A sometime resident in Cambridge, MacLeish graduated from Yale College and experienced U.S. Army action in World War I before graduating from Harvard Law School. He later served as Librarian of Congress and Assistant Secretary of State before becoming the chief of the American delegation of the nations who founded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In addition to his public service, Archibald MacLeish was Harvard’s Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory.
His poems were supplemented by his verse drama, J.B., which presented on Broadway his story of Job in America. MacLeish was an outspoken prophet to America, as well as celebrant of its democracy, as in these lines commemorating the 1975 American Bicentennial in Boston. The initial lines honor Perry Miller, interpreter of American literature, and Samuel Eliot Morison, the historian.
The Poetry of Archibald MacLeish
NIGHT WATCH IN THE CITY OF BOSTON
Puritan New England’s famous scholar
half intoxicated with those heady draughts of God,
come walk these cobble-stones John Cotton trod,
and you, our Yankee Admiral of the Ocean Sea,
come too, come walk with me.
You know, none better, how the bay wind blows
fierce in the soul as in the streets its ocean snows.
Lead me between you in the night, old friends,
one living and one dead, and where the journey ends
show me the city built as on a hill
John Winthrop saw long since and you see still.
I almost saw it once, a law school boy
born west beyond the Lakes in Illinois.
Walking down Milk Street in a summer dawn,
the sidewalks empty and the truckers gone,
I thought the asphalt turned to country lane
and climbed toward something, glimpsed and lost again –
some distance not of measure but of mind,
of meaning. Oh, of man, I could not find.
What city is it where the heart comes home?
City of God they called it on the hills of Rome
when empire changed to church and kings were crowned
to rule in God’s name all the world around.
City of God!
Was this the city, then, of man?-
this new found city where the hope began
that Eve who spins and Adam’s son who delves
might make their peace with God and rule themselves?-
this shanty city on a granite shore,
the woods behind it and the seas before,
where human hope first challenged Heaven’s will
and piled a blazing beacon on a little hill?-
city where man, poor naked actor on his narrow stage,
confronted in the wilderness the God of Ages?
Lead me between you to that holy ground
where man and God contended and the hope was found.
Moses upon the Sinai in the cloud
faced God for forty days and nights and bowed;
received the Law, obedient and mute;
brought back to Israel the Decalogue of Duty.
Not so New England’s prophets. When their arguments were done
they answered thundering skies with their own thunder:
“We have the Lord,” wrote Hooker with his wild goose quill,
“We have the Lord in bonds for the fulfilling.”
City of Man! Before the elms came down
no village in American, no prairie town,
but planted avenues of elms against the sky
to praise, to keep the promise, to remember by-
remember that small city of great men
where man himself had walked the earth again:
Warren at Bunker Hill who stood and died
not for a flag-there was none-but for human pride;
Emerson who prayed and quit the church,
choosing not Heaven’s answer but the human search;
Thoreau who followed footprints in the snow
to find his own-the human journey he still had to go;
Holmes dissenting in a sordid age,
the Court against him and rich man’s rage-
Holmes who taught the herd how human liberty is won:
by man alone, minority of one.
City of Man, Oh, city of the famous dead
where Otis spoke and Adam’s heart was bread:
Mother of the great Republic-mother town
before the elms sickened and came down . . .
The darkness deepens. Shrieking voices cry
below these fantasies of glass that crowd our sky
and hatred like a whirling paper in a street
tear at itself where shame and hatred meet.
Show me, old friends, where in the darkness still
stands the great Republic on its hill!
THE YOUNG DEAD SOLDIERS
for lieutenant Richard Meyers
The Young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, the are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us.
They say: We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives
They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for
nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this.
They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.