American War Poetry, Part I

With Memorial Day approaching, I thought I’d feature some poems about wars and warriors. For anyone who is interested, many of the poems can be found in an anthology called American War Poetry (edited by Lorrie Goldensohn). Goldensohn arranged her poems according to the war from which they came, and includes some background information on the wars as well as biographical information on the poets.

The obvious choice for the American Revolution would be “Paul Revere’s Ride,” but we already posted that one back on the anniversary date of April 18th. So here is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”:

Concord Hymn
Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, July 4, 1837

by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

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.

Of course, as the subtitle indicates, Emerson was writing more than sixty years after “the shot heard round the world,” so his account may be misleadingly irenic, and perhaps a little too hagiographic. Perhaps a Scot — in fact, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) — who wrote thirty years closer to the events in question can give us more insight into the intense nationalism and patriotism of the time, in this excerpt from “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

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One Response to “American War Poetry, Part I”

  1. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Not surprisingly, Brendan is getting no American History at all in his primary school here in London. We’re going to read both of these poems, plus Paul Revere’s Ride, together. He’ll think its neat, when we get to Scotland next week, that the writer of one of the poems we just read came from there.

    Thanks Mark.


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