Written at the outbreak of the World War ,just after President Wilson's appeal to the country for a "poise of undisturbed judgment,” — to express the significance to the trammeled millions of colored people the world over, and especially to the American Negro, of that spirit of the times which well nigh destroyed civilization.
The poem was originally published in The Crisis [June 1915] under the title, “Die Zeitgeist.”
"Where is the wise? where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? . But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise: and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which arc despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are; that no flesh should glory in his presence."— Paul.
"What is all this but a wild fermentation of the spirit, wherefrom, the fiercer it is, the clearer product will one day evolve itself."—Carlyle
BEFORE the whirlwind and the thunder shock,
The agony of nations, and this wild
Eruption of the passionate will of man,
These tottering bastions of mighty states,
This guillotine of culture, and this new
Unspeakable Golgotha of the Christ,
My heart declares her faith, and, undismayed,
I write her prompting—write it in that poise
Of judgment undisturbed to which our Head
Admonishes the nation.
But have I
A certain warrant? Does the cannon roar
Above the mangled myriads washed in blood
Upon a hundred fields embolden me
To vent the doctrine of a private heart !
Nay, ask it not, for God hath chosen still
The weak thing, and the foolish, and the base,
And that which is despised to work His will;
And humble men are chartered yet to run
Upon His errands round the groaning sphere.
Not many of the mighty shall be called,
Not many that dispute, not many wise,
That so the prophecy may be fulfilled.
Among the least of men of many strains,
Whose origin outdates the pyramids,
Uncherished of my country — though the blood
Of all my fathers ran to make her free
Known by a name that typifies the slave,
Synonymous with darkness, and by that
Set in the ranks of mortals least esteemed,
I claim no merit save the love of truth,
And care to find for her a lodging- place.
I have been bred and born beneath the stern
Duress and cold inhospitality
Of that environment which prejudice
Fills consciously with bane; and I have sought
Blessed be the God of mercy — at the shrine
Of thought inviolate the wells of peace.
There, fortified and unmolested, long
Have I in contemplation rued the plight
Of all my kind, and reverently aspired
To ponder out our mission, unconvinced
That we are born the dupes of Providence,
To be a nation's burden and her taunt,
Or Ishmaels of an unchosen land.
My quest has been to know the good of life,
And why a race should be, and what endures
Of that which man has called society,
And - last and highest aim of these pursuits
To learn what perfect service, born of throes
Dreadful but purgative, we yet might dare
To offer thee, O country of our hope.
And from these musings — thanks to Him
Whose citadels are stars, with time and space
Their pylons, but Who builds His favored home
Upon the docile trust of lowly hearts
Proceeded comfort, patience to endure,
And strength increasing of a faith sublime
Which neither infidelity in arms,
Nor all the bitter usage of the world
Can e'er avail to tarnish or impair.
For looking out upon the world I saw
No hope for future man in those who stand
Upon the heights of power, save in the tales
Transmitted of their slow decline and fall.
Because they spurn the truth of brotherhood,
And trade in life, and mock the living God
By high contempt of all His humbler sons,
The strong battalions of eternal right
And nature's law make their discomfort sure.
They prove the error of that pride of race
And nation which has been the world's despite,
And unloosed Mammon for a thousand years.
Not all their transient lordship of the earth,
Their cunning in the traffic of the world,
The condescension of their patronage,
Or thundering proclamations of their might,
Can check the springs of pity, while our prayers
Besiege the throne of mercy for their weal.
But looking in upon my stricken peers,
I saw upon their swarthy brows “the gleam;"
I saw the lineaments of hope new-born
For peoples yet to be. O scorn it not,
Ye mighty of all lands, ye that are raised
To glory on the necks of trampled men !
For now within your midst are multitudes
Puissant though despised, meek men of prayer,
Dark, shackled knights of labor, clinging still
Amidst a universal wreck of faith
To cheerfulness, and foreigners to hate.
These know ye not, these have ye not received,
But these shall speak to you Beatitudes.
Around them surge the tides of all your strife,
Above them rise the august monuments
Of all your outward splendor, but they stand
Unenvious in thought, and bide their time.
Because ye schooled them in the arts of life,
And gave to them your God, and poured your blood
Into their veins to make them what they are,
They shall not fail you in your hour of need.
They hold in them enough of you to feel
All that has made you masters in your time
The power of art and wealth, unending toil,
Proud types of beauty, an unbounded will
To triumph, wondrous science, and old law
These have they learned to value and to share.
But deeper in them still is something steeled
To hot abhorrence and unmeasured dread
Of your undaunted sins against the light
Red sins of lust, of envy and of greed,
Of guilty gain extorted from the weak,
Of brotherhood traduced and God denied.
All this have they beheld without revolt,
And borne the brunt in agonizing prayer.
For those deep strains of blood that flow from times
Older than Egypt, whence the dark man gave
The rudiments of learning to all lands,
Have been a strong constraint. And they have dreamed
Of a peculiar mission under heaven,
And felt the force of unexampled gifts
That make for them a rare inheritance
The gift of cheerful confidence in men,
The gift of calm endurance, solacing
An infinite capacity for pain,
The gift of an unfeigned humility
That blinds the eyes of strident arrogance
And bigot pride to that philosophy
And that far-glancing wisdom which it veils,
The gift of feeling for all forms of life,
Of deathless hope in trouble, and of wide
Adaptive power without a parallel
In chronicles of men, and over all,
And more than all besides, the gift of God
Expressed in rhythmic miracles of song.
O these are gifts, I said a thousand times
Richer than Ophir, stronger than the might
Of armament to conquer and to cure
Gifts destined yet to permeate the earth,
To heal it of its mighty heresies,
And all its brutal blasphemy of war.
So viewing all my brothers in distress,
Hindered and cursed and aliens, I have wept
And prayed for them in solitude apart,
That they might know themselves a chosen folk,
Unrecognized but potent, chastened still,
But chartered to be ministers of truth,
To search the depths of spirit, to go forth
To woo and win a perfect self-control,
To breed strong children exercised in prayer,
Shunning as they would death the patterns set
By those who hold the kingdoms and the sway.
So might they with the pregnant years become
New arbiters of social destiny,
New health veins in the body politic,
A high-commissioned people, mingled through
With all the bloods of man, and, counselling
Peace, and the healing grace of brotherhood,
"Have power in this dark world to lighten it,
And power in this dead world to make it live."
When through my being, like a lyre strung,
These winds of temporal occurrence sweep,
I hear a kind of music, high and low,
And ranging from the tortured earth to heaven,
Throbbing with tragic cadence to express
The passing and the coming life of man .
And though the tempests rage and earth be stirred
To her foundations, though the lucid air
Become a menace, and the beauteous world
Be bathed in fire, I am undismayed.
The cataclysmic travail prophecies
The dawn of one world-conscience for all men,
The breaking up of caste and race and creed,
The warfare of all war against itself.
And hence in my low place this living peace
That grows and deepens, while the staggered frames
Of ancient kingdoms reel beneath a weight
Of crimes so vast that genius strives in vain
To compass them in thought: for out of this,
The spirit saith, shall issue other breeds
Soul-burdened like my brothers, and like them
Despised and trammeled, but sent forth to teach
That nothing in the changing world endures
But truth and love and brotherhood and God .