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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Sword-Bearer

By George Henry Boker (1823–1890)

From ‘Poems of the War’

March 8th, 1862

BRAVE Morris saw the day was lost;

For nothing now remained,

On the wrecked and sinking Cumberland,

But to save the flag unstained.

So he swore an oath in the sight of Heaven,—

If he kept it the world can tell:—

“Before I strike to a rebel flag,

I’ll sink to the gates of hell!

“Here, take my sword; ’tis in my way;

I shall trip o’er the useless steel;

For I’ll meet the lot that falls to all

With my shoulder at the wheel.”

So the little negro took the sword;

And oh, with what reverent care,

Following his master step by step,

He bore it here and there!

A thought had crept through his sluggish brain,

And shone in his dusky face,

That somehow—he could not tell just how—

’Twas the sword of his trampled race.

And as Morris, great with his lion heart,

Rushed onward from gun to gun,

The little negro slid after him,

Like a shadow in the sun.

But something of pomp and of curious pride

The sable creature wore,

Which at any time but a time like that

Would have made the ship’s crew roar.

Over the wounded, dying, and dead,

Like an usher of the rod,

The black page, full of his mighty trust,

With dainty caution trod.

No heed he gave to the flying ball,

No heed to the bursting shell;

His duty was something more than life,

And he strove to do it well.

Down, with our starry flag apeak,

In the whirling sea we sank,

And captain and crew and the sword-bearer

Were washed from the bloody plank.

They picked us up from the hungry waves;—

Alas! not all!—“And where,

Where is the faithful negro lad?”—

“Back oars! avast! look there!”

We looked; and, as Heaven may save my soul,

I pledge you a sailor’s word,

There, fathoms deep in the sea, he lay,

Still grasping the master’s sword!

We drew him out; and many an hour

We wrought with his rigid form,

Ere the almost smothered spark of life

By slow degrees grew warm.

The first dull glance that his eyeballs rolled

Was down towards his shrunken hand;

And he smiled, and closed his eyes again

As they fell on the rescued brand.

And no one touched the sacred sword,

Till at length, when Morris came,

The little negro stretched it out,

With his eager eyes aflame.

And if Morris wrung the poor boy’s hand,

And his words seemed hard to speak,

And tears ran down his manly cheeks,

What tongue shall call him weak?