Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
Poetry. A poem like the one above can take you to another place, another time and exist in the mind a half-century or more after first hearing the words. The poem — which was the prelude to America’s war of independence– is by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and was one of many I was exposed to while in grammar school. It ranked up there with the one by a poet who served as a medic in the American:
Captain! My Captain!
Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack,
The prize we sought is won . . .
Walt Whitman wrote this tribute shortly after President Lincoln was assassinated at the end of the Civil War and reminds me of that dreadful day nearly a hundred years later when President Kennedy was silenced by another man with a gun.
And then there was the hero’s tribute that filled me with glory as I envisioned the brave lancers going into battle for their country which was mother England:
Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson spurred me to act like a youngster as I played at war repeating the words of the battled warriors: “Ours is not to reason why ours is but to do or die!”
But it was the poetry offering a more soft-spoken approach that actually prepared me for my real taste of war. I can’t remember how I got exposed to it or where I first saw the words written by Rudyard Kipling. But I cut the poem out of a newspaper or magazine and carried it in my wallet, pulling it out whenever I questioned my self-worth and the values I had been forming after being drafted and wondering if I could make a difference as an officer in the army who soon would face war in Vietnam.
Here is the poem that got me through those long days and sleepless nights. It’s a poem I’d like to pass on to my grandchildren so that they too can appreciate more meaning in life.
By Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!