Tuesday, June 12, 2012

John Brown

©  2012 Steve King
All rights reserved

I sing only of a man—
the rage must find some other muse.
Of arms and readiments for war,
the patient reader must excuse.
I seek one spirit of that time,
to wonder how it so inclined.

True, Harper’s Ferry had the guns,
bristling in a phony peace.
There was fratricide enough,
and death was hard upon the land:
the time was torn, the spirit fouled:
while Kansas bled, Missouri howled.

A house divided must soon fall.
How sooner must a man decay,
no passion there to unify,
to pull and pummel and upbraid
when destiny would sound a call.
All high-born aims must come to naught
when deeds undo promises made.
And so he felt his place and time,
and raced a path his heavens laid.

How empty is the soul that goes
to any easy pathway shown,
but hesitates at the Abyss
and trembles at the great Unknown.
Like Abraham, like Joshua,
the million stars would light his way.
A black tide rising to reclaim
its covenant would seize the day.

The problem left for later minds
was how to gauge competing crimes:
did subjugation and the lash
bring on itself the fatal clash?
Did slavery itself reward
with bloody recourse to the sword?
Could any reason yet accord
the place of minion, right of lord?

He led his sons through Treason’s gate,
held them all as ready tools,
as acolytes who would delight
their father’s will and share his fate.
In the old Books, fathers are stern
but few would so expect this faith,
and, contemplating on their ends,
seek sacrifice and not amends.

No plan is safe that must depend
upon the vagaries of men,
and so the army he would raise
was lost before his rifles blazed.
This blow to challenge infamy
was short of force and long of pain;
the dreamy triumph was undone
and only martyrdom remained.

Then it was over, he was gone,
or so they thought who strung the knot:
the great uprising would abate
as only force might demonstrate.
As if his gravestone would provide
a dam against the coming tide;
as if the blot the nation held
might, without bloodshed, be expelled.

       *   *   *   *   *   *   *

And now the bones lie peaceably
as far from rage as they might be,
forgotten in the farmstead turf,
his blood a fountain to the earth.

(Executed in 1859, John Brown remains one of the most important interlocutors in the United States’ continuing moral dialogue.  Those who are interested in particulars should refer to W.E.B. Dubois’ biography, John Brown, and Thoreau’s A Plea For Captain John Brown.  The John Brown Farm near Lake Placid, New York, is the final resting place of Brown and several others—including a number of his sons—either killed at the raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, or hanged soon thereafter by the State of Virginia.)