About Strife, Truth, and Falsehood: Lowell’s Sacred Prose

J.A.J. Wilcox, 1894 engraving of an 1855 image, from the original drawn by S.W. Rowse in 1855.

James Russell Lowell, member of the Nineteenth Century New England Regional Literati, an often published American Poet, an Editor for the Atlantic Monthly, a Professor at Harvard University, a member of the rogue “Dante Club,” an eminent Victorian, father of Mabel Lowell, and friend to the “Charmed Circle of Fields,” as well as, its Freshwater counterpart across the great pond that separates us from our beloved merry olde England, once wrote a timeless poem of eighteen stanzas for the The Boston Courier, a portion of which, became a hymn, titled “Once to Every Man and Nation.” In this, one of America’s more shameful years of political strife, we owe him a debt of enormous gratitude. Nothing, it seems, is truly new under the sun, and Lowell’s prose, titled, “The Present Crisis,” about the atrocity of an individual’s governance which seats itself at the highest and most honored position in the land, and so feared by our Founding Fathers, (and, dare I write, the nameless, faceless Founding Mothers who influenced their characters, as well), is as timeless, as it is, on time. It follows, with the four stanzas adapted to music, italicized. Reading Victorian prose, in our age, now reads about as easily as Shakespeare, but try if you may, to read it through with some contemplation, and look things up, when you might, as needs be:

The Present Crisis, by James Russell Lowell, 1845

“When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime
Of the century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.

Through the walls of hut and palace shoots the instantaneous throe,
When the travail of the Ages wrings earth’s systems to and fro;
At the birth of each new Era, with a recognizing start,
Nation wildly looks at nation, standing with mute lips apart,
And glad Truth’s yet mightier man-child leaps beneath the Future’s heart.

So the Evil’s triumph sendeth, with a terror and a chill,
Under continent to continent, the sense of coming ill,
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels his sympathies with God
In hot tear-drops ebbing earthward, to be drunk up by the sod,
Till a corpse crawls round unburied, delving in the nobler clod.

For mankind are one in spirit, and an instinct bears along,
Round the earth’s electric circle, the swift flash of right or wrong;
Whether conscious or unconscious, yet Humanity’s vast frame
Though its ocean-sundered fibres feels the gush of joy or shame; —
In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have equal claim.

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide;
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand,
Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land?
Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet ’tis Truth alone is strong,
And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng
Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to enshield her from all wrong.

Backward look across the ages and the beacon-moments see,
That, like peaks of some sunk continent, jut through Oblivion’s sea;
Not an ear in court or market for the low foreboding cry
Of those Crises, God’s stern winnowers, from whose feet earth’s chaff must fly;
Never shows the choice momentous till the judgment hath passed by.

Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s page but record
One death- grapple in the darkness ‘twist old system and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne, —
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great,
Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn the iron helm of fate,
But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din,
List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within, —
“They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.”

Slavery, the earth-born Cyclops, fellest of the giant brood,
Sons of brutish Force and Darkness, who have drenched the earth with blood,
Famished in his self-made desert, blinded by our purer day,
Gropes in yet unblasted regions for his miserable prey;
Shall we guide his gory fingers where our helpless children play?

Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified,
And the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

Count me o’er earth’s chosen heroes, — they were souls that stood alone,
While the men they agonized for hurled the contumelious stone,
Stood serene, and down the future saw the golden beam incline
To the side of perfect justice, mastered by their faith divine,
By one man’s plain truth to manhood and to God’s supreme design.

By the light of burning heretics Christ’s bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back,
And these mounts of anguish number how each generation learned
One new word of that grand Credo which in prophet-hearts hath burned
Since the first man stood God-conquered with his face to heaven upturned.

For humanity sweeps onward:  where today the martyr stands,
On the morrow crouches Judas with the silver in his hands;
Far in front the cross stands ready and the crackling fagots burn,
While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe return
To glean up the scattered ashes into History’s golden urn.

‘Tis as easy to be heroes as to sit the idle slaves
Of a legendary virtue carved upon our father’s graves,
Worshippers of light ancestral make the present light a crime;
Was the Mayflower launched by cowards, steered by men behind their time?
Turn those tracks toward Past or Future, that make Plymouth Rock sublime?

They were men of present valor, stalwart old iconoclasts,
Unconvinced by axe or gibbet that all virtue was the Past’s;
But we make their truth our falsehood thinking that hath made us free,
Hoarding it in mouldy parchments, while our tender spirits flee
The rude grasp of that great Impulse which drove them across the sea.

They have rights who dare maintain them; we are traitors to our sires,
Smothering in their holy ashes Freedom’s new-lit altar-fires;
Shall we make their creed our jailor?  Shall we, in our haste to slay,
From the tombs of the old prophets steal the funeral lamps away
To light up the martyr-fagots round the prophets of today?

New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires!  we ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.”

James Russell Lowell, American, 1819-1891, by Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, British, c. 1880-85

Victorians, whom I return to again, and again in my research and study, very nearly always inform our current times. Lowell understood the nature of the human condition and moreover, the inclinations of a nation’s governance run amuck with falsehood. Writing as he did in 1845 about both the truth of the atrocities of illegal enslavement, and the truth of an unjustified impending war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848, (which was before the coming American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, that he predicted), Lowell used his extraordinary brilliance in highlighting the moral obligations of those who would stand for truth. It is at this time, as we walk further into the twenty-first century, nearly two hundred years since James Russell Lowell wrote, “The Present Crisis,” that we might turn and learn from his prose. In this, I join him, using my own language as plainly as I may: The President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, has compromised the integrity of our nation, the reputation of our nation, and the security of our nation, through unlawful acts that betrayed his oath of office, his country, and his fellow citizens.

His resignation, it seems, would be an appropriate end to his much tarnished legacy as the President of the United States of America, which is permanently stained with the hallmark of his Impeachment, but no. Rather, he is protected and supported by the collective Republican Party of the United States of America – historically deemed the “Party of Lincoln,” as well as the so-called party of truth, of justice, and of, as Lowell writes, those who would, “Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea, / Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.” Instead, they are wholly become the party of moral ineptitude, of anti-American propaganda, and most obviously, of evil. Ever calling the darkness, “light,” has become a standard form of operations in a twenty-first century Republican Party that seeks to monopolize national elections at every cost to ethical standards, through voter suppression, district gerrymandering, and social media logarithms. “All that is falsehood, is truth and all that is truth, is falsehood,” has become the delusional premise responsible for a widespread infectious madness, that has plagued Republican Party communications, specially selected pseudo news agencies, and talking heads who espouse vitriolic nonsense.

I can only read and wonder at the four stanzas that I have italicized above, which were first put to music by Thomas J. Williams in 1890, as a hymn titled, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” and reflect: “Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand, /Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land? / Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet ’tis Truth alone is strong, / And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng / Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to enshield her from all wrong,” and I hope. I hope that, “Truth alone is strong,” and that the scales of the blindness on our leaders in American education which promoted, “No Child Left Behind,” in American classrooms, might somehow fall, so that their eyes might be restored to proper sight. That every teacher, professor, scholar, and academic might rise to the occasion, as did James Russell Lowell, to inspire, and equip, and allow for every student to master critical and analytical thinking, independent of curriculum intended for the cross pollination of lethargy, apathy, and complacency in all disciplines of educational study, which can ultimately lead to the domination of the populace by reality television criminals. It is not enough to educate, if that education does not lead to independent thinking and reasoning, which is more necessary, than ever before. Turn and learn from Lowell, and do it, now…

I’ll leave you with the hymn by James Russell Lowell, titled, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” and with the London Philharmonic Choir, who powerfully sing Lowell’s words of exhortation, deliberation, and liberation.

About Strife, Truth, and Falsehood: James Russell Lowell’s Sacred Prose, by Robin Whitham McCrady. Copyright 2020.

“Wise Women, such as Midwives, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Healers, Philosophers, Herbalists, and Storytellers were once persecuted, as Witches,” from Wise Welsh Witch. 

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