Freedom by James Russell Lowell




ARE we, then, wholly fallen? Can it be
That thou, North wind, that from thy mountains bringest
Their spirit to our plains, and thou, blue sea,
Who on our rocks thy wreaths of freedom flingest,
As on an altar,—can it be that ye
Have wasted inspiration on dead ears,
Dulled with the too familiar clank of chains?
The people’s heart is like a harp for years
Hung where some petrifying torrent rains
Its slow-incrusting spray: the stiffened chords
Faint and more faint make answer to the tears
That drip upon them: idle are all words;
Only a silver plectrum wakes the tone
Deep buried ‘neath that ever-thickening stone.

We are not free: Freedom doth not consist
In musing with our faces toward the Past,
While petty cares, and crawling interests, twist
Their spider-threads about us, which at last
Grow strong as iron chains, to cramp and bind
In formal narrowness heart, soul, and mind.
Freedom is recreated year by year,
In hearts wide open on the Godward side,
In souls calm-cadenced as the whirling sphere,
In minds that sway the future like a tide.
No broadest creeds can hold her, and no codes;
She chooses men for her august abodes,
Building them fair and fronting to the dawn;
Yet, when we seek her, we but find a few
Light footprints, leading morn-ward through the dew;
Before the day had risen, she was gone.
And we must follow: swiftly runs she on,
And, if our steps should slacken in despair,
Half turns her face, half smiles through golden hair,
Forever yielding, never wholly won:
That is not love which pauses in the race
Two close-linked names on fleeting sand to trace;
Freedom gained yesterday is no more ours;
Men gather but dry seeds of last year’s flowers:
Still there’s a charm ungranted, still a grace,
Still rosy Hope, the free, the unattained,
Makes us Possession’s languid hand let fall;
‘T is but a fragment of ourselves is gained,—
The Future brings us more, but never all.

And, as the finder of some unknown realm,
Mounting a summit whence he thinks to see
On either side of him the imprisoning sea,
Beholds, above the clouds that overwhelm
The valley-land, peak after snowy peak
Stretch out of sight, each like a silver helm
Beneath its plume of smoke, sublime and bleak,
And what he thought an island finds to be
A continent to him first oped,—so we
Can from our height of Freedom look along
A boundless future, ours if we be strong;
Or if we shrink, better remount our ships
And, fleeing God’s express design, trace back
The hero-freighted Mayflower’s prophet-track
To Europe, entering her blood-red eclipse.


Mr. Bright shows a commendable familiarity with the “Models of Elegant Composition,” for what he quotes is from a note. But I fear he thinks me too much of a Quaker. In my “Poems” there are some verses on “Freedom,” written in ‘48 or ‘49—I think ‘49. They ended thus as originally written. I left the verses out only because I did not think them good, not because I did not like the sentiment. I have strength of mind enough not to change a word, though I see how much better I might make it.—James Russell Lowell, Letter to C.E. Norton, June 29, 1859.

Therefore of Europe now I will not doubt,
For the broad foreheads surely win the day,
And brains, not crowns or soul-gelt armies, weigh
In Fortune’s scales: such dust she brushes out.
Most gracious are the conquests of the Word,
Gradual and silent as a flower’s increase,
And the best guide from old to new is Peace—
Yet, Freedom, thou canst sanctify the sword!

Bravely to do whate’er the time demands,
Whether with pen or sword, and not to flinch.
This is the task that fits heroic hands;
So are Truth’s boundaries widened inch by inch.
I do not love the Peace which tyrants make;
The calm she breeds let the sword’s lightning break!
It is the tyrants who have beaten out
Ploughshares and pruning-hooks to spears and swords,
And shall I pause and moralize and doubt?
Whose veins run water let him mete his words!
Each fetter sundered is the whole world’s gain!
And rather than humanity remain
A pearl beneath the feet of Austrian swine,
Welcome to me whatever breaks a chain.
That surely is of God, and all divine!

—James Russell Lowell.

This TML post courtesy of Democratic Thinker, with formatting and photo adjustments by TML.