Hymn to Death

Author: William Cullen Bryant  | Date: 1820


Oh! could I hope the wise and pure in heart

Might hear my song without a frown, nor deem

My voice unworthy of the theme it tries,-

I would take up the hymn to Death, and say

To the grim power, The world hath slandered thee

And mocked thee. On thy dim and shadowy brow

They place an iron crown, and call thee king

Of terrors, and the spoiler of the world,.

Deadly assassin, that strik’st down the fair,

The loved, the good- that breathest on the lights

Of virtue set along the vale of life,

And they go out in darkness. I am come,

Not with reproaches, not with cries and prayers,

Such as have stormed thy stern, insensible ear

From the beginning; I am come to speak

Thy praises. True it is, that I have wept

Thy conquests, and may weep them yet again,

And thou from some I love wilt take a life

Dear to me as my own. Yet while the spell

Is on my spirit, and I talk with thee

In sight of all thy trophies, face to face,

Meet it is that my voice should utter forth

Thy nobler triumphs; I will teach the world

To thank thee. Who are thine accusers?- Who?

The living!- they who never felt thy power,

And know thee not. The curses of the wretch

Whose crimes are ripe, his sufferings when thy hand

Is on him, and the hour he dreads is come,

Are writ among thy praises. But the good-

Does he whom thy kind hand dismissed to peace,

Upbraid the gentle violence that took off

His fetters, and unbarred his prison-cell?

Raise then the hymn to Death. Deliverer!

God hath anointed thee to free the oppressed

And crush the oppressor. When the armed chief,

The conqueror of nations, walks the world,

And it is changed beneath his feet, and all

Its kingdoms melt into one mighty realm-

Thou, while his head is loftiest and his heart

Blasphemes, imagining his own right hand

Almighty, thou dost set thy sudden grasp

Upon him, and the links of that strong chain

Which bound mankind are crumbled; thou dost break

Sceptre and crown, and beat his throne to dust.

Then the earth shouts with gladness, and her tribes

Gather within their ancient bounds again.

Else had the mighty of the olden time,

Nimrod, Sesostris, or the youth who feigned

His birth from Libyan Ammon, smitten yet

The nations with a rod of iron, and driven

Their chariot o’er our necks. Thou dost avenge,

In thy good time, the wrongs of those who know

No other friend. Nor dost thou interpose

Only to lay the sufferer asleep,

Where he who made him wretched troubles not

His rest- thou dost strike down his tyrant too.

Oh, there is joy when hands that held the scourge

Drop lifeless, and the pitiless heart is cold.

Thou too dost purge from earth its horrible

And old idolatries;- from the proud fanes

Each to his grave their priests go out, till none

Is left to teach their worship; then the fires

Of sacrifice are chilled, and the green moss

O’ercreeps their altars; the fallen images

Cumber the weedy courts, and for loud hymns,

Chanted by kneeling multitudes, the wind

Shrieks in the solitary aisles. When he

Who gives his life to guilt, and laughs at all

The laws that God or man has made, and round

Hedges his seat with power, and shines in wealth,-

Lifts up his atheist front to scoff at Heaven,

And celebrates his shame in open day,

Thou, in the pride of all his crimes, cutt’st off

The horrible example. Touched by thine,

The extortioner’s hard hand foregoes the gold

Wrung from the o’er-worn poor. The perjurer,

Whose tongue was lithe, e’en now, and voluble

Against his neighbor’s life, and he who laughed

And leaped for joy to see a spotless fame

Blasted before his own foul calumnies,

Are smit with deadly silence. He, who sold

His conscience to preserve a worthless life,

Even while he hugs himself on his escape,

Trembles, as, doubly terrible, at length,

Thy steps o’ertake him, and there is no time

For parley, nor will bribes unclench thy grasp.

Oft, too, dost thou reform thy victim, long

Ere his last hour. And when the reveller,

Mad in the chase of pleasure, stretches on,

And strains each nerve, and clears the path of life

Like wind, thou point’st him to the dreadful goal,

And shak’st thy hour-glass in his reeling eye,

And check’st him in mid course. Thy skeleton hand

Shows to the faint of spirit the right path,

And he is warned, and fears to step aside.

Thou sett’st between the ruffian and his crime

Thy ghastly countenance, and his slack hand

Drops the drawn knife. But, oh, most fearfully

Dost thou show forth Heaven’s justice, when thy shafts

Drink up the ebbing spirit- then the hard

Of heart and violent of hand restores

The treasure to the friendless wretch he wronged.

Then from the writhing bosom thou dost pluck

The guilty secret; lips, for ages sealed,

Are faithless to their dreadful trust at length,

And give it up; the felon’s latest breath

Absolves the innocent man who bears his crime;

The slanderer, horror-smitten, and in tears,

Recalls the deadly obloquy he forged

To work his brother’s ruin. Thou dost make

Thy penitent victim utter to the air

The dark conspiracy that strikes at life,

And aims to whelm the laws; ere yet the hour

Is come, and the dread sign of murder given.

Thus, from the first of time, hast thou been found

On virtue’s side; the wicked, but for thee,

Had been too strong for the good; the great of earth

Had crushed the weak for ever. Schooled in guile

For ages, while each passing year had brought

Its baneful lesson, they had filled the world

With their abominations; while its tribes,

Trodden to earth, imbruted, and despoiled,

Had knelt to them in worship; sacrifice

Had smoked on many an altar, temple-roofs

Had echoed with the blasphemous prayer and hymn:

But thou, the great reformer of the world,

Tak’st off the sons of violence and fraud

In their green pupilage, their lore half learned-

Ere guilt had quite o’errun the simple heart

God gave them at their birth, and blotted out

His image. Thou dost mark them flushed with hope,

As on the threshold of their vast designs

Doubtful and loose they stand, and strik’st them down.

. . . . . . . . . .

Alas! I little thought that the stern power,

Whose fearful praise I sang, would try me thus

Before the strain was ended. It must cease-

For he is in his grave who taught my youth

The art of verse, and in the bud of life

Offered me to the Muses. Oh, cut off

Untimely! when thy reason in its strength,

Ripened by years of toil and studious search,

And watch of Nature’s silent lessons, taught

Thy hand to practise best the lenient art

To which thou gavest thy laborious days,

And, last, thy life. And, therefore, when the earth

Received thee, tears were in unyielding eyes

And on hard cheeks, and they who deemed thy skill

Delayed their death-hour, shuddered and turned pale

When thou wert gone. This faltering verse, which thou

Shalt not, as wont, o’erlook, is all I have

To offer at thy grave- this- and the hope

To copy thy example, and to leave

A name of which the wretched shall not think

As of an enemy’s, whom they forgive

As all forgive the dead. Rest, therefore, thou

Whose early guidance trained my infant steps-

Rest, in the bosom of God, till the brief sleep

Of death is over, and a happier life

Shall dawn to waken thine insensible dust.

Now thou art not- and yet the men whose guilt

Has wearied Heaven for vengeance- he who bears

False witness- he who takes the orphan’s bread,

And robs the widow- he who spreads abroad

Polluted hands in mockery of prayer,

Are left to cumber earth. Shuddering I look

On what is written, yet I blot not out

The desultory numbers; let them stand,

The record of an idle revery.

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Chicago: William Cullen Bryant, Hymn to Death Original Sources, accessed June 17, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G95ML7SZ2IMW3NZ.

MLA: Bryant, William Cullen. Hymn to Death, Original Sources. 17 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G95ML7SZ2IMW3NZ.

Harvard: Bryant, WC, Hymn to Death. Original Sources, retrieved 17 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G95ML7SZ2IMW3NZ.