Ode To France

A poem by James Russell Lowell

FEBRUARY, 1848


I

As, flake by flake, the beetling avalanches
Build up their imminent crags of noiseless snow,
Till some chance thrill the loosened ruin launches
In unwarned havoc on the roofs below,
So grew and gathered through the silent years
The madness of a People, wrong by wrong.
There seemed no strength in the dumb toiler's tears,
No strength in suffering; but the Past was strong:
The brute despair of trampled centuries
Leaped up with one hoarse yell and snapped its bands,
Groped for its right with horny, callous hands,
And stared around for God with bloodshot eyes.
What wonder if those palms were all too hard
For nice distinctions,--if that mænad throng--
They whose thick atmosphere no bard
Had shivered with the lightning of his song,
Brutes with the memories and desires of men,
Whose chronicles were writ with iron pen,
In the crooked shoulder and the forehead low,
Set wrong to balance wrong,
And physicked woe with woe?


II

They did as they were taught; not theirs the blame,
If men who scattered firebrands reaped the flame:
They trampled Peace beneath their savage feet,
And by her golden tresses drew
Mercy along the pavement of the street.
O Freedom! Freedom! is thy morning-dew
So gory red? Alas, thy light had ne'er
Shone in upon the chaos of their lair!
They reared to thee such symbol as they knew,
And worshipped it with flame and blood,
A Vengeance, axe in hand, that stood
Holding a tyrant's head up by the clotted hair.


III

What wrongs the Oppressor suffered, these we know;
These have found piteous voice in song and prose;
But for the Oppressed, their darkness and their woe,
Their grinding centuries,--what Muse had those?
Though hall and palace had nor eyes nor ears,
Hardening a people's heart to senseless stone,
Thou knewest them, O Earth, that drank their tears,
O Heaven, that heard their inarticulate moan!
They noted down their fetters, link by link;
Coarse was the hand that scrawled, and red the ink;
Rude was their score, as suits unlettered men,
Notched with a headsman's axe upon a block:
What marvel if, when came the avenging shock,
'Twas Atë, not Urania, held the pen?


IV

With eye averted, and an anguished frown,
Loathingly glides the Muse through scenes of strife,
Where, like the heart of Vengeance up and down,
Throbs in its framework the blood-muffled knife;
Slow are the steps of Freedom, but her feet
Turn never backward: hers no bloody glare;
Her light is calm, and innocent, and sweet,
And where it enters there is no despair:
Not first on palace and cathedral spire
Quivers and gleams that unconsuming fire;
While these stand black against her morning skies,
The peasant sees it leap from peak to peak
Along his hills; the craftsman's burning eyes
Own with cool tears its influence mother-meek;
It lights the poet's heart up like a star;
Ah! while the tyrant deemed it still afar,
And twined with golden threads his futile snare.
That swift, convicting glow all round him ran;
'Twas close beside him there,
Sunrise whose Memnon is the soul of man.


V

O Broker-King, is this thy wisdom's fruit?
A dynasty plucked out as 't were a weed
Grown rankly in a night, that leaves no seed!
Could eighteen years strike down no deeper root?
But now thy vulture eye was turned on Spain;
A shout from Paris, and thy crown falls off,
Thy race has ceased to reign,
And thou become a fugitive and scoff:
Slippery the feet that mount by stairs of gold,
And weakest of all fences one of steel;
Go and keep school again like him of old,
The Syracusan tyrant;--thou mayst feel
Royal amid a birch-swayed commonweal!


VI

Not long can he be ruler who allows
His time to run before him; thou wast naught
Soon as the strip of gold about thy brows
Was no more emblem of the People's thought:
Vain were thy bayonets against the foe
Thou hadst to cope with; thou didst wage
War not with Frenchmen merely;--no,
Thy strife was with the Spirit of the Age,
The invisible Spirit whose first breath divine
Scattered thy frail endeavor,
And, like poor last year's leaves, whirled thee and thine
Into the Dark forever!


VII

Is here no triumph? Nay, what though
The yellow blood of Trade meanwhile should pour
Along its arteries a shrunken flow,
And the idle canvas droop around the shore?
These do not make a state,
Nor keep it great;
I think God made
The earth for man, not trade;
And where each humblest human creature
Can stand, no more suspicious or afraid,
Erect and kingly in his right of nature,
To heaven and earth knit with harmonious ties,--
Where I behold the exultation
Of manhood glowing in those eyes
That had been dark for ages,
Or only lit with bestial loves and rages,
There I behold a Nation:
The France which lies
Between the Pyrenees and Rhine
Is the least part of France;
I see her rather in the soul whose shine
Burns through the craftsman's grimy countenance,
In the new energy divine
Of Toil's enfranchised glance.


VIII

And if it be a dream,
If the great Future be the little Past
'Neath a new mask, which drops and shows at last
The same weird, mocking face to balk and blast,
Yet, Muse, a gladder measure suits the theme,
And the Tyrtæan harp
Loves notes more resolute and sharp,
Throbbing, as throbs the bosom, hot and fast:
Such visions are of morning,
Theirs is no vague forewarning,
The dreams which nations dream come true.
And shape the world anew;
If this be a sleep,
Make it long, make it deep,
O Father, who-sendest the harvests men reap!
While Labor so sleepeth,
His sorrow is gone,
No longer he weepeth,
But smileth and steepeth
His thoughts in the dawn;
He heareth Hope yonder
Rain, lark-like, her fancies,
His dreaming hands wander
Mid heart's-ease and pansies;
''Tis a dream! 'Tis a vision!'
Shrieks Mammon aghast;
'The day's broad derision
Will chase it at last;
Ye are mad, ye have taken
A slumbering kraken
For firm land of the Past!'
Ah! if he awaken,
God shield us all then,
If this dream rudely shaken
Shall cheat him again!


IX

Since first I heard our Northwind blow,
Since first I saw Atlantic throw
On our grim rocks his thunderous snow,
I loved thee, Freedom; as a boy
The rattle of thy shield at Marathon
Did with a Grecian joy
Through all my pulses run;
But I have learned to love thee now
Without the helm upon thy gleaming brow,
A maiden mild and undefiled
Like her who bore the world's redeeming child;
And surely never did thine altars glance
With purer fires than now in France;
While, in their clear white flashes,
Wrong's shadow, backward cast,
Waves cowering o'er the ashes
Of the dead, blaspheming Past,
O'er the shapes of fallen giants,
His own unburied brood,
Whose dead hands clench defiance
At the overpowering Good:
And down the happy future runs a flood
Of prophesying light;
It shows an Earth no longer stained with blood,
Blossom and fruit where now we see the bud
Of Brotherhood and Right.

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