James and Mary Ford, eds. Every Day in the Year. 1902.

May 30

Decoration Day

By Eugene Fitch Ware (“Ironquill”) (1841–1911)

Recited at Arlington

IT is needless I should tell you

Of the history of Sumter,

How the chorus of the cannon shook its walls;

How the scattered navies gathered,

How the iron-ranked battalions

Rose responsive to the country’s urgent calls.

It is needless that I tell you,

For the time is still too recent,

How was heard the first vindictive cannon’s peal;

How two brothers stopped debating

On a sad, unsettled question,

And referred it to the arbitrating steel.

It is needless that I tell you

Of the somber days that followed—

Stormy days that in such slow succession ran;

Of Antietam, Chickamauga,

Gettysburg, and Murfreesboro’,

Or the rocky, cannon-shaken Rapidan.

It was not a war of conquest:

It was fought to save the Union,

It was waged for an idea of the right;

And the graves so widely scattered

Show how fruitful an idea

In peace, or war, may be in moral might.

Brief indeed the war had lasted

Had it raged in hope of plunder;

Briefer still, had glory been its only aim.

But its long and sad duration

And the graves it has bequeathed us,

Other motives, other principles proclaim.

Need I mention this idea,

The invincible idea,

That seemed to hold and save the Nation’s life;

That, resistless and unblenching,

Undisheartened by disaster,

Seemed the soul and inspiration of the strife?

This idea was of freedom—

Was that men should all stand equal,

That the world was interested in the fight;

That the present and the future

Were electors who had chosen

Us to argue and decide the case aright.

And the theories of freedom

Those now silent bugles uttered

Will reverberate with ever-glowing tones;

They can never be forgotten,

But will work among the nations

Till they sweep the world of shackles and of thrones.

It is meet that we do honor

To the comrades who have fallen—

Meet that we the sadly woven garlands twine.

Where they buried lie is sacred,

Whether ’neath the Northern marble

Or beneath the Southern cypress-tree or pine.

Nations are the same as children—

Always living in the future,

Living in their aspirations and their hopes;

Picturing some future greatness,

Reaching forth for future prizes,

With a wish for higher aims and grander scopes.

It is better for the people

That they reach for an ideal,

That they give their future nations better lives;

Though the standard be unreal,

Though the hope meets no fulfillment,

Though the fact in empty dreams alone survives.

If the people rest contented

With the good they have accomplished,

Then they retrograde and slowly sink away.

Give a nation an ideal,

Some grand, noble, central project;

It, like adamant, refuses to decay.

’Tis the duty of the poet,

’Tis the duty of the statesman,

To inspire a nation’s life with nobler aims;

And dishonor will o’ershadow

Him who dares not, or who falsely

His immortal-fruited mission misproclaims.