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Anti-Slavery Poems
The Curse of the Charter-Breakers

by John Greenleaf Whittier

The rights and liberties affirmed by Magna Charta were deemed of such
importance, in the thirteenth century, that the Bishops, twice a year,
with tapers burning, and in their pontifical robes, pronounced, in the
presence of the king and the representatives of the estates of England,
the greater excommunication against the infringer of that instrument.
The imposing ceremony took place in the great Hall of Westminster. A
copy of the curse, as pronounced in 1253, declares that, "by the
authority of Almighty God, and the blessed Apostles and Martyrs, and all
the saints in heaven, all those who violate the English liberties, and
secretly or openly, by deed, word, or counsel, do make statutes, or
observe then being made, against said liberties, are accursed and
sequestered from the company of heaven and the sacraments of the Holy
Church."

William Penn, in his admirable political pamphlet, England's
Present Interest Considered, alluding to the curse of the Charter-
breakers, says: "I am no Roman Catholic, and little value their
other curses; yet I declare I would not for the world incur this
curse, as every man deservedly doth, who offers violence to the
fundamental freedom thereby repeated and confirmed."

In Westminster's royal halls,
Robed in their pontificals,
England's ancient prelates stood
For the people's right and good.
Closed around the waiting crowd,
Dark and still, like winter's cloud;
King and council, lord and knight,
Squire and yeoman, stood in sight;
Stood to hear the priest rehearse,
In God's name, the Church's curse,
By the tapers round them lit,
Slowly, sternly uttering it.

"Right of voice in framing laws,
Right of peers to try each cause;
Peasant homestead, mean and small,
Sacred as the monarch's hall,--

"Whoso lays his hand on these,
England's ancient liberties;
Whoso breaks, by word or deed,
England's vow at Runnymede;

"Be he Prince or belted knight,
Whatsoe'er his rank or might,
If the highest, then the worst,
Let him live and die accursed.

"Thou, who to Thy Church hast given
Keys alike, of hell and heaven,
Make our word and witness sure,
Let the curse we speak endure!"

Silent, while that curse was said,
Every bare and listening head
Bowed in reverent awe, and then
All the people said, Amen!

Seven times the bells have tolled,
For the centuries gray and old,
Since that stoled and mitred band
Cursed the tyrants of their land.

Since the priesthood, like a tower,
Stood between the poor and power;
And the wronged and trodden down
Blessed the abbot's shaven crown.

Gone, thank God, their wizard spell,
Lost, their keys of heaven and hell;
Yet I sigh for men as bold
As those bearded priests of old.

Now, too oft the priesthood wait
At the threshold of the state;
Waiting for the beck and nod
Of its power as law and God.

Fraud exults, while solemn words
Sanctify his stolen hoards;
Slavery laughs, while ghostly lips
Bless his manacles and whips.

Not on them the poor rely,
Not to them looks liberty,
Who with fawning falsehood cower
To the wrong, when clothed with power.

Oh, to see them meanly cling,
Round the master, round the king,
Sported with, and sold and bought,--
Pitifuller sight is not!

Tell me not that this must be
God's true priest is always free;
Free, the needed truth to speak,
Right the wronged, and raise the weak.

Not to fawn on wealth and state,
Leaving Lazarus at the gate;
Not to peddle creeds like wares;
Not to mutter hireling prayers;

Nor to paint the new life's bliss
On the sable ground of this;
Golden streets for idle knave,
Sabbath rest for weary slave!

Not for words and works like these,
Priest of God, thy mission is;
But to make earth's desert glad,
In its Eden greenness clad;

And to level manhood bring
Lord and peasant, serf and king;
And the Christ of God to find
In the humblest of thy kind!

Thine to work as well as pray,
Clearing thorny wrongs away;
Plucking up the weeds of sin,
Letting heaven's warm sunshine in;

Watching on the hills of Faith;
Listening what the spirit saith,
Of the dim-seen light afar,
Growing like a nearing star.

God's interpreter art thou,
To the waiting ones below;
'Twixt them and its light midway
Heralding the better day;

Catching gleams of temple spires,
Hearing notes of angel choirs,
Where, as yet unseen of them,
Comes the New Jerusalem!

Like the seer of Patmos gazing,
On the glory downward blazing;
Till upon Earth's grateful sod
Rests the City of our God!

1848.
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