Helen Hunt Jackson was an American poet and writer who became an activist on behalf of improved treatment of Native Americans by the United States government. She described the adverse effects of government actions in her history A Century of Dishonor.
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Famous Helen Hunt Jackson Poems
What freeman knoweth freedom? Never he
Whose father’s father through long lives have reigned
O’er kingdoms which mere heritage attained.
Though from his youth to age he roam as free
As winds, he dreams not freedom’s ecstacy.
But he whose birth was in a nation chained
For centuries; where every breath was drained
From breasts of slaves which knew not there could be
Such thing as freedom,–he beholds the light
Burst, dazzling; though the glory blind his sight
He knows the joy. Fools laugh because he reels
And weilds confusedly his infant will;
The wise man watching with a heart that feels
1 They bade me cast the thing away,
2 They pointed to my hands all bleeding,
3 They listened not to all my pleading;
4 The thing I meant I could not say;
5 I knew that I should rue the day
6 If once I cast that thing away.
7 I grasped it firm, and bore the pain;
8 The thorny husks I stripped and scattered;
9 If I could reach its heart, what mattered
10 If other men saw not my gain,
11 Or even if I should be slain?
12 I knew the risks; I chose the pain.
13 O, had I cast that thing away,
14 I had not found what most I cherish,
15 A faith without which I should perish,–
16 The faith which, like a kernel, lay
17 Hid in the husks which on that day
18 My instinct would not throw away!
My body, eh? Friend Death, how now?
Why all this tedious pomp of writ?
Thou hast reclaimed it sure and slow
For half a century bit by bit.
In faith thou knowest more to-day
Than I do, where it can be found!
This shrivelled lump of suffering clay,
To which I am now chained and bound,
Has not of kith or kin a trace
To the good body once I bore;
Look at this shrunken, ghastly face:
Didst ever see that face before?
Ah, well, friend Death, good friend thou art;
Thy only fault thy lagging gait,
Mistaken pity in thy heart
For timorous ones that bid thee wait.
Do quickly all thou hast to do,
Nor I nor mine will hindrance make;
I shall be free when thou art through;
I grudge thee nought that thou must take!
Stay! I have lied; I grudge thee one,
Yes, two I grudge thee at this last,–
Two members which have faithful done
My will and bidding in the past.
I grudge thee this right hand of mine;
I grudge thee this quick-beating heart;
They never gave me coward sign,
Nor played me once the traitor’s part.
I see now why in olden days
Men in barbaric love or hate
Nailed enemies’ hands at wild crossways,
Shrined leaders’ hearts in costly state:
The symbol, sign and instrument
Of each soul’s purpose, passion, strife,
Of fires in which are poured and spent
Their all of love, their all of life.
O feeble, mighty human hand!
O fragile, dauntless human heart!
The universe holds nothing planned
With such sublime, transcendent art!
Yes, Death, I own I grudge thee mine
Poor little hand, so feeble now;
Its wrinkled palm, its altered line,
Its veins so pallid and so slow —
Ah, well, friend Death, good friend thou art;
I shall be free when thou art through.
Take all there is — take hand and heart;
There must be somewhere work to do.
With what a childish and short-sighted sense
Fear seeks for safety; recons up the days
Of danger and escape, the hours and ways
Of death; it breathless flies the pestilence;
It walls itself in towers of defence;
By land, by sea, against the storm it lays
Down barriers; then, comforted, it says:
“This spot, this hour is safe.” Oh, vain pretence!
Man born of man knows nothing when he goes;
The winds blow where they list, and will disclose
To no man which brings safety, which brings risk.
The mighty are brought low by many a thing
Too small to name. Beneath the daisy’s disk
Lies hid the pebble for the fatal sling.
The silken threads by viewless spinners spun,
Which float so idly on the summer air,
And help to make each summer morning fair,
Shining like silver in the summer sun,
Are caught by wayward breezes, one by one,
Are blown to east and west and fastened there,
Weaving on all the roads their sudden snare.
No sign which road doth safest, freest run,
The wingèd insects know, that soar so gay
To meet their death upon each summer day.
How dare we any human deed arraign;
Attempt to recon any moment’s cost;
Or any pathway trust as safe and plain
Because we see not where the threads have crossed?
These things wondering I saw beneath the sun:
That never yet the race was to the swift,
The fight unto the mightiest to lift,
Nor favors unto men whose skill had done
Great works, nor riches ever unto one
Wise man of understanding. All is drift
Of time and chance, and none may stay or sift
Or know the end of that which is begun.
Who waits until the wind shall silent keep,
Will never find the ready hour to sow.
Who watcheth clouds will have no time to reap.
At daydawn plant thy seed, and be not slow
At night. God doth not slumber take nor sleep:
Which seed shall prosper thou shalt never know.
An Arctic Quest
O proudly name their names who bravely sail
To seek brave lost in Arctic snows and seas!
Bring money and bring ships, and on strong knees
Pray prayers so strong that not one word can fail
To pierce God’s listening heart!
Rigid and pale,
The lost men’s bodies, waiting, drift and freeze;
Yet shall their solemn dead lips tell to these
Who find them secrets mighty to prevail
On farther, darker, icier seas.
Alone, unhelped, unprayed-for. Perishing
For years in realms of more than Arctic snow,
My heart has lingered.
Will the poor dead thing
Be sign to quide past bitter flood and floe,
To open sea, some strong heart triumphing?
I dreamed that I ws dead and crossed the heavens,–
Heavens after heavens with burning feet and swift,–
And cried: “O God, where art Thou?” I left one
On earth, whose burden I would pray Thee lift.”
I was so dead I wondered at no thing,–
Not even that the angels slowly turned
Their faces, speechless, as I hurried by
(Beneath my feet the golden pavements burned);
Nor, at the first, that I could not find God,
Because the heavens stretched endlessly like space.
At last a terror siezed my very soul;
I seemed alone in all the crowded place.
Then, sudden, one compassionate cried out,
Though like the rest his face from me he turned,
As I were one no angel might regard
(Beneath my feet the golden pavements burned):
“No moew in heaven than earth will he find God
Who does not know his loving mercy swift
But waits the moment consummate and ripe,
Each burden, from each human soul to lift.”
Though I was dead, I died again for shame;
Lonely, to flee from heaven again I turned;
The ranks of angels looked away from me
(Beneath my feet the golden pavements burned).
A Calendar of Sonnets: September
O golden month! How high thy gold is heaped!
The yellow birch-leaves shine like bright coins strung
On wands; the chestnut’s yellow pennons tongue
To every wind its harvest challenge. Steeped
In yellow, still lie fields where wheat was reaped;
And yellow still the corn sheaves, stacked among
The yellow gourds, which from the earth have wrung
Her utmost gold. To highest boughs have leaped
The purple grape,–last thing to ripen, late
By very reason of its precious cost.
O Heart, remember, vintages are lost
If grapes do not for freezing night-dews wait.
Think, while thou sunnest thyself in Joy’s estate,
Mayhap thou canst not ripen without frost!
A Calendar of Sonnets: October
The month of carnival of all the year,
When Nature lets the wild earth go its way,
And spend whole seasons on a single day.
The spring-time holds her white and purple dear;
October, lavish, flaunts them far and near;
The summer charily her reds doth lay
Like jewels on her costliest array;
October, scornful, burns them on a bier.
The winter hoards his pearls of frost in sign
Of kingdom: whiter pearls than winter knew,
Oar empress wore, in Egypt’s ancient line,
October, feasting ‘neath her dome of blue,
Drinks at a single draught, slow filtered through
Sunshiny air, as in a tingling wine!
A Calendar of Sonnets: November
This is the treacherous month when autumn days
With summer’s voice come bearing summer’s gifts.
Beguiled, the pale down-trodden aster lifts
Her head and blooms again. The soft, warm haze
Makes moist once more the sere and dusty ways,
And, creeping through where dead leaves lie in drifts,
The violet returns. Snow noiseless sifts
Ere night, an icy shroud, which morning’s rays
Willidly shine upon and slowly melt,
Too late to bid the violet live again.
The treachery, at last, too late, is plain;
Bare are the places where the sweet flowers dwelt.
What joy sufficient hath November felt?
What profit from the violet’s day of pain?
A Calendar of Sonnets: May
O Month when they who love must love and wed!
Were one to go to worlds where May is naught,
And seek to tell the memories he had brought
From earth of thee, what were most fitly said?
I know not if the rosy showers shed
From apple-boughs, or if the soft green wrought
In fields, or if the robin’s call be fraught
The most with thy delight. Perhaps they read
Thee best who in the ancient time did say
Thou wert the sacred month unto the old:
No blossom blooms upon thy brightest day
So subtly sweet as memories which unfold
In aged hearts which in thy sunshine lie,
To sun themselves once more before they die.
A Calendar of Sonnets: March
Month which the warring ancients strangely styled
The month of war,–as if in their fierce ways
Were any month of peace!–in thy rough days
I find no war in Nature, though the wild
Winds clash and clang, and broken boughs are piled
As feet of writhing trees. The violets raise
Their heads without affright, without amaze,
And sleep through all the din, as sleeps a child.
And he who watches well may well discern
Sweet expectation in each living thing.
Like pregnant mother the sweet earth doth yearn;
In secret joy makes ready for the spring;
And hidden, sacred, in her breast doth bear
Annunciation lilies for the year.
A Calendar of Sonnets: June
O month whose promise and fulfilment blend,
And burst in one! it seems the earth can store
In all her roomy house no treasure more;
Of all her wealth no farthing have to spend
On fruit, when once this stintless flowering end.
And yet no tiniest flower shall fall before
It hath made ready at its hidden core
Its tithe of seed, which we may count and tend
Till harvest. Joy of blossomed love, for thee
Seems it no fairer thing can yet have birth?
No room is left for deeper ecstacy?
Watch well if seeds grow strong, to scatter free
Germs for thy future summers on the earth.
A joy which is but joy soon comes to dearth.
A Calendar of Sonnets: July
Some flowers are withered and some joys have died;
The garden reeks with an East Indian scent
From beds where gillyflowers stand weak and spent;
The white heat pales the skies from side to side;
But in still lakes and rivers, cool, content,
Like starry blooms on a new firmament,
White lilies float and regally abide.
In vain the cruel skies their hot rays shed;
The lily does not feel their brazen glare.
In vain the pallid clouds refuse to share
Their dews, the lily feels no thirst, no dread.
Unharmed she lifts her queenly face and head;
She drinks of living waters and keeps fair.
A Calendar of Sonnets: January
O Winter! frozen pulse and heart of fire,
What loss is theirs who from thy kingdom turn
Dismayed, and think thy snow a sculptured urn
Of death! Far sooner in midsummer tire
The streams than under ice. June could not hire
Her roses to forego the strength they learn
In sleeping on thy breast. No fires can burn
The bridges thou dost lay where men desire
In vain to build.
O Heart, when Love’s sun goes
To northward, and the sounds of singing cease,
Keep warm by inner fires, and rest in peace.
Sleep on content, as sleeps the patient rose.
Walk boldly on the white untrodden snows,
The winter is the winter’s own release.
A Calendar of Sonnets: February
Still lie the sheltering snows, undimmed and white;
And reigns the winter’s pregnant silence still;
No sign of spring, save that the catkins fill,
And willow stems grow daily red and bright.
These are days when ancients held a rite
Of expiation for the old year’s ill,
And prayer to purify the new year’s will:
Fit days, ere yet the spring rains blur the sight,
Ere yet the bounding blood grows hot with haste,
And dreaming thoughts grow heavy with a greed
The ardent summer’s joy to have and taste;
Fit days, to give to last year’s losses heed,
To recon clear the new life’s sterner need;
Fit days, for Feast of Expiation placed!
A Calendar of Sonnets: December
The lakes of ice gleam bluer than the lakes
Of water ‘neath the summer sunshine gleamed:
Far fairer than when placidly it streamed,
The brook its frozen architecture makes,
And under bridges white its swift way takes.
Snow comes and goes as messenger who dreamed
Might linger on the road; or one who deemed
His message hostile gently for their sakes
Who listened might reveal it by degrees.
We gird against the cold of winter wind
Our loins now with mighty bands of sleep,
In longest, darkest nights take rest and ease,
And every shortening day, as shadows creep
O’er the brief noontide, fresh surprises find.
A Calendar of Sonnets: August
Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.
Weak subterfuge! Each mocking day doth fleece
A blossom, and lay bare her poverty.
Poor middle-aged summer! Vain this show!
Whole fields of Golden-Rod cannot offset
One meadow with a single violet;
And well the singing thrush and lily know,
Spite of all artifice which her regret
Can deck in splendid guise, their time to go!
A Calendar of Sonnets: April
No days such honored days as these! While yet
Fair Aphrodite reigned, men seeking wide
For some fair thing which should forever bide
On earth, her beauteous memory to set
In fitting frame that no age could forget,
Her name in lovely April’s name did hide,
And leave it there, eternally allied
To all the fairest flowers Spring did beget.
And when fair Aphrodite passed from earth,
Her shrines forgotten and her feasts of mirth,
A holier symbol still in seal and sign,
Sweet April took, of kingdom most divine,
When Christ ascended, in the time of birth
Of spring anemones, in Palestine.