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And the Greatest of These Is War

James Weldon Johnson 1871 (Jacksonville) – 1938 (Wiscasset)



Around the council-board of Hell, with Satan at their head,
The Three Great Scourges of humanity sat.
Gaunt Famine, with hollow cheek and voice, arose and spoke,—
'O, Prince, I have stalked the earth,
And my victims by ten thousands I have slain,
I have smitten old and young.
Mouths of the helpless old moaning for bread, I have filled with dust;
And I have laughed to see a crying babe tug at the shriveling breast
Of its mother, dead and cold.
I have heard the cries and prayers of men go up to a tearless sky,
And fall back upon an earth of ashes;
But, heedless, I have gone on with my work.
'Tis thus, O, Prince, that I have scourged mankind.'
And Satan nodded his head.

Pale Pestilence, with stenchful breath, then spoke and said, —
'Great Prince, my brother, Famine, attacks the poor.
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He is most terrible against the helpless and the old.
But I have made a charnel-house of the mightiest cities of men.
When I strike, neither their stores of gold or of grain avail.
With a breath I lay low their strongest, and wither up their fairest.
I come upon them without warning, lancing invisible death.
From me they flee with eyes and mouths distended;
I poison the air for which they gasp, and I strike them down fleeing.
'Tis thus, great Prince, that I have scourged mankind.'
And Satan nodded his head.

Then the red monster, War, rose up and spoke,—
His blood-shot eyes glared 'round him, and his thundering voice
Echoed through the murky vaults of Hell. —
'O, mighty Prince, my brothers, Famine and Pestilence,
Have slain their thousands and ten thousands,— true;
But the greater their victories have been,
The more have they wakened in Man's breast
The God-like attributes of sympathy, of brotherhood and love
And made of him a searcher after wisdom.
But I arouse in Man the demon and the brute,
I plant black hatred in his heart and red revenge.
From the summit of fifty thousand years of upward climb
I haul him down to the level of the start, back to the wolf.
I give him claws.
I set his teeth into his brother's throat.
I make him drunk with his brother's blood.
And I laugh ho! ho! while he destroys himself.
O, mighty Prince, not only do I slay,
But I draw Man hellward.'

And Satan smiled, stretched out his hand, and said, —
'O War, of all the scourges of humanity, I crown you chief.'
And Hell rang with the acclamation of the Fiends.

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Submitted on May 13, 2011

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James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was an American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and early civil rights activist. Johnson is best remembered for his leadership within the NAACP as well as for his writing, which includes novels, poems, and anthologies. He was also the first African-American professor at New York University. Later in life he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University. more…

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