New occasions teach new duties
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 campfires? 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.
by James Russell Lowell (February 22, 1819 – August 12, 1891)
from his poem “The Present Crisis” (December 1844)
found in The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell (first published 1848)
video – piano arrangement for “Once to Every Man and Nation”
Once to Every Man and Nation
Lowell’s poem “The Present Crisis” is an 18 stanza argument against slavery. This is poetic editorial with serious political underpinnings, crammed with passionate pleading, laced with two-dollar words and high-minded symbolism.
They don’t make political passion like they used to. Can you imagine Khrushchev writing a poem instead of pounding on a desk with a shoe? Or the heckler-congressman who catcalled “liar” at Obama during a speech to the Senate and the House of Representatives, slowing down long enough to balance meter and line-length?
What a contrast!
To be fair, more was going on than shoe-banging and rude catcalls… but do we remember more than the sensational highlights? Ever wonder if not having the stomach for reading dense poetry is the far, far flip side of living in a sound-bite world? Ever wonder if the world would be a better place if more of us wrote even a few lines of poetry every day? No? Why not? Stranger things have happened.
Though “The Present Crisis” is not super easy to find in print today, traces of it are laced throughout our culture.
- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named its newsletter the “Crisis” after Lowell’s poem.
- Martin Luther King quoted it often.
- “The Present Crisis” inspired a hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation.” The YouTube video above plays a piano arrangement of the hymn
- A stirring symphonic version of “Once to Every Nation” was used as the Soviet Red Square theme in Call of Duty 1.
Yes, a piece of music inspired by an American abolitionist poem found its way into a video game, as the Soviet theme. I wonder what Lowell would think!
Art has ripples.
Art can be sticky!
Art crosses all sorts of boundaries. The unexpected ones are my favorites.