A hymn for the defeated


Better remembered as a sculptor William Wetmore Story was born on this day in 1819, so next year he will celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth.  When I saw this poem it immediately called to mind the image above.  If ever a photograph can capture the moment when victory turned to defeat this is it.  Look at those French faces.

Io Victis :by William Wetmore Story

I sing the hymn of the conquered, who fell in the Battle of Life,
the hymn of the wounded, the beaten, who died overwhelmed in the strife;
Not the jubilant song of the victors, for whom the resounding acclaim
of nations was lifted in chorus, whose brows wore the chaplet of fame,
but the hymn of the low and the humble, the weary, the broken in heart,
who strove and who failed, acting bravely a silent and desperate part;
Whose youth bore no flower on its branches, whose hopes burned in ashes away,
from whose hands slipped the prize they had grasped at, who stood at the dying of day
with the wreck of their life all around them, unpitied, unheeded, alone,
with Death swooping down o’er their failure, and all but their faith overthrown,

while the voice of the world shouts its chorus, its paean for those who have won;
While the trumpet is sounding triumphant, and high to the breeze and the sun
glad banners are waving, hands clapping, and hurrying feet
thronging after the laurel-crowned victors, I stand on the field of defeat,
in the shadow, with those who have fallen, and wounded, and dying, and there
chant a requiem low, place my hand on their pain-knotted brows, breathe a prayer,
hold the hand that is helpless, and whisper, “They only the victory win,
who have fought the good fight, and have vanquished the demon that tempts us within;
Who have held to their faith unseduced by the prize that the world holds on high;
Who have dared for a high cause to suffer, resist, fight, if need be, to die.”

Speak, History! who are Life’s victors? Unroll thy long annals, and say,
are they those whom the world called the victors — who won the success of a day?
The martyrs, or Nero? Spartans, who fell at Thermopylae’s tryst,
or the Persians and Xerxes? His judges or Socrates? Pilate or Christ?

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