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An essay by John Greenleaf Whittier

The Training

Title:     The Training
Author: John Greenleaf Whittier [More Titles by Whittier]

"Send for the milingtary."
NOAH CLAYPOLE in Oliver Twist.

WHAT'S now in the wind? Sounds of distant music float in at my window on this still October air. Hurrying drum-beat, shrill fife-tones, wailing bugle-notes, and, by way of accompaniment, hurrahs from the urchins on the crowded sidewalks. Here come the citizen-soldiers, each martial foot beating up the mud of yesterday's storm with the slow, regular, up-and-down movement of an old-fashioned churn-dasher. Keeping time with the feet below, some threescore of plumed heads bob solemnly beneath me. Slant sunshine glitters on polished gun-barrels and tinselled uniform. Gravely and soberly they pass on, as if duly impressed with a sense of the deep responsibility of their position as self-constituted defenders of the world's last hope,--the United States of America, and possibly Texas. They look out with honest, citizen faces under their leathern visors (their ferocity being mostly the work of the tailor and tinker), and, I doubt not, are at this moment as innocent of bloodthirstiness as yonder worthy tiller of the Tewksbury Hills, who sits quietly in his wagon dispensing apples and turnips without so much as giving a glance at the procession. Probably there is not one of them who would hesitate to divide his last tobacco-quid with his worst enemy. Social, kind-hearted, psalm-singing, sermon-hearing, Sabhath-keeping Christians; and yet, if we look at the fact of the matter, these very men have been out the whole afternoon of this beautiful day, under God's holy sunshine, as busily at work as Satan himself could wish in learning how to butcher their fellow-creatures and acquire the true scientific method of impaling a forlorn Mexican on a bayonet, or of sinking a leaden missile in the brain of some unfortunate Briton, urged within its range by the double incentive of sixpence per day in his pocket and the cat-o'-nine-tails on his back!

Without intending any disparagement of my peaceable ancestry for many generations, I have still strong suspicions that somewhat of the old Norman blood, something of the grins Berserker spirit, has been bequeathed to me. How else can I account for the intense childish eagerness with which I listened to the stories of old campaigners who sometimes fought their battles over again in my hearing? Why did I, in my young fancy, go up with Jonathan, the son of Saul, to smite the garrisoned Philistines of Michmash, or with the fierce son of Nun against the cities of Canaan? Why was Mr. Greatheart, in Pilgrim's Progress, my favorite character? What gave such fascination to the narrative of the grand Homeric encounter between Christian and Apollyon in the valley? Why did I follow Ossian over Morven's battle-fields, exulting in the vulture-screams of the blind scald over his fallen enemies? Still later, why did the newspapers furnish me with subjects for hero-worship in the half-demented Sir Gregor McGregor, and Ypsilanti at the head of his knavish Greeks? I can account for it only in the supposition that the mischief was inhered,--an heirloom from the old sea-kings of the ninth century.

Education and reflection have, indeed, since wrought a change in my feelings. The trumpet of the Cid, or Ziska's drum even, could not now waken that old martial spirit. The bull-dog ferocity of a half- intoxicated Anglo-Saxon, pushing his blind way against the converging cannon-fire from the shattered walls of Ciudad Rodrigo, commends itself neither to my reason nor my fancy. I now regard the accounts of the bloody passage of the Bridge of Lodi, and of French cuirassiers madly transfixing themselves upon the bayonets of Wellington's squares, with very much the same feeling of horror and loathing which is excited by a detail of the exploits of an Indian Thug, or those of a mad Malay running a-muck, creese in hand, through the streets of Pulo Penang. Your Waterloo, and battles of the Nile and Baltic,--what are they, in sober fact, but gladiatorial murder-games on a great scale,--human imitations of bull-fights, at which Satan sits as grand alguazil and master of ceremonies? It is only when a great thought incarnates itself in action, desperately striving to find utterance even in sabre-clash and gun-fire, or when Truth and Freedom, in their mistaken zeal and distrustful of their own powers, put on battle-harness, that I can feel any sympathy with merely physical daring. The brawny butcher-work of men whose wits, like those of Ajax, lie in their sinews, and who are "yoked like draught-oxen and made to plough up the wars," is no realization of my ideal of true courage.

Yet I am not conscious of having lost in any degree my early admiration of heroic achievement. The feeling remains; but it has found new and better objects. I have learned to appreciate what Milton calls the martyr's "unresistible might of meekness,"--the calm, uncomplaining endurance of those who can bear up against persecution uncheered by sympathy or applause, and, with a full and keen appreciation of the value of all which they are called to sacrifice, confront danger and death in unselfish devotion to duty. Fox, preaching through his prison- gates or rebuking Oliver Cromwell in the midst of his soldier-court Henry Vane beneath the axe of the headsman; Mary Dyer on the scaffold at Boston; Luther closing his speech at Worms with the sublime emphasis of his "Here stand I; I cannot otherwise; God help me;" William Penn defending the rights of Englishmen from the baledock of the Fleet prison; Clarkson climbing the decks of Liverpool slaveships; Howard penetrating to infected dungeons; meek Sisters of Charity breathing contagion in thronged hospitals,--all these, and such as these, now help me to form the loftier ideal of Christian heroism.

Blind Milton approaches nearly to my conception of a true hero. What a picture have we of that sublime old man, as sick, poor, blind, and abandoned of friends, he still held fast his heroic integrity, rebuking with his unbending republicanism the treachery, cowardice, and servility of his old associates! He had outlived the hopes and beatific visions of his youth; he had seen the loudmouthed advocates of liberty throwing down a nation's freedom at the feet of the shameless, debauched, and perjured Charles II., crouching to the harlot-thronged court of the tyrant, and forswearing at once their religion and their republicanism. The executioner's axe had been busy among his friends. Vane and Hampden slept in their bloody graves. Cromwell's ashes had been dragged from their resting-place; for even in death the effeminate monarch hated and feared the conquerer of Naseby and Marston Moor. He was left alone, in age, and penury, and blindness, oppressed with the knowledge that all which his free soul abhorred had returned upon his beloved country. Yet the spirit of the stern old republican remained to the last unbroken, realizing the truth of the language of his own Samson Agonistes:--

"But patience is more oft the exercise
Of saints, the trial of their fortitude,
Making them each his own deliverer
And victor over all
That tyranny or fortune can inflict."

The curse of religious and political apostasy lay heavy on the land. Harlotry and atheism sat in the high places; and the "caresses of wantons and the jests of buffoons regulated the measures of a government which had just ability enough to deceive, just religion enough to persecute." But, while Milton mourned over this disastrous change, no self-reproach mingled with his sorrow. To the last he had striven against the oppressor; and when confined to his narrow alley, a prisoner in his own mean dwelling, like another Prometheus on his rock, he still turned upon him an eye of unsubdued defiance. Who, that has read his powerful appeal to his countrymen when they were on the eve of welcoming back the tyranny and misrule which, at the expense of so much blood and treasure had been thrown off, can ever forget it? How nobly does Liberty speak through him! "If," said he, "ye welcome back a monarchy, it will be the triumph of all tyrants hereafter over any people who shall resist oppression; and their song shall then be to others, 'How sped the rebellious English?' but to our posterity, 'How sped the rebels, your fathers?'" How solemn and awful is his closing paragraph! "What I have spoken is the language of that which is not called amiss 'the good old cause.' If it seem strange to any, it will not, I hope, seem more strange than convincing to backsliders. This much I should have said though I were sure I should have spoken only to trees and stones, and had none to cry to but with the prophet, 'O earth, earth, earth!' to tell the very soil itself what its perverse inhabitants are deaf to; nay, though what I have spoken should prove (which Thou suffer not, who didst make mankind free; nor Thou next, who didst redeem us from being servants of sin) to be the last words of our expiring liberties."

[The end]
John Greenleaf Whittier's essay: Training