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(madison icon)1902

Decoration Poem

from Shells
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox   1873

A year that was solemn, and sad and strange,
  Has passed away to its tomb,
Since we made the graves of our dear, dead braves
  Like a garden, all abloom,--
A year that brought sorrow, and want, and change--
  A year with a fateful breath:
And the dreaded beat of its flame-shod feet
  Wrought ruin, and woe, and death.

High and higher the tongues of fire
  Leaped up in a single night,
Till the walls of a town went crumbling down,
  And a city fell in her might.
And with flame and disease, and woes like these,
  Death laughed in his mad, wild glee;
And Pestilence loosened his imps in the land,
  And ships went down at sea.

But with all of the passion, and pain, and fear,
  With all of the long, sad hours,--
We have not forgotten to offer here
  Our yearly tribute of flowers.
I think the heart in a loyal breast
  Knows no such word as forget,
And I think--nay, know--that in weal or in woe,
  We shall remember our debt.

The debt of a nation redeemed from shame,
  And a million of slaves set free,
Of a spotless fame, and cherished name,
  Honored on land and sea.
Of the dear old flag kept out of the dust,
  The flag of the brave and true,
And this is the debt we are owing yet
  To the boys who wore the blue.

Thousands are sleeping in Southern graves,
  With no slab to tell us where;
But the land where the sweet magnolia waves,
  God's hands keep fresh and fair.
And the angels above; in pity and love,
  Watch over the unknown mound,
Where some heart's joy, some mother's boy,
  A nameless grave has found.

To a clear sweet song that is free and strong,
  Yet sad with a minor strain,
I liken the lives of the boys in blue,
  Who died ere they knew our gain;
To a glad, glad song, that rings loud and bold,
  In a stirring major key,
I liken in thought, the boys who fought,
  And were crowned with victory.

To the hero who comes with the beating of drums,
  We can give the laurels of fame;
And with mirth, and music, and song and feast,
  We can honor and praise his name;
But we bring to the bed of the sainted dead,
  Only these wreaths to-day;
Yet they speak with their bloom and sweet perfume,
  More than our lips can say.

They speak of a love that can never die,
  But strengthen and grow with time;
Of lives that blossom again on high,
  Of a faith and hope sublime.
They tell how a grateful nation's heart
  Remembers her tried and true,
And how tears are shed for the honored dead,
  For the boys who wore the blue.

They speak of the higher and purer life
  That the Lord's dear angels know;
Where nought can enter of pain or strife,
  And tears can never flow.
Sleep on brave boys your graves are as green
  As the thoughts we give to ye,
And these blooms will say ye are shrined alway
  In the halls of memory.


Wilcox, Ella Wheeler. Shells. Milwaukee, Hauser & Storey, 1873.
From the Dept. of Special Collections, General Library System, UW-Madison: Cairns PS 3312 S5 1873