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1895 / Cambridge

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Brings the Song of the Sword to Harvard’s Graduating Class

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that it came over me that the army was made up of what I should now call very young men. I dare say that my illusion has been shared by some of those now present, as they have looked at us upon whose heads the white shadows have begun to fall. But the truth is that war is the business of youth and early middle age. You who called this assemblage together, not we, would be the soldiers of another war, if we should have one, and it is for you to hear the bugles as once we heard them beneath the morning stars! For you it is that now is sung the Song of the Sword:

The War-Thing, the Comrade, Father of Honor, And Giver of kingship, The fame-smith, the song master. Priest (saith the Lord) Of his marriage with victory
Clear singing, clean slicing; Sweet spoken, soft finishing; Making death beautiful Life but a coin To be staked in a pastime Whose playing is more Than the transfer of being; Arch-anarch, chief builder, Prince and evangelist, I am the Will of God: I am the Sword.

War, when you are at it, is horrible and dull. It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine. I hope it may be long before we are called again to sit at that master’s feet. But some teacher of the kind we all need. In this snug, oversafe corner of the world we need it, that we may realize that our comfortable routine is no eternal necessity of things, but merely a little space of calm in the midst of the tempestuous untamed streaming of the world, and in order that we may be ready for danger. We need it in this time of individualist negations, with its literature of French and American humor, revolting at discipline, loving fleshpots, and denying that anything is worthy of reverence—in order that we may remember all that buffoons forget. We need it everywhere and at all times. For high and dangerous action teaches us to believe as right beyond dispute things for which our doubting minds are slow to find words of proof. Out of heroism grows faith in the worth of heroism. The proof comes later, and even may never come. Therefore I rejoice at every dangerous sport which I see pursued. The students at Heidelberg, with their sword-slashed faces, inspire me with sincere respect. I gaze with delight upon our polo players. If once in a while in our rough riding a neck is broken, I regard it, not as a waste, but as a price well paid for the breeding of a race fit for headship and command.

As for us, our days of combat are over. Our swords are rust. Our guns will thunder no more. The vultures that once wheeled over our heads must be buried with their prey. Whatever of glory must be won in the council or the closet, never again in the field. I do not repine. We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.

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Published In
States of War
About the Text

From a speech given at Soldiers Field on Memorial Day, 1895, in honor of Harvard University's Civil War dead. Theodore Roosevelt so admired the speech that soon after becoming President, he nominated Holmes to a seat on the Supreme Court.

The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting done by fools.
Thucydides, 5th century BC
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