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Scholarly Editing

The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing

2013, Volume 34

"Will not these days be by thy poets sung": Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864

Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
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Complete Issue: The Anglo-African (28 November 1863)
John G. Whittier, "What of the Day?" The Anglo-African (28 November 1863): [1]View Poem Image
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A sound of tumult troubles all the air Like the low thunders of a sultry sky, Far rolling ere the downright lightnings glare, The hills blaze red with warnings; foes draw nigh, Treading the dark with challenge and reply. Behold the burden of the prophet's vision— The gathering hosts, the Valley of Decision,[3] Dusk with the wings of eagles wheeling o'er! Day of the Lord, of darkness and not light, It breaks in thunder and in whirlwind's roar![4] Even so, Father! let thy will be done. Turn and o'erturn. End what thou hast begun In judgment or in mercy. As for me, If but the least and frailest, let me be Evermore numbered with the truly free, Who find thy service perfect liberty. I fain would thank thee that my mortal life Has reached the hour (albeit through care and pain) When good and evil, as for final strife, Close dim and vast on Armageddon's plain, And Michael and his angels once again[5] Drive howling back the spirits of the night. Oh! for the faith, to read the signs aright, And from the angle of thy perfect sight See Truth's white banner floating on before, And the good cause, despite of venal friends And base expedients, move to noble ends; See Peace, with Freedom, make to Time amends; And through its cloud of dust, the threshing floor,[6] Flailed by the thunder, heaped with chaffless grain.


  1. "What of the Day?" also appeared in the National Anti-Slavery Standard of March 5, 1864.Go back
  2. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) dedicated himself to abolitionist activities in the early 1830s. He was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society (est. December 1833), and held the editorship of the Pennsylvania Freeman from March 1838 until February 1840. Convinced that the Constitution and the ballot could be used to attack slavery, he supported the Liberty Party and played an active part in its members' campaigns. Antislavery journalism continued to feature largely in his life; for thirteen years, he worked as corresponding editor for the National Era (1847–1860).
    Orthodox Quaker Whittier managed to reconcile his abhorrence of war with his support for conflict that furthered the antislavery cause; during the war he urged members of the Society of Friends to assist the war effort in noncombatant roles, as nurses in hospitals and as teachers among the freedpeople (Samuel T. Pickard, Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier [London: Sampson Low, 1895], 2:440–41; see also "In War-Time"). Poetry had long been integral to his abolitionist mission. His first (unauthorized) collection of poetry, Poems Written during the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States, between 1830 and 1838, was published by antislavery colleagues in 1837 (Randall Cluff, "Whittier, John Greenleaf," in American National Biography Online). He continued to champion abolition in verse throughout the war. His poems often appeared in the Atlantic Monthly (which he supported from its inception) and in the New York Independent, and were widely reprinted in serials with antislavery sympathies. Reprinted as a patriotic contribution to the fundraising efforts of the United States Sanitary Commission, "What of the Day?" became a Civil War poem.
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  3. The place of the last judgment, according to Old Testament prophet Joel: "Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision" (3:14).Go back
  4. Whirlwinds are a recurrent biblical image of divine power and anger, associated with the last judgment. See, for example, Isaiah 29:6: "you will be visited by the Lord of hosts / with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, / with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire."Go back
  5. Whittier likens the midcentury contest between "Good" and "Evil" to the battle between the Archangel Michael and Satan, described in the Revelation of St. John: "And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, / And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven" (12:7–8).Go back
  6. A reference to the Gospels' agricultural figure for the sifting of the saved from the damned. See Matthew 3:13 and Luke 3:17: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."Go back