|MEANING OF THE DAY
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
"In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire"
[An address delivered for Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, at Keene, NH, before
John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic.]
Not long ago I heard a young man ask why people still kept up Memorial Day,
and it set me thinking of the answer. Not the answer that you and I should
give to each other-not the expression of those feelings that, so long as
you live, will make this day sacred to memories of love and grief and
heroic youth--but an answer which should command the assent of those who do
not share our memories, and in which we of the North and our brethren of
the South could join in perfect accord.
So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up
we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a
national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive
form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of
acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want
something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an
end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself
to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee
exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you
should go some whither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate.
One may fall--at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the
earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.
When it was felt so deeply as it was on both sides that a man ought to take
part in the war unless some conscientious scruple or strong practical
reason made it impossible, was that feeling simply the requirement of a
local majority that their neighbors should agree with them? I think not: I
think the feeling was right--in the South as in the North. I think that, as
life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share
the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.
I have spoken of some of the men who were near to me among others very near
and dear, not because their lives have become historic, but because their
lives are the type of what every soldier has known and seen in his own
company. In the great democracy of self-devotion private and general stand
side by side. Unmarshalled save by their own deeds, the army of the dead
sweep before us, "wearing their wounds like stars." It is not because the
men I have mentioned were my friends that I have spoken of them, but, I
repeat, because they are types. I speak of those whom I have seen. But you
all have known such; you, too, remember!
It is not of the dead alone that we think on this day. There are those
still living whose sex forbade them to offer their lives, but who gave
instead their happiness. Which of us has not been lifted above himself by
the sight of one of those lovely, lonely women, around whom the wand of
sorrow has traced its excluding circle--set apart, even when surrounded by
loving friends who would fain bring back joy to their lives? I think of one
whom the poor of a great city know as their benefactress and friend. I
think of one who has lived not less greatly in the midst of her children,
to whom she has taught such lessons as may not be heard elsewhere from
mortal lips. The story of these and her sisters we must pass in reverent
silence. All that may be said has been said by one of their own sex---
But when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.
Then did I check the tears of useless passion,
weaned my young soul from yearning after thine.
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.
But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a
paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our
dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death--of
life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring.
As I listen , the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the
awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil
our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.