American War Poetry, Part IV

More great Civil War poetry today, and it’s only fitting that these poems should come in pairs. John Greenleaf Whittier (1809-1892) and Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907) both invoke Nature, with a capital N, and both suggest that Nature may be telling us something about what God thinks of war.  But if Nature was indeed carrying a message to these two poets, they interpreted it rather differently.

The Battle Autumn of 1862

by John Greenleaf Whittier (1809-1892)

And, calm and patient, Nature keeps
Her ancient promise well,
Though o’er her bloom and greenness sweeps
The battle’s breath of hell.

And still she walks in golden hours
Through harvest-happy farms,
And still she wears her fruits and flowers
Like jewels on her arms.

What mean the gladness of the plain,
This joy of eve and morn,
The mirth that shakes the beard of grain
And yellow locks of corn?

Ah! eyes may well be full of tears,
And hearts with hate are hot;
But even-paced come round the years,
And Nature changes not.

She meets with smiles our bitter grief,
With songs our groans of pain;
She mocks with tint of flower and leaf
The war-field’s crimson stain.

Still, in the cannon’s pause, we hear
Her sweet thanksgiving-psalm;
Too near to God for doubt or fear,
She shares the eternal calm

She knows the seed lies safe below
The fires that blast and burn;
For all the tears of blood we sow
She waits the rich return.

She sees with clearer eye than ours
The good of suffering born,—
The hearts that blossom like her flowers
And ripen like her corn.

Oh, give to us, in times like these,
The vision of her eyes;
And make her fields and fruited trees
Our golden prophecies!

Oh, give to us her finer ear!
Above this stormy din,
We, too, would hear the bells of cheer
Ring peace and freedom in!


by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907)

The soft new grass is creeping o’er the graves
By the Potomac; and the crisp ground-flower
Lifts its blue cup to catch the passing shower;
The pine-cone ripens, and the long moss waves
Its tangled gonfalons above our braves.
Hark, what a burst of music from yon bower! —
The southern nightingale that, hour by hour,
In its melodious summer madness raves.
Ah, with what delicate touches of her hand,
With what sweet voices, Nature seeks to screen
The awful Crime of this distracted land, —
Sets her birds singing, while she spreads her green
Mantle of velvet where the Murdered lie,
As if to hide the horror from God’s eye.

2 Responses to “American War Poetry, Part IV”

  1. Mark Esswein Says:

    I’ll keep the first in mind as my family and I cross the Bull Run Mountains and Shenandoah Valley tomorrow. Maybe I’ll even print it out and have them read it… Nah! I can hear it now and it starts with “Dad!”

    The second, I assume is about Arlington and because I don’t know the poem, I have to ask: what is “The awful Crime of this distracted land,” Is it the crime of war or is it a Southern view of the siting of Arlington?

  2. Mark Esswein Says:

    Nevermind! I just reviewed the wikipedia reference on Aldrich. Had I known he was from Portsmouth, I never would have asked the question.

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