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The Men Of Old

John Greenleaf Whittier 1807 (Haverhill) – 1892 (Hampton Falls)



WELL speed thy mission, bold Iconoclast!
Yet all unworthy of its trust thou art,
If, with dry eye, and cold, unloving heart,
Thou tread'st the solemn Pantheon of the Past,
By the great Future's dazzling hope made blind
To all the beauty, power, and truth behind.
Not without reverent awe shouldst thou put by
The cypress branches and the amaranth blooms,
Where, with clasped hands of prayer, upon their tombs
The effigies of old confessors lie,
God's witnesses; the voices of His will,
Heard in the slow march of the centuries still!
Such were the men at whose rebuking frown,
Dark with God's wrath, the tyrant's knee went down;
Such from the terrors of the guilty drew
The vassal's freedom and the poor man's due.
St. Anselm (may he rest forevermore
In Heaven's sweet peace!) forbade, of old, the sale
Of men as slaves, and from the sacred pale
Hurled the Northumbrian buyers of the poor.
To ransom souls from bonds and evil fate
St. Ambrose melted down the sacred plate, —
Image of saint, the chalice, and the pix,
Crosses of gold, and silver candlesticks.
'Man is worth more than temples!' he replied
To such as came his holy work to chide.
And brave Cesarius, stripping altars bare,
And coining from the Abbey's golden hoard
The captive's freedom, answered to the prayer
Or threat of those whose fierce zeal for the Lord
Stifled their love of man, — 'An earthen dish
The last sad supper of the Master bore:
Most miserable sinners! do ye wish
More than your Lord, and grudge His dying poor
What your own pride and not His need requires?
Souls, than these shining gauds, He values more;
Mercy, not sacrifice, His heart desires!'
O faithful worthies! resting far behind
In your dark ages, since ye fell asleep,
Much has been done for truth and human-kind;
Shadows are scattered wherein ye groped blind;
Man claims his birthright, freer pulses leap
Through peoples driven in your day like sheep;
Yet, like your own, our age's sphere of light,
Though widening still, is walled around by night;
With slow, reluctant eye, the Church has read,
Skeptic at heart, the lessons of its Head;
Counting, too oft, its living members less
Than the wall's garnish and the pulpit's dress;
World-moving zeal with power to bless and feed
Life's fainting pilgrims, to their utter need,
Instead of bread, holds out the stone of creed;
Sect builds and worships where its wealth and pride
And vanity stand shrined and deified,
Careless that in the shadow of its walls
God's living temple into ruin falls.
We need, methinks, the prophet-hero still,
Saints true of life, and martyrs strong of will,
To tread the land, even now, as Xavier trod
The streets of God, barefoot, with his bell,
Proclaiming freedom in the name of God,
And startling tyrants with the fear of hell!
Soft words, smooth prophecies, are doubtless well;
But to rebuke the age's popular crime,
We need the souls of fire, the hearts of that old time!

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Submitted on May 13, 2011

2:37 min read
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John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier was an influential American Quaker poet and ardent advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States. more…

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