Verses from 'The Present Crisis' by James Russell Lowell (1819-1891)

Verses from 'The Present Crisis' by James Russell Lowell (1819-1891)

James Russell Lowell, the great nineteenth-century poet and diplomat who lived in Indiana, wrote a poem called "The Present Crisis" which refers to nineteenth-century problems, but is useful also against those of the present century.

I first learned parts of the poem as the hymn "Once to Every Man and Nation," and some of the following verses will be familiar to those who know that hymn. (It didn't fit in the Last Verses series.)

Here are some verses from the poem. I hope they will prove consoling and motivating on this primary election day here in Illinois.

So the Evil's triumph sendeth, with a terror and a chill,

Under continent to continent, the sense of coming ill,

And the slave, where'er he cowers, feels his sympathies with God

in hot tear-drops ebbing earthward, to be drunk up by the sod,

'Til a corpse crawls round unburied, delving in the nobler clod.


For mankind are one in spirit, and an instinct bear along,

Round the earth's electric circle, the swift flash of right or wrong;

Whether conscious or unconscious, yet Humanity's vast frame

Though its ocean-sundered fibres feels the gush of joy or shame --

In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have equal claim.


Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide;

In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;

Some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,

Parts the goats upon the left hand and the sheep upon the right,

And the choice goes on forever 'twixt that darkness and that light.


Careless seems the great Avenger; history's pages but record

One death-grapple in the darkness 'twixt old systems and the Word;

Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne --

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.


New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;

They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;

Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pilgrims be,

Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,

Nor attempt the Future's portal with the Past's blood-rusted key.



Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.


Filed under: Music and language

Leave a comment