In this poem, Oliver Wendell Holmes buries us in his sorrow over the secession of South Carolina. The poem conveys a grieving we might otherwise overlook in our studies of battle tactics and maps.
The average reader–and even the experienced–might overlook the personification of South Carolina as a state. Thus, reading a poem at least twice is always a good practice, particularly when the author has so skillfully created a true portrait. Sister Caroline could be the tragic figure in any fine novel.
Try reading this first on a purely literal level, and then on the metaphorical.
BROTHER JONATHAN’S LAMENT FOR SISTER CAROLINE
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)
She has gone,-she has left us in passion and pride
Our stormy-browed sister, so long at our side!
She has torn her own star from our firmament’s glow,
And turned on her brother the face of a foe!
0 Caroline, Caroline, child of the sun,
We can never forget that our hearts have been one,
Our foreheads both sprinkled in Liberty’s name,
From the fountain of blood with the finger of flame!
You were always too ready to fire at a touch;
But we said: “She is hasty,-she does not mean much.”
We have scowled when you uttered some turbulent threat;
But Friendship still whispered: “Forgive and forget!”
Has our love all died out? Have its altars grown cold?
Has the curse come at last which the fathers foretold?
Then Nature must teach us the strength of the chain
That her petulant children would sever in vain.
They may fight till the buzzards are gorged with their spoil,
Till the harvest grows black as it rots in the soil,
Till the wolves and the catamounts troop from their caves,
And the shark tracks the pirate, the lord of the waves:
In vain is the strife! When its fury is past,
Their fortunes must flow in one channel at last,
As the torrents that rush from the mountains of snow
Roll mingled in peace through the valleys below.
Our Union is river, lake, ocean, and sky;
Man breaks not the medal when God cuts the die!
Though darkened with sulphur, though cloven with steel,
The blue arch will brighten, the waters will heal!
O Caroline, Caroline, child of the sun,
There are battles with Fate that can never be won!
The star-flowering banner must never be furled,
For its blossoms of light are the hope of the world!
Go, then, our rash sister! afar and aloof,
Run wild in the sunshine away from our roof,
But when your heart aches and your feet have grown sore,
Remember the pathway that leads to our door!