Although Memorial Day did not become a federal holiday until 1971, it has been celebrated in various capacities throughout the United States since at least the late 19th century. That 150-year-old tradition of formally honoring the fallen in battle inspired many artists to create art that eulogized the lost.

Below are two poems by four American poets: Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amos Russel Wells and Edith Wharton. Each poem memorializes fallen soldiers in its own unique way, reminding readers then and now of the solemn roots of Memorial Day.

Dirge for Two Veterans

The last sunbeam

Lightly falls from the finish’d Sabbath,

On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,

Down a new-made double grave.

Lo, the moon ascending,

Up from the east the silvery round moon,

Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,

Immense and silent moon.

I see a sad procession,

And I hear the sound of coming full-key’d bugles,

All the channels of the city streets they’re flooding,

As with voices and with tears.

I hear the great drums pounding,

And the small drums steady whirring,

And every blow of the great convulsive drums,

Strikes me through and through.

For the son is brought with the father

(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,

Two veterans, son and father, dropt together,

And the double grave awaits them).

Now nearer blow the bugles,

And the drums strike more convulsive,

And the daylight over the pavement quite has faded,

And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

In the eastern sky up-buoying,

The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin’d

(‘Tis some mother’s large transparent face,

In heaven brighter glowing).

O strong dead-march you please me!

O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!

O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!

What I have I also give you.

The moon gives you light,

And the bugles and the drums give you music,

And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,

My heart gives you love.

– Walt Whitman, 1867


Decoration Day

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest

On this Field of the Grounded Arms,

Where foes no more molest,

Nor sentry’s shot alarms!

Ye have slept on the ground before,

And started to your feet

At the cannon’s sudden roar,

Or the drum’s redoubling beat.

But in this camp of Death

No sound your slumber breaks;

Here is no fevered breath,

No wound that bleeds and aches.

All is repose and peace,

Untrampled lies the sod;

The shouts of battle cease,

It is the Truce of God!

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!

The thoughts of men shall be

As sentinels to keep

Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green

We deck with fragrant flowers

Yours has the suffering been,

The memory shall be ours.

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1882


Memorial Day

The Day of Memories!—Remembering what?

The cannon’s roar, the hissing of the shot?

The weary hospital, the prison pen?

The widow’s tears, the groans of stalwart men?

The bitterness of fratricidal strife?

The pangs of death, the sharper pangs of life?

Nay, let us quite forget the whole of these

Upon our sacred Day of Memories.

The Day of Memories!—Remembering what?

The honored dust in every hallowed spot;

The honored names of all our heroes dead;

The glorious land for which they fought and bled;

Our nation’s hopes; the kindly, common good;

The universal bond of brotherhood;

These we remember gladly, all of these,

Upon our sacred Day of Memories.

– Amos Russel Wells, 1921


The Young Dead

Ah, how I pity the young dead who gave

All that they were, and might become, that we

With tired eyes should watch this perfect sea

Re-weave its patterning of silver wave

Round scented cliffs of arbutus and bay.

No more shall any rose along the way,

The myrtle way that wanders to the shore,

Nor jonquil-twinkling meadow any more,

Nor the warm lavender that takes the spray,

Smell only of sea-salt and the sun.

But, through recurring seasons, every one

Shall speak to us with lips the darkness closes,

Shall look at us with eyes that missed the roses,

Clutch us with hands whose work was just begun,

Laid idle now beneath the earth we tread—

And always we shall walk with the young dead.—

Ah, how I pity the young dead, whose eyes

Strain through the sod to see these perfect skies,

Who feel the new wheat springing in their stead,

And the lark singing for them overhead.

– Edith Wharton, 1926

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