Monday, December 9, 2013

‘The Past’ by Henry Timrod

To the modern man (or the momentary man, as Andrew Lytle preferred to call him because his roots in the past have all been severed, and because he hasn't much thought for the future), history is little more than meaningless dates and names in a textbook; or curious pieces in a museum to puzzle over for a short time before returning to sterile office life or pointless entertainment. 

The South Carolina poet Henry Timrod (and the pre-War South in general) saw things differently.  In his short poem ‘The Past’, Mr Timrod tells us life is quite meagre unless we know and embrace history.

‘The Past’

TO-DAY'S most trivial act may hold the seed
      Of future fruitfulness, or future dearth;
Oh, cherish always every word and deed!
      The simplest record of thyself hath worth.
If thou hast ever slighted one old thought,
      Beware lest Grief enforce the truth at last;
The time must come wherein thou shalt be taught
      The value and the beauty of the Past.
Not merely as a warner and a guide,
      "A voice behind thee," sounding to the strife;
But something never to be put aside,
      A part and parcel of thy present life.
Not as a distant and a darkened sky,
      Through which the stars peep, and the moon-beams glow;
But a surrounding atmosphere, whereby
      We live and breathe, sustained in pain and woe.
A shadowy land, where joy and sorrow kiss,
      Each still to each corrective and relief,
Where dim delights are brightened into bliss,
      And nothing wholly perishes but Grief.
Ah, me!—not dies—no more than spirit dies;
      But in a change like death is clothed with wings;
A serious angel, with entrancèd eyes,
      Looking to far-off and celestial things.

Source: (edited to conform more closely to the 1899 Hougton, Mifflin & Co. edition of his poems)

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