I am not on Death's payroll

Today is called Veterans Day in the United States, but everywhere else it is Remembrance Day. When we were young it celebrated the end of shooting and was still Armistice Day. Now it celebrates the melancholy fact that young people have again picked up guns, not that they were at last able to put them down on the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month in 1918.

The change came during the Cold War. In 1954 we forgot Remembrance Day. Veterans Day does not honor fallen soldiers. That's Memorial Day. Veterans Day is about those who survive their service. Given how we treat them in this country, we should call it Forgetting Day. Once they have served their purpose our current government abandons them.

To remember Armistice Day, the Day the Guns Stopped, here is Edna St. Vincent Millay's great poem:

CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR (I SHALL DIE)

I shall die
but that is all
I shall do for Death

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall
I hear the clatter on the barn floor
He is in haste
he has business in Cuba
business in the Balkans
Many calls to make this morning
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth
And he may mount by himself
I will not give him a leg up

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip
I will not tell him which way the fox ran
And with his hoof on my breast
I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp

I shall die
but that is all
that I shall do for Death
I am not on his payroll

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my enemies either
Though he promises me much
I will not map him the route to any man's door
Am I a spy in the land of the living
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me
Never through me shall you be overcome

I shall die
but that is all
I shall do for Death

The Reveres, Armistice Day, 2006

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A year ago we posted this on November 11. We can't think of another way to say the same thing, so we'll just say it again the same way we did last year. Alas: Today is called Veterans Day in the United States, but everywhere else it is Remembrance Day. When we were young it celebrated the end of…
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor. He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning. But I will not hold the bridle while he clinches the girth…
Two poems for this week because they are short. Conscientious Objectorby Edna St. Vincent Millay I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor. He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the…
When the US still had "mandatory" conscription for males it was still possible to claim exemption on the basis of a conscientious objection to war. While this usually required a religious basis and was almost impossible for doctors because of a supposed non-combattant role, we were still given full…

Touching, very well done as usual, Thank you.

By Marcie Hascall Clark (not verified) on 11 Nov 2006 #permalink

Magnificent! Thank you

One of my all-time favorite poems! This sentence always gives me shivers:

Am I a spy in the land of the living
that I should deliver men to Death?

Thanks for posting it on such a perfect day.

Thank you, Revere. That made me think of another favourite poem of mine:

Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds, without getting annoyed
"I will not kiss your fucking flag"

(i sing of Olaf, glad and big, by e.e. cummings)

Here is another poem I like that remembers an Old Soldier:


Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,--
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, "All is well!"
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,--
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse's side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer's dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,---
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;=
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,---
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

By Red Crayon (not verified) on 11 Nov 2006 #permalink

Red: I've heard of him. He was on the Boston Board of Health, wasn't he? What else did he do?

He went on to become the countries first liberal, an epidemiologist in the NW but one hell of a guy!

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 11 Nov 2006 #permalink

Minor correction. There may be different versions of the poem, but it is usually printed with this line:

"I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends,
nor of my enemies either."

Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) sings the poem on one of her albums (Morning Glory, 1972)

FYI Remembrance day was originally celebrated as the day that the last British soldiers sailed out of NY after the American Revolution.