THE MANY-MANSIONED HOUSE
AND OTHER POEMS


By
EDWARD WILLIAM THOMSON




 

THE VISION AT SHILOH

(A VETERAN’S DEATH-BED STORY)



SHROUDED on Shiloh field in night and rain,
This body rested from the first’s day’s fight;
Fallen face down, both hands on rifle clutched,
A Shape of sprawling members, blank of thought
As was the April mud in which it lay.

5


Comrade, you deem that I shall surely lie
Torpid, forgetful, nevermore to march
After the flush of morning pales in day;
But I remember how I rose again
From Shiloh field to march three mighty years,

10

Until mine eyes beheld in Richmond streets
Our Father Abraham, homely conqueror,
So Son-of-Manlike, fashioned mild and meek,
Averse from triumph, close to common men,
Chief of a Nation mercifully strong.

15


In boyhood many a time I’d seen his face,
Knew well the accents of his voice serene,
Loved the kind twinkle of his sad-eyed smile,
Yet never once beheld him save with awe,
For that mysterious sense of unity

20

With the External Fortitude, which flowed
As from his gaze into my yearning heart.

The peace our Father’s four years’ Calvary wrought
Has bustled through his huge two-oceaned land
How busily since Shiloh’s blood-drenched field

25

Gave up from death this body men called me.—
Oh, paths of peace were, truly, pleasant ways!
The kindliest Nation earth has ever known
Gave to their veterans grateful preference
In every labor, mart, and council hall, [Page 67]

30

Which nobleness shall a thousand fold be paid
By soldier hearts in every future Age.

Myself was one whom Fortune favored much,
Children and children’s children, troops of friends
Have cheered this firelit chamber silken hung

35

Where now I rest me easy at the last,
In confidence that Shiloh’s miracle
Of Vision and of Song did true forecast
Repose in bliss surpassing mortal dream.

The night outside is black as Shiloh’s night,

40

Save for electric-litten streaks of rain;
My dripping eaves declare November’s shower
Falling as fast as early April’s did
When first this time-worn body grew aware
Of Death’s reluctant yielding to the Soul.

45


Utter oblivion could not be from Sleep
While battle roared, and dreaded evening fell,
And sullen foemen kept the plain unsearched,
And rain tempestuous stormed to midnight’s gloom.

Oh, let me talk!  I’ve seldom told the tale,

50

And I care nothing if my strength be strained.
Our generation ever held that Strength
Was given only that it might be tried.
What matters it if so my term of hours
Ere second resurrection be forestalled?

55


First did this body dimly sense its form
As something vaguely unified in Space;
Powerless, motionless, unaware of aught
Save merely numbness, while a smothering nose
And mumbling lips and tongue mechanical

60

Strove for they knew not what, which was to breathe—
Strove as by instinct uncontrolled of Mind,
Which nowise ordered hands enormous-like [Page 68]
To fumble baffled till they slowly learned
The fast-clutched rifle which bewildered them

65

Was such a thing as fingers could let go.

Then, to restore the breath, the forearms come
Beneath the brow, and raised the face from mud;
Yet all was numbness, but for tiny blows
Patting behind the neck, and prankily

70

Creeping at random down the cheeks and hair.
I did not guess them pellets of cold rain
Until a stab came up as from the ground
Into my wounded breast.  Then Mind awoke
To wetness, night, and all the agonies

75

That dogged resolution rose to bear.

Shocked Memory cried, That stroke one instant past
Was shrapnel shell!  The reasoning power replied,
It laid the body dead on Shiloh field.
Then staunch the Soul, I live—and God is here.

80


Visions came lightning-quick, clear, unconfused,—
The City tumult in my childish ears,
Our tremulous Church at Sumter’s bulletin,
Me naked in the cold recruiting room
Stripped to the hurrying Doctor’s callous test;—

85

All the innumerable recollections flashed
On to that battle-moment when my chum
Charging beside me on red Shiloh field
Gasped out, “Oh, John,” clutched horribly his throat,
Frowned on his bloodied hands, stared wild at me

90

Who, in that moment, felt the stroke, and fell.

Was Harry nigh?  I groped in puddled grass
Seeking his comrade corpse, and sought in vain.
The wound might not have killed him!  Could I turn,
And so gain ground to search a little more?

95

Yes—but the agony!  Yet turn I did,
And, groping farther, felt a little bush. [Page 69]
It seemed more friendly to the finger hold
Than emptiness, or muddy earth, or grass;
So there I lay, face up, in absolute night

100

Whose stillness deepened with the lessening rain.

How long, O Lord, how long the darkness held!
Despite the feverish wound my body chilled,
And oft my desperate fingers strove to loose
The soaking blanket roll which trenched my back

105

As if it lay diagonal on a ridge.

It may be true that slight delirium touched
My brain that night, for when a little wind
Came rustling through the bushes of the plain,
And drizzling ceased, how clearly my closed eyes

110

Could see within the house where I was born!

There sister voices conned their lesson books,
And Mother’s dress was trailing on the stair
As she were coming up to comfort me,
While in my heart an expectation flowed

115

Of some inexplicable joy anear,
Angelic, shining-robed, austerely fair.

With that I opened wondering eyes—and Lo
The heavenly host of stars o’er Shiloh field!

And oh the glory of them, and the peace,

120

The promise, the ethereal hope renewed!
Up rose my soul, supreme past bodily grief,
To rest enraptured as of Heaven assured.

In that blest trance my gaze became intent
On beams I deemed at first a rising moon,

125

Until mine eyes conceived the luminous space
Haloed a tall and human-seeming Form,
Of countenance uplifted unto God,
And palms breast-clasped as if entreating Him. [Page 70]

In vain my straining sight sought certainty

130

Whose was the sorrowing figure which I dreamed
To wear a visage as if Christ were come
In pity for the carnage of that plain.

It seemed that nigh that Presence rose a voice
Most heavenly pure of note, and manlike strong;

135

When I can read my title clear,” it sang
Triumphantly, “To mansions in the skies,”
Lifting the hymn in exultation high
Till other voices took it—wounded men
Lying, like me, in pain and close to death;

140

Myself chimed in, while all about me rang
The soldier chanting of that prostrate host,
Northern and Southern, one united choir
Solemnly glad in Man’s supernal dream.*

Comrade, when that high service of great song

145

Died down, there was no semblance of a moon!
And if indeed one rode the April sky
That wonder-night, I never yet have learned.

But I do know most surely this strange thing,—
That when, in Richmond, Father Abraham,

150

After three years grassed newly Shiloh plain,
Beheld my veteran men relieve his guard,
I saw the triumph in my countenance
Did grieve afresh his sad and infinite eyes
Which gazed with gentle meaning into mine

155

The while his silent lips seemed fashioning
For me alone, “Remember Shiloh Choir.”

Then clear I knew his brooding tenderness
Bewailed our vanquished brethren, waked from years
Of dreadful dream he was their enemy; [Page 71]

160


The exultation vanished from my heart,
A choking pity took me in the throat,
And forth I rushed to join the ranks of Blue
Fighting, as saviours, flames in Richmond Town,
The while his kindly look seemed blessing me.

165


Now in the contemplation of his eyes
I lie content as stretched on Shiloh field,
Dreaming triumphant, waiting for the dawn.

There it broke fair, till shattering musketry
And cheers of charging Blue right onward swept

170

So far, it seemed that utter silence fell,
And I lay waiting very peacefully,
As now, for friendly hands to bear me home. [Page 72]




* The singing of “When I can read my title clear” by the wounded of Shiloh, at night, is perfectly authenticated. [back]