Follen by John Greenleaf Whittier


Charles Follen, one of the noblest contributions of Germany to American citizenship, was at an early age driven from his professorship in the University of Jena, and compelled to seek shelter from official prosecution in Switzerland, on account of his liberal political opinions. He became Professor of Civil Law in the University of Basle. The governments of Prussia, Austria, and Russia united in demanding his delivery as a political offender; and, in consequence, he left Switzerland, and came to the United States. At the time of the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society he was a Professor in Harvard University, honored for his genius, learning, and estimable character. His love of liberty and hatred of oppression led him to seek an interview with Garrison and express his sympathy with him. Soon after, he attended a meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. An able speech was made by Rev. A. A. Phelps, and a letter of mine addressed to the Secretary of the Society was read. Whereupon he rose and stated that his views were in unison with those of the Society, and that after hearing the speech and the letter, he was ready to join it, and abide the probable consequences of such an unpopular act. He lost by so doing his professorship. He was an able member of the Executive Committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He perished in the ill-fated steamer Lexington, which was burned on its passage from New York, January 13, 1840. The few writings left behind him show him to have been a profound thinker of rare spiritual insight.

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Friend of my soul! as with moist eye
I look up from this page of thine,
Is it a dream that thou art nigh,
Thy mild face gazing into mine?

That presence seems before me now,
A placid heaven of sweet moonrise,
When, dew-like, on the earth below
Descends the quiet of the skies.

The calm brow through the parted hair,
The gentle lips which knew no guile,
Softening the blue eye’s thoughtful care
With the bland beauty of their smile.

Ah me! at times that last dread scene
Of Frost and Fire and moaning Sea
Will cast its shade of doubt between
The failing eyes of Faith and thee.

Yet, lingering o’er thy charmed page,
Where through the twilight air of earth,
Alike enthusiast and sage,
Prophet and bard, thou gazest forth,

Lifting the Future’s solemn veil;
The reaching of a mortal hand
To put aside the cold and pale
Cloud-curtains of the Unseen Land;

Shall these poor elements outlive
The mind whose kingly will, they wrought?
Their gross unconsciousness survive
Thy godlike energy of thought?

In thoughts which answer to my own,
In words which reach my inward ear,
Like whispers from the void Unknown,
I feel thy living presence here.

The waves which lull thy body’s rest,
The dust thy pilgrim footsteps trod,
Unwasted, through each change, attest
The fixed economy of God.

Thou livest, Follen! not in vain
Hath thy fine spirit meekly borne
The burthen of Life’s cross of pain,
And the thorned crown of suffering worn.

Oh, while Life’s solemn mystery glooms
Around us like a dungeon’s wall,
Silent earth’s pale and crowded tombs,
Silent the heaven which bends o’er all!

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While day by day our loved ones glide
In spectral silence, hushed and lone,
To the cold shadows which divide
The living from the dread Unknown;

While even on the closing eye,
And on the lip which moves in vain,
The seals of that stern mystery
Their undiscovered trust retain;

And only midst the gloom of death,
Its mournful doubts and haunting fears,
Two pale, sweet angels, Hope and Faith,
Smile dimly on us through their tears;

‘T is something to a heart like mine
To think of thee as living yet;
To feel that such a light as thine
Could not in utter darkness set.

Less dreary seems the untried way
Since thou hast left thy footprints there,
And beams of mournful beauty play
Round the sad Angel’s sable hair.

Oh! at this hour when half the sky
Is glorious with its evening light,
And fair broad fields of summer lie
Hung o’er with greenness in my sight;

While through these elm-boughs wet with rain
The sunset’s golden walls are seen,
With clover-bloom and yellow grain
And wood-draped hill and stream between;

I long to know if scenes like this
Are hidden from an angel’s eyes;
If earth’s familiar loveliness
Haunts not thy heaven’s serener skies.

For sweetly here upon thee grew
The lesson which that beauty gave,
The ideal of the pure and true
In earth and sky and gliding wave.

And it may be that all which lends
The soul an upward impulse here,
With a diviner beauty blends,
And greets us in a holier sphere.

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Through groves where blighting never fell
The humbler flowers of earth may twine;
And simple draughts-from childhood’s well
Blend with the angel-tasted wine.

But be the prying vision veiled,
And let the seeking lips be dumb,
Where even seraph eyes have failed
Shall mortal blindness seek to come?

We only know that thou hast gone,
And that the same returnless tide
Which bore thee from us still glides on,
And we who mourn thee with it glide.

On all thou lookest we shall look,
And to our gaze erelong shall turn
That page of God’s mysterious book
We so much wish yet dread to learn.

With Him, before whose awful power
Thy spirit bent its trembling knee;
Who, in the silent greeting flower,
And forest leaf, looked out on thee,

We leave thee, with a trust serene,
Which Time, nor Change, nor Death can move,
While with thy childlike faith we lean
On Him whose dearest name is Love!


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