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

February 24

Ode to France

By James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)

  • Louis Philippe was the son of the infamous Duke of Orleans, who called himself “Egalite” and voted for the death of Louis XVI. In the deposition of Charles X. he became “King of the French,” a title which he took in order to express the fact that he was king, not by divine right, but by the will of the people. After a reign of eighteen years he succumbed to a demand on the part of the nation for reform in the government and abdicated on Feb. 24, 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 blood-shot 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?

    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.

    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 knowest 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,

    ’T was At, not Urania, held the pen?

    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;

    ’T was close beside him there,

    Sunrise whose Memnon is the soul of man.

    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!

    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!

    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.

    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! ’T is 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!

    Since first I heard our North wind 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 thy 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 run 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.