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Anti-Slavery Poems
___The Mantle of St. John de Matha

by John Greenleaf Whittier

A Legend of "The Red, White, and Blue," A. D. 1154-1864.

A strong and mighty Angel,
Calm, terrible, and bright,
The cross in blended red and blue
Upon his mantle white.

Two captives by him kneeling,
Each on his broken chain,
Sang praise to God who raiseth
The dead to life again!

Dropping his cross-wrought mantle,
"Wear this," the Angel said;
"Take thou, O Freedom's priest, its sign,
The white, the blue, and red."

Then rose up John de Matha
In the strength the Lord Christ gave,
And begged through all the land of France
The ransom of the slave.

The gates of tower and castle
Before him open flew,
The drawbridge at his coming fell,
The door-bolt backward drew.

For all men owned his errand,
And paid his righteous tax;
And the hearts of lord and peasant
Were in his hands as wax.

At last, outbound from Tunis,
His bark her anchor weighed,
Freighted with seven-score Christian souls
Whose ransom he had paid.

But, torn by Paynim hatred,
Her sails in tatters hung;
And on the wild waves, rudderless,
A shattered hulk she swung.

"God save us!" cried the captain,
"For naught can man avail;
Oh, woe betide the ship that lacks
Her rudder and her sail!

"Behind us are the Moormen;
At sea we sink or strand
There's death upon the water,
There's death upon the land!"

Then up spake John de Matha
"God's errands never fail!
Take thou the mantle which I wear,
And make of it a sail."

They raised the cross-wrought mantle,
The blue, the white, the red;
And straight before the wind off-shore
The ship of Freedom sped.

"God help us!" cried the seamen,
"For vain is mortal skill
The good ship on a stormy sea
Is drifting at its will."

Then up spake John de Matha
"My mariners, never fear
The Lord whose breath has filled her sail
May well our vessel steer!"

So on through storm and darkness
They drove for weary hours;
And lo! the third gray morning shone
On Ostia's friendly towers.

And on the walls the watchers
The ship of mercy knew,
They knew far off its holy cross,
The red, the white, and blue.

And the bells in all the steeples
Rang out in glad accord,
To welcome home to Christian soil
The ransomed of the Lord.

So runs the ancient legend
By bard and painter told;
And lo! the cycle rounds again,
The new is as the old!

With rudder foully broken,
And sails by traitors torn,
Our country on a midnight sea
Is waiting for the morn.

Before her, nameless terror;
Behind, the pirate foe;
The clouds are black above her,
The sea is white below.

The hope of all who suffer,
The dread of all who wrong,
She drifts in darkness and in storm,
How long, O Lord I how long?

But courage, O my mariners
Ye shall not suffer wreck,
While up to God the freedman's prayers
Are rising from your deck.

Is not your sail the banner
Which God hath blest anew,
The mantle that De Matha wore,
The red, the white, the blue?

Its hues are all of heaven,
The red of sunset's dye,
The whiteness of the moon-lit cloud,
The blue of morning's sky.

Wait cheerily, then, O mariners,
For daylight and for land;
The breath of God is in your sail,
Your rudder is His hand.

Sail on, sail on, deep-freighted
With blessings and with hopes;
The saints of old with shadowy hands
Are pulling at your ropes.

Behind ye holy martyrs
Uplift the palm and crown;
Before ye unborn ages send
Their benedictions down.

Take heart from John de Matha!--
God's errands never fail!
Sweep on through storm and darkness,
The thunder and the hail!

Sail on! The morning cometh,
The port ye yet shall win;
And all the bells of God shall ring
The good ship bravely in!

1865.
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