J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

David Humphreys Bids Adieu

According to sonnets.org, the first American poet to write sonnets was Col. David Humphreys of the Continental Army. And one of his earliest efforts was:

Addressed to my Friends at Yale College, on my Leaving them to join the Army.

Adieu! thou Yale! where youthful poets dwell,
No more I linger by thy classic stream.
Inglorious ease and sportive songs farewell!
Thou startling clarion! break the sleeper’s dream!

And sing, ye bards! the war-inspiring theme.
Heard ye the din of battle? clang of arms?
Saw ye the steel ’mid starry banners beam?
Quick throbs my breast at war’s untried alarms,
Unknown pulsations stirr’d by glory’s charms.

While dear Columbia calls, no danger awes,
Though certain death to threaten’d chains be join’d.
Though fails this flesh devote to freedom’s cause,
Can death subdue th’ unconquerable mind?
Or adamantine chains ethereal substance bind?
For more on Humphreys’s long and busy life, here’s a biography from the Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution.


Peter Ansoff said...

As you might imagine, I'm intrigued by Humphreys' reference to "starry banners." According to the sonnets.org site, he joined the Army in July 1776, and the US flag didn't become starry until almost a year later. I wonder what he was referring to?

Peter Ansoff

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting question. Humphreys didn’t publish this poem until 1802, so it’s possible that he silently rewrote that line with a retrospective detail. But he says these were his words from 1776.

RJO said...

A related question: When was "Columbia" first used as a synonym for "United States"? I associate it with the early 1800s, but it may well be earlier. If it does come from the early 1800s, that's further evidence that Humphreys may have rewritten the piece before publication.

J. L. Bell said...

Good question. I found “Columbia” as an explicit synonym for America in an item from the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1741, in a 1758 poem titled “The Conquest of Louisbourg,” and in a 1764 poem titled “The Lamentation of Harvard.” So it was definitely part of the American poetic vocabulary by 1776.