Barack Obama wants to bomb Assad for his poison gas attack against his own people and has put the matter in the hands of Congress. Here’s a poem that gives us some perspective on how one should respond to such attacks.
In this case, it is Vachel Lindsay arguing against a rush to war following the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915—which, from an American point of view, is less like Assad’s chemical weapons attack and more like 9-11. Nevertheless, Lindsay counsels to “Stand now for peace, (though anger breaks your heart),/Though naught but smoke and flame and drowning is seen.” The poem appeared in the May 11, 1915 edition The Chicago Herald, an instance of poetry attempting to use a mass medium to influence public opinion.
The poem is addressed to two figures. Jane Addams—social worker, suffragette, public philosopher, sociologist, and peace activist—was attending a peace conference at The Hague at the time as president of the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. World War I was less than a year old. Because the Lusitania was carrying civilian passengers, including many Americans, the incident helped propel America into the war two years later.
The Lusitania was also carrying munitions but that fact wasn’t publicized.
The second poem is addressed to Tolstoy, who had died five years before but who had become a major voice for world peace in his later years. Lindsay is appealing to America to draw upon the lofty visions of Addams and Tolstoy and not be swept up in the hysteria over the German attack.
If I thought that cruise missile attacks, or whatever President Obama intends, would deter future use of chemical weapons or that they would not have unintended consequences that would only make the situation worse, I might be in favor of them. I have no confidence, however, that anything good will come from America entering the fray, and I second Vachel Lindsay’s appeal.
Not that it did any good.
Here’s the poem:
To Jane Addams At The Hague
Two Poems, written on the Sinking of the Lusitania
By Vachel Lindsay
I. Speak Now for Peace
Lady of Light, and our best woman, and queen,
Lady of Light, speak, though you speak alone,
Though your voice may seem as a dove’s in this howling flood,
It is heard to-night by every senate and throne.
Though the widening battle of millions and millions of men
Threatens tonight to sweep the whole of the earth,
Back of the smoke is the promise of kindness again.
II. Tolstoi Is Plowing Yet
Tolstoi is plowing yet. When the smoke-clouds break,
High in the sky shines a field as wide as the world.
There he toils for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake.
Ah, he is taller than clouds of the little earth.
Only the congress of planets is over him,
And the arching path where new sweet stars have birth.
Wearing his peasant dress, his head bent low,
Tolstoi, that angel of Peace, is plowing yet;
Forward, across the field, his horses go.