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James Weldon Johnson

(1871-1938 / Florida/United States)

And the Greatest of These Is War


Around the council-board of Hell, with Satan at their head,
The Three Great Scourges of humanity sat.
Gaunt Famine, with hollow cheek and voice, arose and spoke,—
'O, Prince, I have stalked the earth,
And my victims by ten thousands I have slain,
I have smitten old and young.
Mouths of the helpless old moaning for bread, I have filled with dust;
And I have laughed to see a crying babe tug at the shriveling breast
Of its mother, dead and cold.
I have heard the cries and prayers of men go up to a tearless sky,
And fall back upon an earth of ashes;
But, heedless, I have gone on with my work.
'Tis thus, O, Prince, that I have scourged mankind.'
And Satan nodded his head.

Pale Pestilence, with stenchful breath, then spoke and said, —
'Great Prince, my brother, Famine, attacks the poor.
Page 38
He is most terrible against the helpless and the old.
But I have made a charnel-house of the mightiest cities of men.
When I strike, neither their stores of gold or of grain avail.
With a breath I lay low their strongest, and wither up their fairest.
I come upon them without warning, lancing invisible death.
From me they flee with eyes and mouths distended;
I poison the air for which they gasp, and I strike them down fleeing.
'Tis thus, great Prince, that I have scourged mankind.'
And Satan nodded his head.

Then the red monster, War, rose up and spoke,—
His blood-shot eyes glared 'round him, and his thundering voice
Echoed through the murky vaults of Hell. —
'O, mighty Prince, my brothers, Famine and Pestilence,
Have slain their thousands and ten thousands,— true;
But the greater their victories have been,
The more have they wakened in Man's breast
The God-like attributes of sympathy, of brotherhood and love
And made of him a searcher after wisdom.
But I arouse in Man the demon and the brute,
I plant black hatred in his heart and red revenge.
From the summit of fifty thousand years of upward climb
I haul him down to the level of the start, back to the wolf.
I give him claws.
I set his teeth into his brother's throat.
I make him drunk with his brother's blood.
And I laugh ho! ho! while he destroys himself.
O, mighty Prince, not only do I slay,
But I draw Man hellward.'

And Satan smiled, stretched out his hand, and said, —
'O War, of all the scourges of humanity, I crown you chief.'
And Hell rang with the acclamation of the Fiends.

Submitted: Friday, April 02, 2010

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