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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 Washers of the Shroud

By James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)

ALONG a river-side, I know not where,

I walked one night in mystery of dream;

A chill creeps curdling yet beneath my hair,

To think what chanced me by the pallid gleam

Of a moon-wraith that waned through haunted air.

Pale fireflies pulsed within the meadow-mist

Their halos, wavering thistle-downs of light;

The loon, that seemed to mock some goblin tryst,

Laughed; and the echoes, huddling in affright,

Like Odin’s hounds, fled baying down the night.

Then all was silent, till there smote my ear

A movement in the stream that checked my breath:

Was it the slow plash of a wading deer?

But something said, “This water is of Death!

The Sisters wash a shroud,—ill thing to hear!”

I, looking then, beheld the ancient Three

Known to the Greek’s and to the Northman’s creed,

That sit in shadow of the mystic Tree,

Still crooning, as they weave their endless brede,

One song: “Time was, Time is, and Time shall be.”

No wrinkled crones were they, as I had deemed,

But fair as yesterday, to-day, to-morrow,

To mourner, lover, poet, ever seemed;

Something too high for joy, too deep for sorrow,

Thrilled in their tones, and from their faces gleamed.

“Still men and nations reap as they have strawn,”—

So sang they, working at their task the while;

“The fatal raiment must be cleansed ere dawn:

For Austria? Italy? the Sea-Queen’s isle?

O’er what quenched grandeur must our shroud be drawn?

“Or is it for a younger, fairer corse,

That gathered States like children round his knees,

That tamed the wave to be his posting-horse,

Feller of forests, linker of the seas,

Bridge-builder, hammerer, youngest son of Thor’s?

“What make we, murmur’st thou? and what are we?

When empires must be wound, we bring the shroud,

The time-old web of the implacable Three:

Is it too coarse for him, the young and proud?

Earth’s mightiest deigned to wear it,—why not he?”

“Is there no hope?” I moaned, “so strong, so fair!

Our Fowler whose proud bird would brook erewhile

No rival’s swoop in all our western air!

Gather the ravens, then, in funeral file

For him, life’s morn yet golden in his hair?

“Leave me not hopeless, ye unpitying dames!

I see, half seeing. Tell me, ye who scanned

The stars, Earth’s elders, still must noblest aims

Be traced upon oblivious ocean sands?

Must Hesper join the wailing ghosts of names?”

“When grass blades stiffen with red battle dew,

Ye deem we choose the victor and the slain:

Say, choose we them that shall be leal and true

To the heart’s longing, the high faith of brain?

Yet there the victory lies, if ye but knew.

“Three roots bear up Dominion: Knowledge, Will,—

These twain are strong, but stronger yet the third,—

Obedience,—’tis the great tap-root that still,

Knit round the rock of Duty, is not stirred,

Though Heaven-loosed tempests spend their utmost skill.

“Is the doom sealed for Hesper? ’Tis not we

Denounce it, but the Law before all time:

The brave makes danger opportunity;

The waverer, paltering with the chance sublime,

Dwarfs it to peril: which shall Hesper be?

“Hath he let vultures climb his eagle’s seat

To make Jove’s bolts purveyors of their maw?

Hath he the Many’s plaudits found more sweet

Than Wisdom? held Opinion’s wind for Law?

Then let him hearken for the doomster’s feet!

“Rough are the steps, slow-hewn in flintiest rock,

States climb to power by; slippery those with gold

Down which they stumble to eternal mock:

No chafferer’s hand shall long the sceptre hold,

Who, given a Fate to shape, would sell the block.

“We sing old Sagas, songs of weal and woe,

Mystic because too cheaply understood;

Dark sayings are not ours; men hear and know,

See Evil weak, see strength alone in Good,

Yet hope to stem God’s fire with walls of tow.

“Time Was unlocks the riddle of Time Is,

That offers choice of glory or of gloom;

The solver makes Time Shall Be surely his.

But hasten, Sisters! for even now the tomb

Grates its slow hinge and calls from the abyss.”

“But not for him,” I cried,—“not yet for him

Whose large horizon, westering, star by star

Wins from the void to where on Ocean’s rim

The sunset shuts the world with golden bar,—

Not yet his thews shall fail, his eye grow dim!

“His shall be larger manhood, saved for those

That walk unblenching through the trial fires;

Not suffering, but faint heart, is worst of woes,

And he no base-born son of craven sires,

Whose eye need blench confronted with his foes.

“Tears may be ours, but proud, for those who win

Death’s royal purple in the foeman’s lines;

Peace, too, brings tears; and ’mid the battle din,

The wiser ear some text of God divines,—

For the sheathed blade may rust with darker sin.

“God, give us peace! not such as lulls to sleep,

But sword on thigh, and brow with purpose knit!

And let our Ship of State to harbor sweep,

Her ports all up, her battle lanterns lit,

And her leashed thunders gathering for their leap!”

So cried I with clenched hands and passionate pain,

Thinking of dear ones by Potomac’s side;

Again the loon laughed mocking, and again

The echoes bayed far down the night and died,

While waking I recalled my wandering brain.