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Sidney Lanier: Death in Eden

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

Sidney Lanier: Selections on war

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Sidney Lanier
From Tiger-Lilies (1867)

It is the first day of May, 1864, and this hypothetical course which has just been marked out is being actually pursued by an ordinary looking traveller upon an ordinary looking horse. Suddenly he becomes aware that his horse is sinking over fetlocks in soft sand. He looks around; the bluff has receded inland, a long marsh is between him and it, full of marsh grass, of mourning cypresses, of black water and black mud, and, at the further end of it, the bluff is crowned with scraggy and desolate pines. The beach is now, for a few yards, only a narrow strip of sand between the near end of the marsh and the bay. The horse snorts, his feet sink deeper; as he draws them up the holes fill with water and crumble in. But it is no use to turn; fortunately the tide is out, the quicksand is somewhat dry; the horse plunges forward, and arrives, covered with perspiration, and trembling in every nerve, on hard beach again. The broken line of the bluff now recommences, with its fringe of oaks. In the face of the cliff appears an opening filled with undergrowth. A blind road turns off from the beach into it. The traveller wishes now to leave the treacherous beach and regain his main road. He turns into the grassy path, round an angle of the bluff, and instantly is in a Garden of Eden.

He finds himself in a small dell which is round as a basin, two hundred yards in diameter, shut in on all sides. Beeches, oaks, lithe hickories, straight pines, roof over this dell with a magnificent boscage. In the centre of it bubbles a limpid spring. Shy companies of flowers stand between the long grasses; some of them show wide startled eyes, many of them have hidden away in cunning nooks. Over them, regarding them in silent and passionate tenderness, lean the ebony-fibred ferns; and the busy mosses do their very best to hide all rudeness and all decay behind a green velvet arras. The light does not dare shine very brightly here; it is soft and sacred, tempered with green leaves, with silence, with odors, with beauties. Wandering perfumes, restless with happiness, float about aimlessly; they are the only inhabitants here.

Our traveller has not seen a sign of human life.

Suddenly he stops, recoils, and turns pale with the surprise of it.

He has seen a sign of human death. A corpse, in blue uniform, saturated with water, lies before him in the path. It has evidently been just dragged from the waves. A line of moisture extends to the water’s edge through the opening in the bluff; it is where the stream dripped through the wet clothes.

Our traveller gazed around him, he could not see a man or a trace of one. Good God! Can the spirit of death inhabit the balm of this May-air in this little Heaven? Does the Devil dwell also in this rosebud of little glens? Grave-openers get sometimes, one may imagine, a mixed odor composed of the death-smell from inside the grave, mixed with the perfumes of roses growing on it. Our traveller seemed to inhale this odor. The air grew thicker, the silence seemed full of noises as of ghosts flitting about, the horse started at a falling leaf, our traveller spurred him and cantered off. He emerged from the dell, followed a path through an old field, opened a gate, and found himself once more in the road which he had quitted to ride on the beach.

*****

They approach the outskirts of the storm of battle.

There lies a man, in bloody rags that were gray, with closed eyes. The first hailstone in the advancing edge of the storm has stricken down a flower. The dainty petal of life shrivels, blackens: yet it gives forth a perfume as it dies; his lips are moving, — he is praying.

The wounded increase. Here is a musket in the road: there is the languid hand that dropped it, pressing its fingers over a blue-edged wound in the breast. Weary pressure, and vain, — the blood flows steadily.

More muskets, cartridge-boxes, belts, greasy haversacks, strew the ground.

Here come the stretcher bearers. They leave a dripping line of blood. “Walk easy as you kin, boys,” comes from a blanket which four men are carrying by the corners. Easy walking is desirable when each step of your four carriers spurts out the blood afresh, or grates the rough edges of a shot bone in your leg.

The sound of a thousand voices, eager, hoarse, fierce all speaking together yet differently, comes through the leaves of the undergrowth. A strange multitudinous noise accompanies it, — a noise like the tremendous sibilation of a mile-long wave just before it breaks. It is the shuffling of two thousand feet as they march over dead leaves.

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