On Board the '76

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On Board the '76  (1864) 
by James Russell Lowell

Written for Mr. Bryant's Seventieth Birthday
November 5, 1864

Our ship lay tumbling in an angry sea,
  Her rudder gone, her mainmast o'er the side;
Her scuppers, from the waves' clutch staggering free
  Trailed threads of priceless crimson through the tide;
Sails, shrouds, and spars with pirate cannon torn,
  We lay, awaiting morn.

Awaiting morn, such morn as mocks despair;
  And she that bare the promise of the world
Within her sides, now hopeless, helmless, bare,
  At random o'er the wildering waters hurled;
The reek of battle drifting slow alee
  No sullener than we.

Morn came at last to peer into our woe,
  When lo, a sail! Now surely help was nigh;
The red cross flames aloft, Christ's pledge; but no,
  Her black guns grinning hate, she rushes by
And hails us:—"Gains the leak! Ay, so we thought!
  Sink, then, with curses fraught!"

I leaned against my gun still angry-hot,
  And my lids tingled with the tears held back;
This scorn methought was crueller than shot;
  The manly death-grip in the battle-wrack,
Yard-arm to yard-arm, were more friendly far
  Than such fear-smothered war.

There our foe wallowed, like a wounded brute
  The fiercer for his hurt. What now were best?
Once more tug bravely at the peril's root,
  Though death came with it? Or evade the test
If right or wrong in this God's world of ours
  Be leagued with higher powers?

Some, faintly loyal, felt their pulses lag
  With the slow beat that doubts and then despairs,
Some, caitiff, would have struck the starry flag
  That knits us with our past, and makes us heirs
Of deeds high-hearted as were ever done
  'Neath the all-seeing sun.

But there was one, the Singer of our crew,
  Upon whose head Age waved his peaceful sign,
But whose red heart's-blood no surrender knew;
  And couchant under brows of massive line,
The eyes, like guns beneath a parapet,
  Watched, charged with lightnings yet.

The voices of the hills did his obey;
  The torrents flashed and tumbled in his song;
He brought our native fields from far away,
  Or set us mid the innumerable throng
Of dateless woods, or where we heard the calm
  Old homestead's evening psalm.

But now he sang of faith to things unseen,
  Of freedom's birthright given to us in trust;
And words of doughty cheer he spoke between,
  That made all earthly fortune seem as dust;
Matched with that duty, old as Time and new,
  Of being brave and true.

We, listening, learned what makes the might of words,—
  Manhood to back them, constant as a star;
His voice rammed home our cannon, edged our swords,
  And sent our boarders shouting; shroud and spar
Heard him and stiffened; the sails heard and wooed
  The winds with loftier mood.

In our dark hours he manned our guns again;
  Remanned ourselves from his own manhood's stores;
Pride, honor, country, throbbed through all his strain;
  And shall we praise? God's praise was his before;
And on our futile laurels he looks down
  Himself our bravest crown.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.