Poems of the American Revolution
PostedJuly 02, 2008
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.
So wrote the English visionary poet William Blake in his America, a Prophecy, first published in 1793, seventeen years after American independence. The American revolutionary moment inspired—and continues to inspire—a vast body of literature, much of which, like Blake's poem, attempts to allegorize the fledgling nation's birth and cast its genesis in the language of archetypal struggles and timeless human themes. America, a Prophecy is in some sense typical of early writings about American independence, which often strive to romanticize the clash between colony and king, rebellious sons and overbearing father.
Philip Freneau, a political writer, poet, and newspaper editor, composed compelling verse about the American predicament, blurring the line—if such a one ever existed—between rhetoric and poetry. In his poem "A Political Litany," composed in 1775, he declared:
From a kingdom that bullies, and hectors, and swears,
we send up to heaven our wishes and prayers
that we, disunited, may freemen be still,
and Britain go on—to be damned if she will.
Freneau celebrated America's newfound freedom in his poem "American Liberty," while also anticipating the spirit of expansion and manifest destiny that would shape the nation's self-image for centuries:
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 madness vex from Britain's shore;
Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American writer to publish poems of critical acclaim and achieve widespread popularity. Brought to America as a slave in 1761, Wheatley was eventually emancipated by her owners after her pro-revolutionary writings brought her notoriety and success. Her life and works are a testament both to the spirit of revolution and the sins of America's infancy. Despite her own mistreatment and lack of full citizenship, Wheatley composed verse that mainly lauded her nation's ideals and accomplishments, though it was occasionally flavored with a dark irony, as in "To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Darthmouth":
No more, America, in mournful strain,
Of wrongs and grievance unredressed complain;
No longer shall thou dread the iron chain
Which wanton Tyranny, with lawless hand,
Had made, and with it meant t' enslave the land.
The nineteenth century was, of course, a time of identity questing for the adolescent nation. Popular poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow revisited the imagery and deeds of the revolution as a way to offer people history, epics, and entertainment.
In an essay on Longfellow's famous poem "Paul Revere's Ride," the poet and critic Dana Gioia writes: "From the poem's first publication, historians have complained that Longfellow distorted the actual incident and put far too much emphasis on Revere's individual role. But Longfellow was not interested in schomylarly precision; he wanted to create a stirring patriotic myth. In the process he took Paul Revere, a regional folk hero hardly known outside Massachusetts, and turned him into a national icon."
But as some poets used poetry to amplify and proliferate historical myth, others, such as the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, sought to uncover the intention and significance of the founding fathers' actions. His cousin, Wiliam Ralph Emerson, wrote the poem "A Nation's Strength":
What makes a nation's pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it might to defy
The foes that round it throng?
It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.
Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor's sake
Stand fast and suffer long.
Walt Whitman perhaps did more to interpret the meaning of American independence than any poet of the nineteenth century, projecting the revolutionary spirit into a vision of citizenship, selfhood, and populace that has greatly contributed to American mythology. In "I Hear America Singing," he wrote:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be,
blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank of beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves
Writing in—and perhaps for—a nation that had only recently ruptured from a political tradition and cultural lineage, Whitman found a new American identity in the timeless will itself, that which cannot and will not define itself by its past. In his long poem, "Song of Myself," he recorded:
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
The legacy of the American Revolution continues to be shaped, interpreted, and recast, and American poetry continues to set itself the task of analyzing this nation's violent and radical foundation—a remembrance Blake himself might not have prophesied:
Washington spoke; Friends of America look over the
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.—