Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Poet of the Past

Journal Entry. Ashland, Virginia; June 6, 1864

Many evenings, when I am able to visit my journal, it is a calming experience; an old friend to share the joy and sorrow of this journey. I try to find balance by revisiting letters from family or remembering the old way of the world before war. Today, though, I keep returning to a letter given to me when I was last home. It came from a boy that apprenticed in the blacksmith shop with me several summers ago. A man now, he lives in Pennsylvania, a blacksmith with his own prosperous shop. I had written him a year ago to explain that I had joined the cavalry to protect my farm and family; I bore no animosity toward the North and hoped he was safe from the horrors of this war. These are his words that he wrote in return:
~Someday, my old friend,
Someday, your life could be better. You sit there with your pencil, and your paper, and your pitiful candle scribbling some nonsense about nature. Nature won’t help you, it won’t hold you up. Your precious sun quits halfway through the day and leaves you cold in the dark. But some day; some day soon, we will have sun all day, all night. We are on the threshold and there is a door; behind that door is the solution; a powerful solution in the iron that makes the steam engine, the iron that forges the cannon. We will wield that iron, as a hammer, and batter that door to bits. The steam engine that drives the railroad will drive everything. Someday, there will be prosperity for all that follow, and mark my words, everyone will follow. Who would want to stay behind; who would want to stand behind a plow and horse. Steam will power an engine to plow the fields of plenty; fields so large that one farm could be the size of ten, of a hundred. Let me tell you, many people make this war out to be about ending slavery, but, I know, the future promises more slaves than you can imagine. Men and women of every stripe will flock to our shores, begging to be among us, begging to purchase a portion, however small, of our prosperity. They will work their fingers to bone for the promise of a future here, and they will do so without force or fetters. They will be slaves to the idea of an easier life.

You are a poet of the past; you have been on the land too long. Grand ideas are rising up from the ashes of this war. The old agrarian society is being burned away, and industry will rise in your fields. When this war is over, there will still be slavery; we would not call it that, for every man will be legally free, but this new chattel will embrace their position, because of the promise that each and all have an equal chance to rise and prosper. Whole families will rush to share in the crops they harvest, share in the industries they work. This is America; we do not need to hold men down by force; men can be held down by fortune’s promise.

So, you may sit in the dim light of your candle writing in your journal; your pencil will become a stub; your candle will burn out, but the forge that is the future will burn forever and there is no limit to land’s resource or the power of the fire.

I believe you have talents that can take you further than the fields of Virginia; I am enclosing a rail pass. Come to the city and join us.~

I keep his letter in my journal and think, how a man could be so wrong, and then hope that it is he that is wrong, not me.

None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

1 comment:

  1. "They will be slaves to the idea of an easier life."

    How true this rings for today, just as it did back then, perhaps even more so.

    I love your poet of the past, his thoughts and meanderings, his connection to nature. I want to hope that he is not the one who is wrong as well.


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