Friday, April 19, 2019

American Revolutionary Poetry

The Spirit of '76 by Archibald Willard. 

April 19 is the anniversary of the opening battles of the American Revolution in 1776—Lexington Green, Concord Bridge, and the British retreat to Boston.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year. 

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
So began the most famous poem about the American Revolution, which commemorated Paul Revere’s Ride and the beginning of that long conflict. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published it on the eve of the Civil War in 1861, he finally accomplished what earlier, less gifted poets had yearned but failed to do—create an American epic.  But he intended it as an allegory for raising the alarm about slavery and disunion.

But other poets, other voices, far and wide and over generations took their cracks at making sense out of what years later at the end was represented by a Redcoat band playing The World Turned Upside Down at the surrender of an army of the most powerful nation in the world. 

Here are some.
Phillis Wheatley.
Some of the first poetry to gain wide recognition was composed by a slip of a Black girl hardly out of her teens.  Phillis Wheatley was a Boston house slave born in Africa.  She was treated more kindly than many in her situation and was not only taught to read and write, but encouraged by her master when she began turning her hand to verse.  She adopted the conventions she found in the books of her master’s library.  Her work, including several poems dealing with the Revolution, became the first book of poetry ever published by an African American, and one of only a handful of non-religious books of verse by anyone.  The book achieved acclaim and Phillis was freed, although she continued to live in her old home supported by her masters.  This poem from even before the first shots were fired, was addressed to William Legge, 1st Earl of Dartmouth, then the Secretary of State for the Colonies and First Lord of Trade.  It was written in 1772 by request and was a plea for freedom for her people.

To the Right Honourable William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth

Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom's charms unfold.

Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:
Soon as appear’d the Goddess long desir’d,
Sick at the view, she lanquish’d and expir’d;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.

No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatcli’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel’d was that son] and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favors to renew,
Since in thy pow’r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did’st once deplore.
May heav’nly race the sacred sanction give
To all thy worts, and thou for ever live
Not onlv on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot's name,
But to conduct to heav’ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th’ ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God.

—Phillis Wheatley

Phillip Freneau

Philip Freneau was considered The Poet of the Revolution.  Born in New York and the son of a Huguenot wine merchant, he was educated at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) with James Madison.  He was an early Patriot and polemicist for the cause.  After being captured while serving on a privateer, he was held for month in a British prison hulk where he nearly died before being paroled.  He detailed that experience in The British Prison Ship and followed up with a string of patriotic and anti-British verse.  Later Thomas Jefferson would tap him to become the editor of The National Gazette, the partisan voice of the emerging anti-Federalist party during George Washington’s administration.  American Liberty was one of the most popular of his Revolutionary anti-British screeds.  It is long, formal, and difficult for modern readers.  But it got the blood of 18th Century patriots boiling. Here are the opening and closing stanzas.

American Liberty

Once more Bellona, forc’d upon the stage,

Inspires new fury, and awakes her rage,

From North to South her thun’dring trumpet spreads

Tumults, and war and death, and daring deeds.

What breast but kindles at the martial sound?

What heart but bleeds to feel its country's wound?

For thee, blest freedom, to protect thy sway,

We rush undaunted to the bloody fray;

For thee, each province arms its vig’rous host,

Content to die, e’er freedom shall be lost.

Happy some land, which all for freedom gave,

Happier the men whom their own virtues save;

Thrice happy we who long attacks have stood,

And swam to Liberty thro’ seas of blood;

The time shall come when strangers rule no more,

Nor cruel mandates vex from Britain's shore:

When Commerce shall extend her short’ned wing.

And her free freights from every climate bring;

When mighty towns shall flourish free and great.

Vast their dominion, opulent their state:

When one vast cultivated region teems,

From ocean’s edge to Mississippi’s streams;

While each enjoys his vineyard’s peaceful shade,

And even the meanest has no cause to dread;

Such is the life our foes with envy see,

Such is the godlike glory to be free

Philip Freneau

Plates 3 and 4 hand engraved and colored plates from William Blake's America, a Prophecy.

Hope you have recovered from that.  It was the castor oil of this poetic tour.  Let a far better poet, the English Whig and mystic William Blake, cast a sympathetic eye on the American endeavor.  He was writing in 1792 and thus looking back at recent history.  Each of these poems was published with a plate hand engraved by Blake.

America, a Prophecy, Plates 3 and 4


The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent,

Sullen fires across the Atlantic glow to America’s shore:

Piercing the souls of warlike men, who rise in silent night,

Washington, Franklin, Paine & Warren, Gates, Hancock & Green;

Meet on the coast glowing with blood from Albion’s fiery Prince.

Washington spoke; Friends of America look over the Atlantic sea;

A bended bow is lifted in heaven, & a heavy iron chain

Descends link by link from Albion’s cliffs across the sea to bind

Brothers & sons of America, till our faces pale and yellow;

Heads deprest, voices weak, eyes downcast, hands work-bruis’d,

Feet bleeding on the sultry sands, and the furrows of the whip

Descend to generations that in future times forget.—

The strong voice ceas’d; for a terrible blast swept over the heaving sea;

The eastern cloud rent; on his cliffs stood Albion’s wrathful Prince

A dragon form clashing his scales at midnight he arose,

And flam’d red meteors round the land of Albion beneath.

His voice, his locks, his awful shoulders, and his glowing eyes,


Appear to the Americans upon the cloudy night.

Solemn heave the Atlantic waves between the gloomy nations,

Swelling, belching from its deeps red clouds & raging Fires!

Albion is sick. America faints! Enrag’d the Zenith grew.

As human blood shooting its veins all round the orbed heaven

Red rose the clouds from the Atlantic in vast wheels of blood

And in the red clouds rose a Wonder o’er the Atlantic sea;

Intense! naked! a Human fire fierce glowing, as the wedge

Of iron heated in the furnace; his terrible limbs were fire

With myriads of cloudy terrors banners dark & towers

Surrounded; heat but not light went thro’ the murky atmosphere

The king of England looking westward trembles at the vision.

—William Blake

And we will leave you with the second most famous poem of the Revolution.  Composed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1836 for the dedication of the Concord Monument in his home town, the poem helped establish the literary reputation of the Unitarian Minister who had left the pulpit to pursue a “Life of the Mind and Letters.”

The Concord Hymn

Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, April 19, 1836

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
        Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
        And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
        Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
        Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
        We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
        When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare

        To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
        The shaft we raise to them and thee.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

No comments:

Post a Comment