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About this Item

Title: Lesson of the Two Symbols

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: July 15, 1843

Publication information: The Subterranean 15 July 1843: [1].

Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: per.00374

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang

image 1

cropped image 1

[For the Subterranean.]

Lesson of the Two Symbols.

O, till the pulse is stilled within these veins,
And the last accent of this tongue is said—
Till the glazed eye, and the blue icy lip,
And the white shroud, proclaim that life is o'er—
My land! your name, your glory, and your weal,
Will touch that pulse with fire, will wake those veins
As to the thrilling of a martial tone.
Years in the life of nations pass as clouds;
And the years did pass.
Over the ponderous earth
Were many mighty empires. Standards flew,
Armies clashed, red blood tinted the ground;
Hosts of men rose, like the fretful ocean's waves,
And swelled and sank, and rolled and swelled again,
And drave against the iron thrones of kings
Washing away their base. Ancient piles
Crumbled and fell, and left no vestige there!
So, as the years swept forward, sprang to life
A nation, moving like a beauteous youth,
Vigorous with strength, fresh bloom upon his cheeks,
And ardent heat in every swelling vein.
Fair was the land—Heaven smiled upon its face;
And the command above all powers and states
Allowed that a great lesson should be taught—
A lesson of Two Symbols.
Thus it came:
As in the method of the lives of men
Prudence and Knowledge form the strong support,
The tried and seasoned friend by whose large aid
They neither tire nor slip upon the way:
So in the course of states. The rigid law
Of honor hath the same clear single rule
For one, and for a gathered populace,
Nor makes that spotless in the people's nam[e?]
Which, in the one, is villainous and base.
Also, the perfect Prudence lifts up Right
As a bright beacon lighting all the way;
While the most perfect Knowledge always holds
That never—be the need so seeming strong,
Talk the smooth sophist e'er so fair and full—
May shade or substance come to dark that light.
Thus the first Symbol—sign of Knowledge strong
And helping Prudence—was the staff of him
The earliest sage of our America.
But lest these truths, alone, might steel men's hearts
To warmer, younger, nobler impulses,
And plant cool caution beside selfishness,
And dim the glow of holy patriotism,
And tamper with the nerve of bravery—
There came a second gift. O, battle-sword!
Flasher amid the smoke and dust of war!
Weapon of liberty! Brand of a chief!
Stately and glorious are the aims you teach.
The view of your huge hilt and heavy blade
Must e'er bring forth, in a true freeman's soul,
High thought of right, courage, hatred or wrong,
Bold resolution, disregard of death,
In the Republic's cause!
And now the passing of the hoary ages
Must show if the wise lessons be received—
If the proud structure that our fathers based,
That even now aspires unto the clouds
And prophesies to be the light of lands,
The refuge of mankind—be yet to grow;
Resting on the strong staff keep foothold sure,
And, wielding high the sword, fear not the world.


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