevada! coin thy golden crags        75
With Freedom’s image and name.
Up! and the dusky race
That sat in darkness long,—
Be swift their feet as antelopes,
And as behemoth strong.        80
Come, East and West and North,
By races, as snow-flakes,
And carry my purpose forth,
Which neither halts nor shakes.
My will fulfilled shall be,        85
For, in daylight or in dark,
My thunderbolt has eyes to see
His way home to the mark.
Note 1. In January, 1862, in an address called “American Civilization” given before the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Mr. Emerson had earnestly urged the emancipation of the slaves. On the first day of the next year, when President Lincoln’s Proclamation went into effect, Mr. Emerson read this poem at a great celebration of the event in Boston. It was published in the Atlantic Monthly for February, 1863. [back]
Note 2. In an address before the Anti-Slavery Society in New York in 1855, Mr. Emerson had urged the buying by the people of the whole slave property of the South:—
  “I say, Buy! never conceding the right of the planter to own, but acknowledging the calamity of his position, and willing to bear a countryman’s share in relieving him, and because it is the only practical course and is innocent…. We shall one day bring the States shoulder to shoulder, and the citizens man to man, to exterminate slavery. It was said a little while ago that it would cost a thousand or twelve hundred millions, now it is said it would cost two thousand millions; such is the enhancement of property. Well, was there ever any contribution that was so enthusiastically paid as this will be? The United States will be brought to give every inch of their public lands for a purpose like this. Every State will contribute its surplus revenue. Every man will bear his part. We will have a chimney tax. We will give up our coaches and wine and watches. The church will melt her plate. The father of his country shall wait, well pleased, a little longer for his monument;—Franklin will wait for his; the Pilgrim Fathers for theirs; and the patient Columbus, who waited all his mortality for justice, shall wait a part of immortality also…. The rich shall give of their riches; the merchants of their commerce; the mechanics of their strength; the needlewomen will give, and children can have a Cent Society. If, really, the thing could come to a negotiation and a price were named, I do not think that any price, founded upon an estimate that figures could fairly represent, would be unmanageable. Every man in this land would give a week’s work to dig away this accursed mountain of slavery, and force it forever out of the world.” [back]

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