Poetry July 1866

The Death of Slavery

A year after the close of the Civil War, William Cullen Bryant, longtime editor of the New York Evening Post and the first American poet to attain international prominence, hailed the demise of slavery's "cruel reign."

O THOU great Wrong, that, through the slow-paced years,
   Didst hold thy millions fettered, and didst wield
   The scourge that drove the laborer to the field,
And look with stony eye on human tears,
          Thy cruel reign is o'er;
          Thy bondmen crouch no more
In terror at the menace of thine eye;
   For He who marks the bounds of guilty power,
Long-suffering, hath heard the captive's cry,
   And touched his shackles at the appointed hour,
And lo! they fall, and he whose limbs they galled
Stands in his native manhood, disenthralled.

A shout of joy from the redeemed is sent;
   Ten thousand hamlets swell the hymn of thanks;
   Our rivers roll exulting, and their banks
Send up hosannas to the firmament.
          Fields, where the bondman's toil
          No more shall trench the soil,
Seem now to bask in a serener day;
   The meadow-birds sing sweeter, and the airs
Of heaven with more caressing softness play,
   Welcoming man to liberty like theirs.
A glory clothes the land from sea to sea,
For the great land and all its coasts are free.

Within that land wert thou enthroned of late,
   And they by whom the nation's laws were made,
   And they who filled its judgment-seats, obeyed
Thy mandate, rigid as the will of fate.
          Fierce men at thy right hand,
          With gesture of command,
Gave forth the word that none might dare gainsay;
   And grave and reverend ones, who loved thee not,
Shrank from thy presence, and, in blank dismay,
   Choked down, unuttered, the rebellious thought;
While meaner cowards, mingling with thy train,
Proved, from the book of God, thy right to reign.

Great as thou wert, and feared from shore to shore,
   The wrath of God o'ertook thee in thy pride;
   Thou sitt'st a ghastly shadow; by thy side
Thy once strong arms hang nerveless evermore.
          And they who quailed but now
          Before thy lowering brow
Devote thy memory to scorn and shame,
   And scoff at the pale, powerless thing thou art.
And they who ruled in thine imperial name,
   Subdued, and standing sullenly apart,
Scowl at the hands that overthrew thy reign,
And shattered at a blow the prisoner's chain.

Well was thy doom deserved; thou didst not spare
   Life's tenderest ties, but cruelly didst part
   Husband and wife, and from the mother's heart
Didst wrest her children, deaf to shriek and prayer;
          Thy inner lair became
          The haunt of guilty shame;
Thy lash dropped blood; the murderer, at thy side,
   Showed his red hands, nor feared the vengeance due.
Thou didst sow earth with crimes, and, far and wide,
   A harvest of uncounted miseries grew,
Until the measure of thy sins at last
Was full, and then the avenging bolt was cast.

Go then, accursed of God, and take thy place
   With baleful memories of the elder time,
   With many a wasting pest, and nameless crime,
And bloody war that thinned the human race;
          With the Black Death, whose way
          Through wailing cities lay,
Worship of Moloch, tyrannies that built
   The Pyramids, and cruel creeds that taught
To avenge a fancied guilt by deeper guilt,—
   Death at the stake to those that held them not.
Lo, the foul phantoms, silent in the gloom
Of the flown ages, part to yield thee room.

I see the better years that hasten by
   Carry thee back into that shadowy past,
   Where, in the dusty spaces, void and vast,
The graves of those whom thou hast murdered lie.
          The slave-pen, through whose door
          Thy victims pass no more,
Is there, and there shall the grim block remain
   At which the slave was sold; while at thy feet
Scourges and engines of restraint and pain
   Moulder and rust by thine eternal seat.
There, 'mid the symbols that proclaim thy crimes,
Dwell thou, a warning to the coming times.

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