James Whitcomb Riley

(7 October 1849 - 22 July 1916 / Greenfield, Indiana)

The Silent Victors


MAY 30, 1878,

Dying for victory, cheer on cheer
Thundered on his eager ear.
--CHARLES L. HOLSTEIN.

I

Deep, tender, firm and true, the Nation's heart
Throbs for her gallant heroes passed away,
Who in grim Battle's drama played their part,
And slumber here to-day.--

Warm hearts that beat their lives out at the shrine
Of Freedom, while our country held its breath
As brave battalions wheeled themselves in line
And marched upon their death:

When Freedom's Flag, its natal wounds scarce healed,
Was torn from peaceful winds and flung again
To shudder in the storm of battle-field--
The elements of men,--

When every star that glittered was a mark
For Treason's ball, and every rippling bar
Of red and white was sullied with the dark
And purple stain of war:

When angry guns, like famished beasts of prey,
Were howling o'er their gory feast of lives,
And sending dismal echoes far away
To mothers, maids, and wives:--

The mother, kneeling in the empty night,
With pleading hands uplifted for the son
Who, even as she prayed, had fought the fight--
The victory had won:

The wife, with trembling hand that wrote to say
The babe was waiting for the sire's caress--
The letter meeting that upon the way,--
The babe was fatherless:

The maiden, with her lips, in fancy, pressed
Against the brow once dewy with her breath,
Now lying numb, unknown, and uncaressed
Save by the dews of death.

II

What meed of tribute can the poet pay
The Soldier, but to trail the ivy-vine
Of idle rhyme above his grave to-day
In epitaph design?--

Or wreathe with laurel-words the icy brows
That ache no longer with a dream of fame,
But, pillowed lowly in the narrow house,
Renowned beyond the name.

The dewy tear-drops of the night may fall,
And tender morning with her shining hand
May brush them from the grasses green and tall
That undulate the land.--

Yet song of Peace nor din of toil and thrift,
Nor chanted honors, with the flowers we heap,
Can yield us hope the Hero's head to lift
Out of its dreamless sleep:

The dear old Flag, whose faintest flutter flies
A stirring echo through each patriot breast,
Can never coax to life the folded eyes
That saw its wrongs redressed--

That watched it waver when the fight was hot,
And blazed with newer courage to its aid,
Regardless of the shower of shell and shot
Through which the charge was made;--

And when, at last, they saw it plume its wings,
Like some proud bird in stormy element,
And soar untrammeled on its wanderings,
They closed in death, content.

III

O Mother, you who miss the smiling face
Of that dear boy who vanished from your sight,
And left you weeping o'er the vacant place
He used to fill at night,--

Who left you dazed, bewildered, on a day
That echoed wild huzzas, and roar of guns
That drowned the farewell words you tried to say
To incoherent ones;--

Be glad and proud you had the life to give--
Be comforted through all the years to come,--
Your country has a longer life to live,
Your son a better home.

O Widow, weeping o'er the orphaned child,
Who only lifts his questioning eyes to send
A keener pang to grief unreconciled,--
Teach him to comprehend

He had a father brave enough to stand
Before the fire of Treason's blazing gun,
That, dying, he might will the rich old land
Of Freedom to his son.

And, Maiden, living on through lonely years
In fealty to love's enduring ties,--
With strong faith gleaming through the tender tears
That gather in your eyes,

Look up! and own, in gratefulness of prayer,
Submission to the will of Heaven's High Host:--
I see your Angel-soldier pacing there,
Expectant at his post.--

I see the rank and file of armies vast,
That muster under one supreme control;
I hear the trumpet sound the signal-blast--
The calling of the roll--

The grand divisions falling into line
And forming, under voice of One alone
Who gives command, and joins with tongue divine
The hymn that shakes the Throne.

IV

And thus, in tribute to the forms that rest
In their last camping-ground, we strew the bloom
And fragrance of the flowers they loved the best,
In silence o'er the tomb.

With reverent hands we twine the Hero's wreath
And clasp it tenderly on stake or stone
That stands the sentinel for each beneath
Whose glory is our own.

While in the violet that greets the sun,
We see the azure eye of some lost boy;
And in the rose the ruddy cheek of one
We kissed in childish joy,--

Recalling, haply, when he marched away,
He laughed his loudest though his eyes were wet.--
The kiss he gave his mother's brow that day
Is there and burning yet:

And through the storm of grief around her tossed,
One ray of saddest comfort she may see,--
Four hundred thousand sons like hers were lost
To weeping Liberty.

. . . . . . . .
But draw aside the drapery of gloom,
And let the sunshine chase the clouds away
And gild with brighter glory every tomb
We decorate to-day:

And in the holy silence reigning round,
While prayers of perfume bless the atmosphere,
Where loyal souls of love and faith are found,
Thank God that Peace is here!

And let each angry impulse that may start,
Be smothered out of every loyal breast;
And, rocked within the cradle of the heart,
Let every sorrow rest.

Submitted: Friday, April 09, 2010

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