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John Greenleaf Whittier's "Sumner"

The following is the complete text of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Sumner." Our presentation of this poem comes from The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier (1894). The various books, short stories and poems we offer are presented free of charge with absolutely no advertising as a public service from Internet Accuracy Project.


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A Collection of his Short Poems
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"The Meeting"
"The Merrimac"
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"Our Master"
"An Outdoor Reception"
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"The Preacher"
"The Quaker Alumni"
"Questions of Life"
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"The Singer"
"The Slave Ships"
"A Summer Pilgrimage"
"The Swan Song of Parson Avery"
"To My Old Schoolmaster"
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To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.

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NOTE: We try to present these classic literary works as they originally appeared in print. As such, they sometimes contain adult themes, offensive language, typographical errors, and often utilize unconventional, older, obsolete or intentionally incorrect spelling and/or punctuation conventions.


"Sumner" by John Greenleaf Whittier

SUMNER

BY JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER

"I am not one who has disgraced beauty of sentiment by deformity of conduct, or the maxims of a freeman by the actions of a slave; but, by the grace of God, I have kept my life unsullied."--MILTON'S Defence of the People of England.


O Mother State! the winds of March
Blew chill o'er Auburn's Field of God,
Where, slow, beneath a leaden arch
Of sky, thy mourning children trod.

And now, with all thy woods in leaf,
Thy fields in flower, beside thy dead
Thou sittest, in thy robes of grief,
A Rachel yet uncomforted!

And once again the organ swells,
Once more the flag is half-way hung,
And yet again the mournful bells
In all thy steeple-towers are rung.

And I, obedient to thy will,
Have come a simple wreath to lay,
Superfluous, on a grave that still
Is sweet with all the flowers of May.

I take, with awe, the task assigned;
It may be that my friend might miss,
In his new sphere of heart and mind,
Some token from my hand in this.

By many a tender memory moved,
Along the past my thought I send;
The record of the cause he loved
Is the best record of its friend.

No trumpet sounded in his ear,
He saw not Sinai's cloud and flame,
But never yet to Hebrew seer
A clearer voice of duty came.

God said: "Break thou these yokes; undo
These heavy burdens. I ordain
A work to last thy whole life through,
A ministry of strife and pain.

"Forego thy dreams of lettered ease,
Put thou the scholar's promise by,
The rights of man are more than these."
He heard, and answered: "Here am I!"

He set his face against the blast,
His feet against the flinty shard,
Till the hard service grew, at last,
Its own exceeding great reward.

Lifted like Saul's above the crowd,
Upon his kingly forehead fell
The first sharp bolt of Slavery's cloud,
Launched at the truth he urged so well.

Ah! never yet, at rack or stake,
Was sorer loss made Freedom's gain,
Than his, who suffered for her sake
The beak-torn Titan's lingering pain!

The fixed star of his faith, through all
Loss, doubt, and peril, shone the same;
As through a night of storm, some tall,
Strong lighthouse lifts its steady flame.

Beyond the dust and smoke he saw
The sheaves of Freedom's large increase,
The holy fanes of equal law,
The New Jerusalem of peace.

The weak might fear, the worldling mock,
The faint and blind of heart regret;
All knew at last th' eternal rock
On which his forward feet were set.

The subtlest scheme of compromise
Was folly to his purpose bold;
The strongest mesh of party lies
Weak to the simplest truth he told.

One language held his heart and lip,
Straight onward to his goal he trod,
And proved the highest statesmanship
Obedience to the voice of God.

No wail was in his voice,--none heard,
When treason's storm-cloud blackest grew,
The weakness of a doubtful word;
His duty, and the end, he knew.

The first to smite, the first to spare;
When once the hostile ensigns fell,
He stretched out hands of generous care
To lift the foe he fought so well.

For there was nothing base or small
Or craven in his soul's broad plan;
Forgiving all things personal,
He hated only wrong to man.

The old traditions of his State,
The memories of her great and good,
Took from his life a fresher date,
And in himself embodied stood.

How felt the greed of gold and place,
The venal crew that schemed and planned,
The fine scorn of that haughty face,
The spurning of that bribeless hand!

If than Rome's tribunes statelier
He wore his senatorial robe,
His lofty port was all for her,
The one dear spot on all the globe.

If to the master's plea he gave
The vast contempt his manhood felt,
He saw a brother in the slave,--
With man as equal man he dealt.

Proud was he? If his presence kept
Its grandeur wheresoe'er he trod,
As if from Plutarch's gallery stepped
The hero and the demigod,

None failed, at least, to reach his ear,
Nor want nor woe appealed in vain;
The homesick soldier knew his cheer,
And blessed him from his ward of pain.

Safely his dearest friends may own
The slight defects he never hid,
The surface-blemish in the stone
Of the tall, stately pyramid.

Suffice it that he never brought
His conscience to the public mart;
But lived himself the truth he taught,
White-souled, clean-handed, pure of heart.

What if he felt the natural pride
Of power in noble use, too true
With thin humilities to hide
The work he did, the lore he knew?

Was he not just? Was any wronged
By that assured self-estimate?
He took but what to him belonged,
Unenvious of another's state.

Well might he heed the words he spake,
And scan with care the written page
Through which he still shall warm and wake
The hearts of men from age to age.

Ah! who shall blame him now because
He solaced thus his hours of pain!
Should not the o'erworn thresher pause,
And hold to light his golden grain?

No sense of humor dropped its oil
On the hard ways his purpose went;
Small play of fancy lightened toil;
He spake alone the thing he meant.

He loved his books, the Art that hints
A beauty veiled behind its own,
The graver's line, the pencil's tints,
The chisel's shape evoked from stone.

He cherished, void of selfish ends,
The social courtesies that bless
And sweeten life, and loved his friends
With most unworldly tenderness.

But still his tired eyes rarely learned
The glad relief by Nature brought;
Her mountain ranges never turned
His current of persistent thought.

The sea rolled chorus to his speech
Three-banked like Latium's tall trireme,
With laboring oars; the grove and beach
Were Forum and the Academe.

The sensuous joy from all things fair
His strenuous bent of soul repressed,
And left from youth to silvered hair
Few hours for pleasure, none for rest.

For all his life was poor without,
O Nature, make the last amends!
Train all thy flowers his grave about,
And make thy singing-birds his friends!

Revive again, thou summer rain,
The broken turf upon his bed!
Breathe, summer wind, thy tenderest strain
Of low, sweet music overhead!

With calm and beauty symbolize
The peace which follows long annoy,
And lend our earth-bent, mourning eyes,
Some hint of his diviner joy.

For safe with right and truth he is,
As God lives he must live alway;
There is no end for souls like his,
No night for children of the day!

Nor cant nor poor solicitudes
Made weak his life's great argument;
Small leisure his for frames and moods
Who followed Duty where she went.

The broad, fair fields of God he saw
Beyond the bigot's narrow bound;
The truths he moulded into law
In Christ's beatitudes he found.

His state-craft was the Golden Rule,
His right of vote a sacred trust;
Clear, over threat and ridicule,
All heard his challenge: "Is it just?"

And when the hour supreme had come,
Not for himself a thought he gave;
In that last pang of martyrdom,
His care was for the half-freed slave.

Not vainly dusky hands upbore,
In prayer, the passing soul to heaven
Whose mercy to His suffering poor
Was service to the Master given.

Long shall the good State's annals tell,
Her children's children long be taught,
How, praised or blamed, he guarded well
The trust he neither shunned nor sought.

If for one moment turned thy face,
O Mother, from thy son, not long
He waited calmly in his place
The sure remorse which follows wrong.

Forgiven be the State he loved
The one brief lapse, the single blot;
Forgotten be the stain removed,
Her righted record shows it not!

The lifted sword above her shield
With jealous care shall guard his fame;
The pine-tree on her ancient field
To all the winds shall speak his name.

The marble image of her son
Her loving hands shall yearly crown,
And from her pictured Pantheon
His grand, majestic face look down.

O State so passing rich before,
Who now shall doubt thy highest claim?
The world that counts thy jewels o'er
Shall longest pause at Sumner's name!


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