Civil Words

Song Cycle by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1960)

1. Enlisted today [sung text checked 1 time]

I know the sun shines, and the lilacs are blowing,
And the summer sends kisses by beautiful May —
Oh! to see all the treasures the spring is bestowing,
And think my boy Willie enlisted today.

It seems but a day since at twilight, low humming,
I rocked him to sleep with his cheek upon mine,
While Robby, the four-year old, watched for the coming
Of father, adown the street's indistinct line.

It is many a year since my Harry departed,
To come back no more in the twilight or dawn:
And Robby grew weary of watching, and started
Alone on the journey his father had gone.

It is many a year — and this afternoon sitting
At Robby's old window, I heard the band play,
And suddenly ceased dreaming over my knitting,
To recollect Willie is twenty today.

And that, standing beside him this soft May-day morning,
And the sun making gold of his wreathed cigar smoke,
I saw in his sweet eyes and lips a faint warning,
And choked down the tears when he eagerly spoke:

"Dear mother, you know how these Northmen are crowing,
They would trample the rights of the South in the dust,
The boys are all fire; and they wish I were going —"
He stopped, but his eyes said. "Oh, say if I must!"

I smiled on the boy, though my heart it seemed breaking,
My eyes filled with tears, so I turned them away,
And answered him, "Willie, 'tis well you are waking —
Go, act as your father would bid you, today!"

I sit in the window, and see the flags flying,
And drearily list to the roll of the drum,
And smother the pain in my heart that is lying
And bid all the fears in my bosom be dumb.

And if he should fall —his young life he has given
For freedom's sweet sake; and for me, I will pray
Once more with my Harry and Robby in Heaven
To meet the dear boy that enlisted today.


Researcher for this text: Emily Ezust [Administrator]

2. All quiet along the Potomac to-night [sung text checked 1 time]

"All quiet along the Potomac to-night!"
Except now and then a stray picket
Is shot as he walks on his beat, to and fro,
By a rifleman hid in the thicket.

'Tis nothing! A private or two now and then
Will not count in the news of the battle;
Not an officer lost! Only one of the men
Moaning out all alone, the death rattle.

All quiet along the Potomac to-night!
Where the soldiers lie peacefully dreaming;
And their tents in the rays of the clear autumn moon,
And the light of their camp-fires are gleaming.

A tremulous sigh, as a gentle night-wind
Through the forest leaves slowly is creeping;
While the stars up above, with their glittering eyes,
Keep guard o’er the army while sleeping.

There's only the sound of the line sentry's tread,
As he tramps from the rock to the fountain,
And thinks of the two in the low trundle bed,
Far away, in the cot on the mountain.

His musket falls slack, and his face, dark and grim,
Grows gentle with memories tender,
As he mutters a prayer for the children asleep,
And their mother – “may heaven defend her!”

The moon seems to shine just as brightly as then -
That night when the love, yet unspoken,
Leaped up to his lips, and when low-murmured vows
Were pledged to be ever unbroken.

Then drawing his sleeve roughly over his eyes,
He dashes off tears that are welling;
And gathers his gun closer up to his breast,
As if to keep down the heart’s swelling.

He passes the fountain, the blasted pine-tree,
The footstep is lagging and weary;
Yet onward he goes, through the broad belt of light,
Towards the shades of the forest so dreary.

Hark! Was it the night wind that rustled the leaves?
Was it moonlight so wondrously flashing?
It looks like a rifle: "Ah! Mary, good-bye!"
And the life-blood is ebbing and splashing.

“All quiet along the Potomac to-night!”
No sound save the rush of the river;
While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead,
And the picket's off duty forever!


Researcher for this text: Emily Ezust [Administrator]

3. Excerpt from President Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address [sung text checked 1 time]

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, 
that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.
With malice toward none; with charity for all; 
with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, 
let us strive on to finish the work we are in;
to bind up the nation’s wounds;
to care for him who shall have borne the battle, 
and for his widow, and his orphan – 
to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, 
among ourselves, and with all nations.


Researcher for this text: Emily Ezust [Administrator]

4. The Death of Lincoln [sung text checked 1 time]

Oh, slow to smite and swift to spare,
Gentle and merciful and just!
Who, in the fear of God, didst bear
The sword of power, a nation's trust!

In sorrow by thy bier we stand,
Amid the awe that hushes all,
And speak the anguish of a land
That shook with horror at thy fall.

Thy task is done; the bond are free:
We bear thee to an honored grave,
Whose proudest monument shall be
The broken fetters of the slave.

Pure was thy life; its bloody close
Hath placed thee with the sons of light,
Among the noble host of those
Who perished in the cause of Right.


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Researcher for this text: Emily Ezust [Administrator]

5. Driving home the cows [sung text checked 1 time]

Out of the clover and blue-eyed grass
He turned them into the river-lane;
One after another he let them pass,
Then fastened the meadow bars again.

Under the willows, and over the hill,
He patiently followed their sober pace;
The merry whistle for once was still,
And something shadowed the sunny face.

Only a boy! and his father had said
He never could let his youngest go:
Two already were lying dead
Under the feet of the trampling foe.

But after the evening work was done,
And the frogs were loud in the meadow swamp,
Over his shoulder he slung his gun,
And stealthily followed the footpath damp.

Across the clover and through the wheat,
With resolute heart and purpose grim,
Though cold was the dew on his hurrying feet,
And the blind bat’s flitting startled him.

Thrice since then had the lanes been white,
And the orchards sweet with apple-bloom;
And now, when the cows came back at night,
The feeble father drove them home.

For news had come to the lonely farm
That three were lying where two had lain;
And the old man’s tremulous, palsied arm
Could never lean on a son’s again.

The summer day grew cool and late.
He went for the cows when the work was done;
But down the lane, as he opened the gate,
He saw them coming one by one,

Brindle, Ebony, Speckle, and Bess,
Shaking their horns in the evening wind;
Cropping the buttercups out of the grass,
But who was it following close behind?

Loosely swung in the idle air
The empty sleeve of army blue;
And worn and pale, from the crisping hair,
Looked out a face that the father knew.

For the Southern prisons will sometimes yawn,
And yield their dead unto life again;
And the day that comes with a cloudy dawn
In golden glory at last may wane.

The great tears sprang to their meeting eyes;
For the heart must speak when the lips are dumb:
And under the silent evening skies
Together they followed the cattle home.


Researcher for this text: Emily Ezust [Administrator]
Total word count: 1235