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Philip Freneau: Death smiles alike at battles lost or won


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

American writers on peace and against war

Philip Freneau: The Prospect of Peace


Philip Freneau
A Picture of Our Times (1782)
With Occasional Reflections

Still round the world triumphant Discord flies,
Still angry kings to bloody contest rise;
Hosts bright with steel, in dreadful order plac’d,
And ships contending on the watery waste;
Distracting demons every breast engage,
Unwearied nations glow with mutual rage;
Still to the charge the routed Briton turns,
The war still rages and the battle burns;
See, man with man in deadly combat join,
See, the black navy form the flaming line;
Death smiles alike at battles lost or won –
Art does for him what Nature would have done.

Can scenes like these delight the human breast? –
Who sees with joy humanity distrest;
Such tragic scenes fierce passion might prolong,
But slighted Reason says, they must be wrong.
Curs’d be the day, how bright soe’er it shin’d,
That first made kings the masters of mankind;
And curs’d the wretch who first with regal pride
Their equal rights to equal men deny’d.
But curs’d o’er all, who first to slav’ry broke
Submissive bow’d and own’d a monarch’s yoke,
Their servile souls his arrogance ador’d
And basely own’d a brother for a lord;
Hence wrath and blood, and feuds and wars began,
And man turned monster to his fellow man.

Not so that age of innocence and ease
When men, yet social, knew no ills like these;
Then dormant yet, ambition (half unknown)
No rival murder’d to possess a throne;
No seas to guard, no empires to defend –
Of some small tribe the father and the friend.
The hoary sage beneath his sylvan shade
Impos’d no laws but those which reason made;
On peace not war, on good not ill intent,
He judg’d his brethren by their own consent;
Untaught to spurn those brethren to the dust;
In virtue firm, and obstinately just,
For him no navies rov’d from shore to shore.
No slaves were doom’d to dig the glitt’ring ore;
Remote from all the vain parade of state,
No slaves in diamonds saunter’d at his gate,
Nor did his breast the guilty passions tear,
He knew no murder and he felt no fear.

Was this the patriarch sage? – Then turn thine eyes
And view the contrast that our age supplies;
Touch’d from the life, I trace no ages fled,
I draw no curtain that conceals the dead;
To distant Britain let thy view be cast,
And say the present far exceeds the past;
Of all the plagues that e’er the world have curs’d,
Name George the tyrant, and you name the worst!
What demon, hostile to the human kind,
Planted these fierce disorders in the mind?
All urg’d alike, one phantom we pursue,
But what has war with happiness to do?
In death’s black shroud this gem can ne’er be found;
Who deals for that the life-destroying wound,
Or pines with grief to see a brother live,
That life dissolving which we cannot give?

‘Tis thine, Ambition! – Thee these horrors suit:
Lost to the human, she assumes the brute;
She proudly vain or insolently bold,
Her heart revenge, her eye intent on gold,
Sway’d by the madness of the present hour
Mistakes for happiness extent of power;
That shining bait which dropt in folly’s way
Tempts the weak mind, and leads the heart astray!
Thou happiness! still sought but never found,
We, in a circle, chase thy shadow round;
Meant all mankind in different forms to bless,
Which yet possessing, we no more possess: –
Thus far remov’d and painted on the eye
Smooth verdant fields seem blended with the sky,
But where they both in fancied contact join
In vain we trace the visionary line;
Still as we chase, the empty circle flies,
Emerge new mountains or new oceans rise.

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