The Century and The Nation.

From: The Bird and the Bell with Other Poems (1875)
Author: Christopher Pearse Cranch
Published: Osgood and Company 1875 Boston



AS when we unbar the windows of the night,
And the great morning from her orient founts
Of silent fire, with wave on wave of light
And color, floods the earth and sky, and mounts
Through heights of pearly space, nor heeds, nor counts
Her triumphs, as she inundates the strands
Of continents, with joy and life on seas and lands;

So shines our century, as the years unfold
The events and thoughts that claim the poet’s lyre;
Not to lament a vanished age of gold,
But rather greet the time, whose broad sun-fire
Warms into life the world’s supreme desire
Traced through the misty hollows of the night,
Half hid, but patient still to take the advancing light.

Still art thou young, thou latest, loveliest age,
Thou fairest, healthiest daughter born of Time!
Might I but measure with my narrow gauge
Some fragment of thy height, fain would my rhyme
Stray through thy sunlit mountain-paths, and climb
To see the falsehoods of the centuries gone
Troop to their graves like ghosts, while thou exultest on!

O, broad and warm o’er hill and seagirt isle,
Thy morning splendors still illume the sky!
The hoary cliffs, the pines and cedars, smile
With rosy flushes. Happy valleys lie
Long-shadowed. Domes and steeples catch thine eye,
And smoke upcurls, and windows flash afar
O’er dew-wet meadow-farms, each town a golden star.

Thou shinest over fields of waving grain,
And open barns, and tottering harvest-carts;
O’er long-drawn iron track and flying train;
O’er roar of steamers and of crowded marts;
O’er clear-lit halls of sciences and arts;
Where factory-maidens tend the whirling spool;
Or where small voices hum in the hustled village school.

Thy presence breathes, an influence calm and pure,
Here, where these interlacing elms surround
The walls our fathers founded to insure
The culture of the States; a hallowed ground,
Through whose green academic shades resound
The echoing footsteps of two hundred years;
And memory linked with hope instructs, inspires, and cheers.

By school and printing-press and message-wire;
By ringing anvil and by furnace-blast;
By dragon steeds of iron, winged with fire;
By flying ocean-shuttles weaving fast
The old and new, the present and the past;
By strong telluric force; by skill and art,
The world responds to thee, through brain and throbbing heart.

The strength of all the past is thine; the blood
Of countless years thy intellectual light;
The races of the world thy tidal flood.
Thou rollest on with ceaseless waves of bright,
Resistless influence, turning wrong to right,
Error to truth, treason to loyal faith,
Despair to winged hope, creating life from death.

We scarce may count the triumphs thou hast won,
So wide the treasury where thy wealth is stored.
And though thy years have more than half-way run
In time’s great sandglass, what thou yet dost hoard
For future use, who knows? What unexplored
And unimagined powers shall yet be born;
What glorious sons of light, what daughters of the morn!

Thine are the years when Man asserts his claims,—
The birthright ages have so long denied,
The primogeniture of rights and aims
That vitalize the races; thine the tide
That floats Humanity’s tost bark o’er wide
And dreary seas, full-sailed, with wealth untold
Of long-imprisoned hopes,—O, richer far than gold!

And thine the central throne whence Science turns
To test, with sceptre of eternal law,
Through space, through spirit, every ray that burns
In stars and star-like souls; and finds no flaw,
No discord, as with joy and reverent awe
Crowning their toil, her patient servants climb
The illumined peaks to read the unfolding scrolls of time.

We turn to gaze with wonder at the ghosts
Whose glamour filled the ages that have flown:
The sway of priests and kings; the embattled hosts
That burned a blooming land, or built a throne;
The terrors of a church that sought to own
The souls it crushed; the inhuman laws that sealed
The founts of love, and stained a nation’s virgin shield;

The unmanly morals of a shameless stage;
The pomp of servile courts; the robber’s fame;
All false ideals of a faithless age;
AU pride of birth that mocked the people’s claim;
All superstitions, in whose withering flame
The faithful saint, the daring thinker gave
Their memories to all time, their bodies to the grave.

And yet all centuries that have leafed and flowered
Have dropped for us their foliage and their seed;
Each age, by all the ancestral ages dowered,
Must reap the wholesome grain, the poisonous weed,
Heir to the bloom and blight alike decreed,
Twin-born, the alternate play of will and fate,
That weaves the mystic web of all our mortal state.

How shall we build with those time-crusted stones,
Dropped from the ruined arches of the past?
How gather up the Old World’s discordant tones
In symphonies of hope? Or how recast
The creeds of darker centuries, and at last,
With faith as strong, develop, not invent,
A fresher heart and soul for our vast Continent?

The task is still before us, well begun
By souls whose fame is our delight and pride.
How our strong pioneers have toiled, and won
A hemisphere from chaos; how defied
The imperial thunderbolts that far and wide
Strewed other worlds with wrecks, but harmless fell,
Quenched hissing on our seas, let History proudly tell.

Our century bends to them with thanks and praise;
Nor less to those forefathers sad and stern,
Who left the poisoned air and godless ways
Of courts corrupt, in fresher lands to earn
The right to think. What though we sometimes turn,
In newer lights, their acrid saintliness
To jest,—they sowed the grain whose harvest we possess.

Theirs was the rough and bitter rind which wrapped
The priceless kernel planted on our shore.
The perishable shell, once all too apt
To style itself divine, survives no more.
The germ that in its stony nut it bore
Has sent abroad a thousand thriving shoots,
And filled our fields with trees, our homes with wholesome fruits.

What though no Grecian and no Gothic thought
Of beauty grew to column, dome, or spire;
No artist’s hand on stone or canvas wrought
Their heroes, saints, or nymphs; no lyric fire,
No music panting with divine desire,
In their plain Saxon lives expression found,—
They guarded the deep springs whose rills enrich our ground.

Within their theologic crypts they fed
The sacred fire that centuries have preserved;
The sanctities of home; the wholesome dread
Of lawless force; the trust that never swerved
In Providence divine; the faith that nerved
Their souls to found in freedom, knowledge, right,
A Commonwealth beyond the priest’s or tyrant’s blight;

That common conscience which to-day divides
The right and wrong, and scorns to compromise
‘Twixt Lucifer and God,—which so decides
For even-weighted justice, that no lies
Of false, fair-spoken sophists can surprise
Its steady vision and its honest aim,
Or tempt to pluck the fruit that breeds a nation’s shame;

That fearless love of truth which scorns the bait
Of party, sect, or clan; the open eye
And judgment, that can well afford to wait
The verdict of the future, can descry
Storms in the treacherous softness of the sky,
And through the windy watches of a night
Of tempest, note the path of sure-returning light;

That sweet humanity which feels that all
Who bear the name of woman and of man
Are one,—that none can languish, none can fall,
But somehow all must suffer from a ban
That darkens o’er the universal plan,
Yet strong as fate to oppose all force insane,
When mad rebellion roars to rend the state in twain;—

Such were the fruits whose seeds those Pilgrims brought
From far, o’er leagues of stormy winter brine.
And, as that ship which bore the Argonaut
Was set among the stars, and held divine,
So shall our classic Mayflower bloom and shine
Above a new-found Continent, with hope
That dims its earlier dream and clouded horoscope.

For dark and chill, America, the years
That saw thee clinging like a drifting waif
To rocks and barren shores, thy hopes and fears
Rising and sinking like thy tides, till, safe
And self-reliant, vainly did they chafe
Against thee, though thy doors beyond the sea
Were shut against their child and deaf to freedom’s plea.

Young Titan of the West! thy cradle swung
In storms. The wild winds were thy lullabies.
The cold contempt of kings around thee clung,
And gilded courtiers mocked thy infant cries;
Till, stronger grown, thee as their lawful prize
When they had roughly grasped, too late they learned
To fear the freeborn strength their parliaments had spurned.

But thou, for all their curses, gavest back
From battle-fields and councils, and the birth
Of free emprise, a light that cheered the black
Despair of millions whom both heaven and earth
Dowered with a blight; and on the sand and dearth
Of distant nations shed reviving dew,
And stirred the Old World’s heart with longings strange and new.

Nor this alone. The refuge thou hast been
For all the oppressed, a home for all who pined.
For them thy unwalled towns, thy prairies green,
Thy woods and streams; a charter unconfined;
The freedom of the fresh, untrammelled mind;—
All that can raise the vile and cheer the poor
Is theirs who come to seek a dwelling on thy shore.

Thou knew’st Columbia’s youth, O Mother Age,—
The struggling youth of her, thy youngest child,
Fated to brave the ready-handed rage
Of tyranny, till peace and plenty smiled.
Thine eyes beheld o’er lakes and forests wild
Her liberal sway, her culture broad and free,
Grow with her growing strength, till sea was linked to sea.

Thou knew’st the unsifted errors of that youth,—
Each blind, misguided impulse, crude and strong;
Each lapse from grand, ideal heights of truth
And justice. Thou hast known the long,
Dishonorable reign of force and wrong;
The struggles of the manhood of the time
Against the serpent-folds of compromise and crime;

Against that curse of bondage, in the mesh
Of whose unhallowed network rich and poor
Alike were snared; that cancer in the flesh
The blood of countless hearts alone could cure,—
The costly price of all that could insure
Freedom and strength and honor to the state,—
The duty scorned so long, the lesson learned so late.

The inhuman codes that chained the slave, and drowned
The prayers of freemen lifted in his cause;
The people’s mad delusions, cheered and crowned;
The mob’s brute anarchy,—the tiger claws
That tore to shreds the wise ancestral laws,—
Shall they not lie entombed where none may dare
Infect with their decay the nation’s purer air?

For thee, our Country, may the advancing age
Evolve a destiny more nobly vast
Than ever stained with blood the antique page
In blurred and lurid records of the past.
For thou the keys of treasure-chambers hast,
From older lands and darker times concealed;
Their past shall yield thee tools,—thy future is thy field.

So,—like a master bending o’er the strings
Of some grand instrument not yet in tune,
And tempering every chord until it rings
Harmonious as the woods and waves in June,
Or as the obedient titles beneath the moon,—
So bends the Century o’er this Western land,
And wooes its hidden soul with skilled and loving hand;

And, blending with its forces, hath unsealed
The invisible currents of diviner powers.
Here Science spreads her wealth, a boundless field;
Art, Learning, Culture, climb to fruits and flowers.
Time makes a thousand opening vistas ours;
A thousand varied triumphs of the soul
Glow on the nation’s path, and gild the historic scroll.

Behind us, like a thunder-storm o’erpast,
The clouds of battle fade. Peace smiles again:
The Northern winds have blown their trumpet-blast;
The Southern homes are answering to the strain
In other tones than those when death and pain
Shrieked their dread harvest-song of war, and reaped
The ghastly fields where sheaves of life in blood were heaped.

We stood amid the wrecks of fated schemes.
We stumbled over falsehood’s shattered stones.
Mid ruined columns and mid smoking beams
We toiled with firmer faith, and hope that owns
A future in whose miracles the tones
Amphion waked to build his fabled walls
Ring with the Century’s march where’er its footstep falls.

Yet good and evil from the older lands,
Mixed with our own, like mingled dross and gold,
Half shaped and half refined, are in our hands.
We wait the patient fingers that shall mould
The mass to strength and grace as yet untold
Amid the annals of republics past,—
The states that rose like suns to set in storms at last.

As once the sculptor on his statue wrought,
Till form to beauty grew,—from marble still
To breathing flesh, affection, motion, thought,—
So thou, O Mother-Age, shalt thou not fill
The measure of thy prophecies, until
The nation’s unresponsive life shall warm
And glow beneath thy touch, beyond the sensuous form;

Until the lands that stretch from east to west
Shall know the presence of a power beyond
All bribes or party-limits,—unexpressed,
Yet felt,—to which all noble souls respond,—
The touch and pressure of the girdling bond
Of conscience, that no flaw or stain degrade
The strong, symmetric limbs in youth and grace arrayed?

Thy future, of my Country, none may know;
Yet all the looms of Time are weaving swift
Thy destined warp and woof. Above, below,
The viewless threads forever change and shift,
The noiseless shuttles fly. The overdrift
Of fate moves on like air around the globe,
And blends the hues of storm and sunshine in thy robe.

‘T is thine to guard the wisdom that of old
Gave Rome her strength and Greece her art and grace;
The wealth that dims all treasuries of gold,
All glare of camps and courts; whose lights displace
Imperial pomp and splendor, and efface
The blazoned memories of the kings whose fame
Is but a puff of dust returning whence it came.

The time may come,—or is it but a hope
Of poets and enthusiasts born to dream,
But never prophesy, save when they ope
Their mouths Cassandra-like, while visions gleam
On sleeping worlds,—pale arctic lights that stream
And point their ghostly fingers to the pole,
Where shine the central constellations of the soul,—

A better time, perchance not ours to see,
Or see as some mirage in desert sands,
When, like the mighty Californian tree
By centuries matured, the nation stands
Close-grained and knit in nature’s vital bands,—
Each State a spreading branch of evergreen,
Close to the mother-trunk that towers aloft between;—

Perchance some future not so far away,
When all we earned in war in peace we keep;
When wealth and power shall dull no finer ray
Of holier orbs; when deep shall answer deep,
Not as when once the nation from her sleep
Of cheating dreams woke to the battle’s clang,
But souls to souls, as when the stars of morning sang.

Then shall the scholar and the teacher know
How fruitless learning is, which sows its seeds
On hearts where no deep sympathies can grow,
Caught from the prophet-souls, in words and deeds,
That from beneath the strata of dead creeds
Spring to the surface of the age,—the true
And universal faith,—though old, forever new.

Then party camps shall cease to be a mart
Where politicians ply their sordid tirade;
Then lowly worth and skill shall bear their part
In offices and councils; then, unswayed
By thirst for spoils, the honest man shall aid
The state without the enforcement of a rod
To sell his free-horn vote,—to cringe to a leader’s nod.

Then in the nation’s capitol no blush
Of shame shall tinge the brows of those who plight
The nation’s word to truth; no bribe shall hush
The voice of reason, and no conscience slight
The everlasting statute-book of right:
But they who for the people stand shall speak
The people’s wiser moods, nor selfish guerdons seek.

Then he who rules shall serve the country’s cause,
Nor bow his knightly crest when factions roar,
Nor waver in the breath of fitful flaws
Blown by his friends or foes; sound to the core
His heart of hearts,—though oft with travail sore
Perplexed and worn, still faithful at his post,
Waiting the grand results, though counting all the cost.

Two such we knew, when mad rebellion gashed
The nation’s limbs. One, helmsman on the bark
Of state, when thunders roared and lightnings flashed,
Steered us to port,—himself the assassin’s mark;
The other, in whose breast no less the spark
Of honor shone, your Bay State raised to bless,
To govern, and to guide through years of anxious stress.

Another too,—late fallen,—who in the van
For years amid contending forces stood
A fearless champion of the rights of man;
Who dared and suffered, as he stemmed the flood,
By storms assailed, by flattering ripples wooed;—
The statesman, scholar, sage. Let Harvard claim
His youth, your State his birth, the land his manhood’s fame.

The great, the good,—the living and the dead,
Who wrought their earnest lives into the grain
And texture of the age; the hearts that bled;
The brains that toiled for truth, not power or gain,—
These are the saviors of the race. In vain
The historian writes, in vain the poet sings,
Who knows not, as they pass, the time’s anointed kings!

Like glowing pictures in some missal old
Whose dulled and yellowed leaves in dust were laid,
The illumined pages start to life. Behold
The noble men and women who have made
The light of memories that can never fade;
The aroma of all history,—the bloom
And spice of time,—though dead, still fragrant in the tomb.

Such is the life the nation craves. For such
No toil, no aspiration can we waste.
O land of hope and promise! let no touch
Of that Promethean fire whose flame effaced
The gods of darkness pass unfelt, no taste
Of baser glory lure thee from the streams
Whose crystal springs are hid in thy prophetic dreams.

And as along thy darkening ocean strand
Thy Pharos-towers their punctual stars illume
At eventide; and ships from every land
Shun, toiling through the waves, the sailor’s doom,—
So turn thy living lamps upon the gloom,
Of storm-tost nations, that thy constant rays
May bless the world, and prove thy crowning fame and praise!

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