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Friday, September 2, 2011

Number 252: William Lloyd Garrison "Freedom For The Mind"

Freedom For The Mind

High walls and huge the body may confine,
And iron grates obstruct the prisoner's gaze,
And massive bolts may baffle his design,
And vigilant keepers watch his devious ways:
Yet scorns the immortal mind this base control!
No chains can bind it, and no cell enclose:
Swifter than light, it flies from pole to pole,
And, in a flash, from earth to heaven it goes!
It leaps from mount to mount –from vale to vale
It wanders, plucking honeyed fruits and flowers;
It visits home, to hear the fireside tale,
Or in sweet converse pass the joyous hours.
'Tis up before the sun, roaming afar,
And, in its watches, wearies every star!

-- William Lloyd Garrison

Hap Notes: William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) is certainly famous but not for writing poetry, although this poem is much anthologized. Garrison was an abolitionist and life-long journalist who bravely fought for the abolition of slavery and for women's rights. He was a great believer in the equality of all and he put his money, and often his life, where his mouth was.

Garrison is probably most noted for his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and for founding the American Anti-Slavery Society. He was a tireless lecturer and crusader for equal rights for Blacks and for the abolition of slavery (two separate issues and he felt that after slavery was abolished a new system should be set up to make sure freed slaves got their rights.) He often narrowly escaped lynching after some of his lectures. He endured a plethora of death threats and hostility from pro-slavery adherents. Some Southern churches actually had a price on his head.

Garrison spent a couple of months in prison so he knows whereof he speaks in today's poem. In point of fact, no one can access your brain unless you allow it. Advertisers and politicos try with all their resources (which are considerable) to get into your though processes and it's amazing how often they succeed in altering the thoughts of the unguarded mind.

As the poem states, you are free to think whatever you choose. Ah, and there's the rub, eh? If one chooses to believe the malarkey that advertisers constantly rain down upon the public or if one listens to the drivel of uninformed political types, one is free to think what they say is true, also. (A friend of mine recently said that Rick Perry was described as an "Old Testament Christian", which is, of course, an oxymoron but that won't stop people from thinking it or saying it.) So that's the downside of being a responsible-to-yourself thinker – muddy statements that "sound" like they have some merit.

The up side is that no matter where you are, you can think what you want, dream of a better place, imagine a different landscape. You can be flying to the moon as you sit on the porch, you can be in a cozy, warm house while you stand, freezing, at the bus stop, you can be talking to the clouds when it looks like you are watching television. Thoughts are the ultimate virtual reality and they need no computer to generate them.

This is one of those old time poems that teachers would trot out to illustrate the power of positive thinking. When I was a kid, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Campbell, used to recite a shorter and similar Frederick Langbridge verse. Do you remember this one?:

Two men looked out from prison bars,
One saw mud, the other saw stars.

Most of the time Langbridge's (I've never found the poem it came from) and Garrison's poem are whipped out to placate a complainer but the verses, which are about point of view, are also about consciousness and how present in the mind one chooses to be. I would caution all who use these verse to comfort themselves that there is a responsibility implicit in them that goes beyond just "looking on the bright side."

Of course, there's nothing particularly bad about looking on the bright side as long as it doesn't blind you to injustices and troubles you could remedy. Garrison's life stands as a testimony to holding fast to your beliefs and living the principles you espouse.

Here's a famous Garrison quote: "All Christendom professes to receive the Bible as the word of God, and what does it avail?”

You won't find more Garrison poetry but you will find some of his work from The Liberator here:

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