The poem was written to protest a war2, but also deals with the struggle between Truth and Falsehood, and the necessity of our making a choice for one or the other.
In the lines I remember so well, he eloquently lays before us the choice:
"Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light.
Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand,
Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land?
Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet 'tis Truth alone is strong,
And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng
Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to enshield her from all wrong."
He describes how clearly we see the turning points of history looking back from the present, but how dimly those who lived during those times perceived the events of their own day. The results were often tragic for the few who did see:
"Careless seems the great Avenger; history's pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness 'twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,-
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own."
Though it cost them their lives, they were the ones who altered the course of history, and are looked up to today as great heroes.
"Count me o'er the earth's chosen heroes,- they were souls that stood alone,
While the men they agonized for hurled the contumelious stone,
Stood serene, and down the future saw the golden beam incline
To the side of perfect justice, mastered by their faith divine,
By one man's plain truth to manhood and to God's supreme design."
Ironically, while we recognize and honor the heroes of the past for the stand that they took for Truth, we demean and seek to destroy those who stand for Truth in our own day. As Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing3, we honor the tombs of the prophets our fathers killed, yet do not hesitate to murder the prophets of our own day.
"For Humanity sweeps onward: where today the martyr stands,
On the morrow, crouches Judas with the silver in his hands;
Far in front the cross stands ready and the crackling fagots burn,
While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe return
To glean up the scattered ashes into History's golden urn."
He condemns this hypocrisy:
"They have rights who dare maintain them; we are traitors to our sires,
Smothering in their holy ashes Freedom's new-lit altar-fires;
Shall we make their creed our jailer? Shall we, in our haste to slay,
From the tombs of the old prophets steal the funeral lamps away
To light up the martry-fagots round the prophet of today?"
Though written well over a century ago, this poem holds great challenge and rebuke for our own generation, and especially for us as Christians. We claim to honor the Fathers of our faith, but how do we treat our Brothers today who touch a nerve by proclaiming truth? It has been said before, that if Jesus had come for the first time in our day, or even if we had been alive in His day, we would have put Him to death. Notice that it was the religious leaders of His day that sought His death; are we any different today? Are we open to correction and rebuke? Or do we harden our hearts against God's prophets and their message?
Lowell describes how each generation must learn for itself to accept the prophets of their own day, and the One they represent.
"By the light of burning heretics Christ's bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back,
And these mounts of anguish number how each generation learned
One new word of that grand Credo which in prophet-hearts hath burned
Since the first man stood God-conquered with his face to heaven upturned."
Have we learned the lessons of history? Are we ready to listen? Are we ready to choose Truth today, no matter how unpopular it is right now?
"Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 'tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified,
And the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied."
Remember, "the choice goes by forever." ..."Hast thou chosen?"
1. Scroll down. There is also a hymn based on this poem.
2. Bill Dagle, "Once to Every Man and Nation-A Hymn Story", http://www.songtime.com/hymn/hymn0104.htm.
3. Luke 11: 47 - 51.