May 26, 2014


Let us cross over the river (Paul Greenberg, May 24, 2002, Jewish World Review)
Let us take our text today from the words and deeds of T.J. Jackson, Gen., C.S.A. In his final delirium, Jackson was still coming to Lee's aid. ("Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks...") Then he paused, and said his last. The words capture the right spirit for this quiet Memorial Day morning in what, Glory Be, turned out to be his country and all of ours after all: Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.

Have a good holiday, Gentle Reader, a restful holiday, and return from the land of memory strengthened and renewed. Nations need rest and remembrance, too, because the battles are far from over.

This fine essay opens with some lines from Allen Tate's poem, Ode to the Confederate Dead, which gives us an idea for how to commemorate this weekend. You can find more at Poetry of the Civil War, but here are some verses we like (please feel free to submit you own--with a link to the text if you can find it online) :

Ode to the Confederate Dead (Allen Tate 1899-1979)

Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death;
Then driven by the fierce scrutiny
Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,
They sough the rumour of mortality.

Autumn is desolation in the plot
Of a thousand acres where these memories grow
From the inexhaustible bodies that are not
Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.
Think of the autumns that have come and gone!-
Ambitious November with the humors of the year,
With a particular zeal for every slab,
Staining the uncomfortable angels that rot
On the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there:
The brute curiosity of an angel's stare

Turns you, like them, to stone,
Transforms the heaving air
Till plunged to a heavier world below
You shift your sea-space blindly
Heaving, turning like the blind crab.

Dazed by the wind, only the wind
The leaves flying, plunge

You know who have waited by the wall
The twilight certainty of an animal,
Those midnight restitutions of the blood
You know-the immitigable pines, the smoky frieze
Of the sky, the sudden call: you know the rage,
The cold pool left by the mounting flood,
Of muted Zeno and Parmenides.
You who have waited for the angry resolution
Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,
You know the unimportant shrift of death
And praise the vision
And praise the arrogant circumstance
Of those who fall
Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision-
Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.

Seeing, seeing only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth-they will not last.
Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken fields of hemp,
Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run.
Lost in that orient of the thick-and-fast
You will curse the setting sun.

Cursing only the leaves crying
Like an old man in a storm

You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

The hound bitch
Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar
Hears the wind only.

Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea,
Seals the malignant purity of the flood,

What shall we who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
The gray lean spiders come, they come and go;
In a tangle of willows without light
The singular screech-owl's tight
Invisible lyric seeds the mind
With the furious murmur of their chivalry.

We shall say only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall
That flies on multiple wing;
Night is the beginning and the end
And in between the ends of distraction
Waits mute speculation, the patient curse
That stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps
For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim.

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the
In the house? The ravenous grave?

Leave now
The shut gate and the decomposing wall-
The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,
Riots with his tongue through the hush-
Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!

[Originally posted: 5/24/02]
Posted by at May 26, 2014 12:01 AM


Thanks for the poem. I'd read it many years ago but forgotten it. I'd add 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' and The Gettysburg Address (which I think of as unmetered poetry).

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at May 30, 2005 11:49 AM
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