POETRY CORNER: TWAIN’S WAR PRAYER

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warIn spite of his tremendous success as a writer and lecturer, Mark Twain did experience one failure in his career:  in March 1915, his publisher, Harpers’ Bazaar, rejected his piece, The War Prayer, written during the Philippine-American war of 1899-1902.

In fact, The War Prayer was only published in 1923, thirteen years after Twain’s death. Often referred to as a short story, I think that Twain’s Prayer reads more like a prose poem.

It stands as a searing indictment of war.

“It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms,
the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the
drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched
firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the
receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of
flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide
avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and
sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion
as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to
patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which
they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears
running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached
devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His
aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every
listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash
spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its
righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their
personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more
in that way.

 

Sunday morning came — next day the battalions would leave for the front;
the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight
with martial dreams — visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum,
the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult,
the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the
war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory!
With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the
neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the
field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of
noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament
was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that
shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes
and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

 

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest! Thunder thy clarion and
lightning thy sword!

 

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for
passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its
supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would
watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in
their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the
hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident,
invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them
and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —

 

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main
aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe
that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a
frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even
to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his
silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood
there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence,
continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words,
uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our
God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

 

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the
startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed
the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light;
then in a deep voice he said:

 

“I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words
smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no
attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will
grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have
explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is
like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who
utters it is aware of — except he pause and think.

 

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken
thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, the other not. Both
have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and
the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a
blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon
a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your
crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon
some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

 

“You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am
commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it — that part
which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed
silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You
heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is
sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant
words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you
have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow
it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also
the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words.
Listen!

 

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to
battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from
the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God,
help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to
cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help
us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded,
writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane
of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with
unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to
wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and
thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter,
broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the
grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their
hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy
their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the
blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is
the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all
that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

 

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The
messenger of the Most High waits!”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no
sense in what he said.”

You can also watch Markos Kounalakis’ stunning animated adaptation of Twain’s work on YouTube.

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2 thoughts on “POETRY CORNER: TWAIN’S WAR PRAYER

  1. Michelle you are doing an amazing job. The war selections are so moving…and yet we still do not seem to learn anything! Remembering…Anne Pallen

  2. Thank you Anne, you’re too kind!
    And yes, I agree with you and it is very gratifying that you, too, feel such strong emotions.
    I’m presently reading “All the Light We Cannot See”, by Anthony Doerr, and it is extraordinary (it is about World War II. Have you had a chance to read it?)

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