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Sonnets to the Memory of Frederick Douglass (XHTML)


Memorial sonnets for Frederick Douglass by abolitionist Theodore Tilton. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.

[title page]
Frederick Douglass
Price One Franc
[unnumbered page]
The fact that a second Paris Edition of this pamphlet is called for within two months of the appearance of the first, is a proof of the wide European reputation of the American Patriot whose character is sketched in this memorial.
            PARIS, May 27th, 1895.
[unnumbered page 1]
The celebrated American Orator Frederick Douglass died in Washington, D.C. February 20, 1895, aged 78 years.
He was born a slave in Maryland, 1817.
He escaped to Massachusetts, 1838.
He founded an anti-slavery newspaper, Rochester, N.Y., 1847.
He addressed anti-slavery meetings in the Northern States, and in Great Britain, with powerful eloquence, for 25 years.
He raised for President Lincoln two regiments of negro troops (the Massachusetts 54th and 55th), 1863.
He was appointed by President Grant to the San Domingo Commission, 1871.
He was chosen Presidential Elector-at-large for the State of New York, 1872.
He was made Marshal of the District of Columbia by President Hayes, 1881.
He was Recorder of Deeds, Washington, under Presidents Garfield and Arthur.
He was sent by President Harrison to Hayti as United States Minister, 1889.
He died in Washington (as above mentioned) and buried at his old home, Rochester, N.Y., in Mount Hope Cemetery, with unusual public honours.
The following sonnets to his memory were written in Paris, France, immediately after his funeral.
I knew the noblest giants of my day,
       And he was of them—strong amid the strong:
       But gentle too: for though he suffered wrong,
Yet the wrong-doer never heard him say
‘Thee also do I hate!’…                                                                                   [5]

[page 2]
                                    A lover’s lay—
       No dirge—no doleful requiem-song—
       Is what I owe him; for I loved him long;
As dearly as a younger brother may.
Proud is the happy grief with which I sing;                                             [10]
   For, O my Country! in the paths of men
       There never walked a grander man than he!
He was a peer of princes—yea a king!
   Crowned in the shambles and the prison-pen!
       The noblest Slave that ever God set free!                                           [15]
Too many a man is honoured overmuch!
       The worthiest souls are ever scarce and few!
       And ere we crown them (if at last we do)
They first are outcasts whom we shrink to touch!
From squalid Bethlehem came one of such,                                               [20]
       Born in a manger, and, to human view,
       A beggar—yet whom kings did homage to,
While cattle stood in stalls about His hutch!
How does it happen that, in every clime,
   When any groaning nation of the earth                                                    [25]
       Hath need of some new leader of a race,
Or some true prophet of a better time,
   The Heavens elect him for his lowly birth,
       Ere they uplift him to his lofty place?

[page 3]
I answer: He must first be taught to know—                                                  [30]
       (I say to know, and not to guess)—how real
       Is all the misery which he hopes to heal!
The high may show a kindness to the low:
Some wealthy lord is generous—be it so:
       Yet who except the poor and pinched can feel                                          [35]
       Their pang of poverty?...
                                                So for their weal,
They need a champion who has borne their woe!
As the Arabian pearl, beneath the brine,
   Lies hid, and frets and chafes within its shell,                                               [40]
       Till by its torment it grows bright and pure,—
So an illustrious spirit, born to shine,
   Must first in some dim depth of sorrow dwell,
       And have a wholesome anguish to endure!
Be glad, O heart of mine! and dance and leap                                                    [45]
       At all these funeral honours paid thy friend!
       This lengthened pageantry, so slow to end!
These crape-hung flags! these many eyes that weep!
These cannon, loud enough to wake his sleep!
       These bells that with the trumpets interblend!                                          [50]
       These published praises, eloquently penned!
All telling of an homage wide and deep.

[page 4]
Not since our Land of Liberty was young,
   When fiery Otis passed away in flame[1]
       And Patrick Henry’s burning lips grew cold,                                               [55]
Hath mortal silence hushed a braver tongue
   Than of this Bondman, who, in Freedom’s name,
       Spake (like the Byzantine) with ‘mouth of gold[2].’
I ask myself, Was it a dreadful dream?—
       A wild, disordered vision of the night?—                                                        [60]
       That the fair Country of my dear delight,
The patriot’s paradise, the exile’s theme,
The Land of Lands, where Freedom reigns supreme,
       Should once have dared, in God’s offended sight,
       To sin so great a sin against the light                                                               [65]
That, to atone for it, a living stream
Of human blood flowed as a holocaust,
   Till every household had a soldier slain!
       —O tardy Nation, slow agen to learn!
Let not thy former lesson now be lost!                                                                   [70]
   For now thy Northern millions toil in vain!
       Beware! Deny them not the bread they earn!
Shall there be Hunger in a Land of Corn?
      Then if—(shut out from the idle mill and mine)—
       Come the bold beggars forth in battle-line,                                                      [75]

[page 5]
Armed and in fury, answering corn with scorn—
Oh who shall lead them in their Hope Forlorn?
       How shall they know him? How shall they divine
       Their true deliverer? I will tell the sign!
Let him be like the man whom now we mourn!—                                                  [80]
A hero high above revenge or greed,
   Forbidding bloodshed and restraining hate,
       Chiding and shaming every threat of crime—
Not rash, but patient, knowing well indeed
   That Justice, being blind, must therefore wait                                                  [85]
       And cannot come except as led by Time!
I shout for joy—here on this foreign coast,
       Far distant from this sad, obsequious scene—
       To know that now, in everlasting green,
His name shall be his Country’s future boast!                                                     [90]
For now the vipers who once hissed him most,
       And stung him with their venom, vile and mean,
(Worse than the lash!—although the lash was keen)
All praise him!...
                                                Heed them not, O gentle ghost!                                 [95]
For Spartacus awaits thee, I am sure,
   To bid thee welcome! So, I ween, doth he
       That mighty spirit of the Spanish Main,
Hero and martyr, Toussaint L’Ouverture!—
   Yet greater glory is reserved for thee!                                                                [100]
       For lo! thy laurels have no bloody stain!

[page 6]
A friendship is a hallowed thing!... To-day,
       In looking back on this of his and mine
       (Which bears a date as old as ‘Auld Lang Syne’—
Ere yet a hair of either head was gray)—                                                               [105]
A life-long love!—what tribute shall I pay
       To such a comrade? Others may entwine
       Their ivy-wreaths and lay them on his shrine,—
But I am thrice a thousand miles away.
I hope he missed me from the mournful march—                                               [110]
   For I, of all his lovers, loved him best:
       And love is jealous; and I envy those
Who bore him through his last triumphal arch,
   And up the frosty hillside to his rest,
       With all the North to wrap him in its snows!                                                [115]
I knew him to the core: so it is I,—
       And not the many who belaud his name,
       Not knowing him save only by his fame,—
Yes, it is mine to speak and testify
What well I know: how scared, pure and high                                                    [120]
       Was the sublime and solitary aim
        Which, like the Pillar of the Cloud and Flame,
He chose (like Israel) to be guided by!
Chief of his tribe, he centered in his soul—
   As their evangel—all their hopes and fears!                                                        [125]
        —Through all his lifetime, as their wisest head,
He planned to lead them to some happy goal!
   (How they will lack him in the coming years,
       And wish him back among them, from the dead!)

[page 7]
I knew his latch-string—it hung always out!                                                           [130]
       I knew his books, on which he loved to pore:
       His Bible—(no man ever read it more[3]!)—
His Izak Walton on Religious Doubt
(And how to settle it by catching trout!)—
       His Shakespeare (with a bust above the door[4])—                               [135]
       His Talmud—and the never-tiring lore
Which takes a Thousand Nights to tell about.
And much he loved to con the Concord Sage,
   And Hawthorne’s Hester, and the Quaker Bard,
        And Uncle Tom (the ‘Cabin’ and the ‘Key’)—                                                 [140]
And sometimes he would even read a page
   From this poor pen of mine—not for regard
       Of my dull verses, but for love of me!
A wistful loneliness was in his look;
       For thus he ever bore upon his face                                                                    [145]
       (As in his heart) the sorrows of his race:
And yet he gaily—in the walks we took—
Would stop and chatter to a chattering brook,
       And mimic all the creatures of the place,
       And buzz in sharps, and croak in double bass,                                                [150]
And caw in semi-quavers like the rook!

[page 8]
Not one of Nature’s voices (he declared)—
   Whether of beast, or bird, or wind, or wave—
       Had ever chid him for his sable hue!
His fellow-men—and these alone—had dared,                                                      [155]
   With cruel taunt, to say to him ‘Thou Slave!’
       (And were the only brutes he ever knew!)
He oft would bask, through all a winter’s eve,
       Before his yule-log, till the fire was low;
       And in his talk, with all his mind aglow,                                                       [160]
What wit and wisdom he would interweave!
It was a hearthstone I was loth to leave!
       —Alack! I thither nevermore shall go!
        —So, though my song is not a wail of woe,
Yet such a thought is somber—and I grieve.                                                          [165]
Keen was his satire; but the flashing blade,
   Instead of poison on the biting steel,
       Bore on its edge a balsam of a kind
Whereby the very wound the weapon made
   Was at the very moment sure to heal,                                                                 [170]
       And nevermore to leave a scar behind.
If love of music be a mortal sin
       (As certain of the saints are wont to say),
       He was a sinner to his dying day!
For like the rest of his melodious kin                                                                          [175]
A song was what his soul delighted in,—
       Especially some soft and plaintive lay
       Which in the old and weird plantation way
He loved to echo on his violin.

[page 9]
He touched the strings with more than rustic art;                                                [180]
    For oft a sudden supernatural power
       Would swell within him—till he gave a vent
To all the pent-up passion of his heart!—
   So his Cremona in a troubled hour
       Beguiled for him a care to a content[5].                                                     [185]
He came to Paris; and we paced the streets
       As if we twain were truants out of school!
       We clomb aloft where many a carven ghoul
And grinning gargoyle mocked our giddy feats;
We made a sport of sitting in the seats                                                                       [190]
       Where Kings of France were wont to sit and rule!
       ‘A throne,’ quoth he, ‘is a pretender’s stool—
For kingship is a fraud, and kings are cheats!’
He loved a hero. Nor can I forget
   How with uncovered head, in awe profound,                                                      [195]
        He hailed Coligny’s all-too-tardy stone[6];
And how, before the tomb of Lafayette[7],
   He said, ‘This place is doubly sacred ground—
       This patriot had two countries for his own!’

[page 10]
I here might crowd this empty rhyme of mine                                                     [200]
       With tales of how my travel-eager friend
       (Who wished to see the world from end to end)
Sped southward from the many-castled Rhine
To languid Italy—a land supine,
       Yet soon to rouse herself (as signs portent),                                                       [205]
        Though why he waits is hard to comprehend:
Thence to the country of the Muses Nine—
To Marathon, and to the Academe:
   Thence to the Sphinx at Ghizeh—whom with awe
       He answered—and his answer may be guessed:                                                [210]
For there—in Egypt—by her classic stream,
   He said that every famous land he saw
       Taught him the more to love his own the best!
For though his own had been a cruel land,
       Wherein, through many a long and groaning year,                                       [215]
       Oppression had been bitter and austere
(As harsh as under Pharaoh’s iron hand)—
Yet such a slave could never be unmanned;
       But ever with a sweet and secret cheer
       he felt the day of freedom be near.                                                                         [220]
So when it came, he well could understand
That his dear Country, long herself a thrall,
   Self-chained and self-degraded in the past—
       Till, smiting off her shackles with her sword,
She too!—she too!—the chiefest slave of all—                                                             [225]
   Self-freed and self-uplifted, had at last
       Stood forth redeemed, and lovely, and adored!

[page 11]
His form was like Apollo’s, and his brow
       Like what the sculptors carve for Zeus’s own—
       As godlike as was ever cut in stone!                                                                       [230]
For if the old god Thor were living now,
With his dark visage, with his frosty pow,
       And with his awe-inspiring thunder-tone,—
Such a resembling pair (could both be known)
Would pass for twin-born brothers, I avow!                                                              [235]
The gods are dead,—and all the godlike men
   Are dying too! How fast they disappear!
       For Death seems discontent to fill the grave
With common bones, but downward to his den
   Drags, like a greedy monster, year by year                                                         [240]
       The men most missed—the good, the wise, the brave!
Spake I of goodly giants in the land?
       And did I boast that I had known them well?
       I was a stripling: so I live to tell,
In these degenerate days, how great and grand,                                                     [245]
How plain and simple, were the noble band
        Who cried to Heaven against that crime of Hell
        Which to the auction-block brought Babes to sell,
And which on Women burnt a market-brand!
Who were those heroes? Since the roll is known                                                       [250]
   I need not call it: Lincoln was the chief:
      The rest were legion—name them whoso can:
But whoso counts the list of Freedom’s Own
   Must name the Chattel whom, with pride and grief,
       We buried yesterday and called a Man!                                                             [255]

[page 12]
What final wreath of olive, oak or bay
       (Which to withhold would do the dead a wrong)
       Is due him for the fetter, yoke and thong
Which, as a Slave, he bore for many a day?
If to his wintry burial blooming May                                                                           [260]
       Had come herself, chief-mourner of the throng,
       And stopt his bier as it was borne along,
And laid a million lilies on his clay,—
Not one of all these fading funeral-flowers
   Would have survived the frost!...So—(since, alas!                                                  [265]
       Such honours fade)—my Country, hark to me!
Let us, in yonder Capitol of ours,
   Mould him a statue of enduring brass
Out of the broken chains of slaves set free!
                                                THEODORE TILTON.
PARIS , Feb. 28th, 1895.

[1] It will be remembered that James Otis was killed by lightning.
[2] Chrysostom.
[3] Speaking of his slave-life in Baltimore, he says in his Autobiography, ‘I have gathered scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street-gutters, and have washed and dried them, that in moments of leisure I might get a word or two of wisdom from them.’
[4] This house was in Rochester, N.Y., and was burned in 1872—with all the books and busts.
[5] ‘Of all the interesting objects in the Museum of Genoa,’ he wrote, ‘the one that touched me the most was the violin of Paganini—a precious object in my eyes.’
[6] Admiral de Coligny was murdered in the St. Bartholomew massacre, on the night of August 24, 1572.
[7] Lafayette lies in the Picpus Cemetery, rue Picpus, Paris.