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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Friday, July 09, 2010

Lydia H. Sigourney: “A Mighty Chieftain ’neath my Shade”

Earlier in the week I quoted the first article about the “Washington Elm” in Cambridge, by a Massachusetts author named John Langdon Sibley in American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in 1837.

The popular poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865) picked up the idea behind that article—that the tree could speak about the events it had stood beside—and ran with it.

Her 1845 collection Scenes in My Native Land included these lines on “The Washington Elm in Cambridge, Massachusetts”:

WORDS! Words, Old Tree! Thou hast an aspect fair,
A vigorous heart, a heaven-aspiring crest,
And sleepless memories of the days that were
Lodge in thy branches, like the song-bird’s nest.

Words! give us words! Methought a gathering blast
’Mid its green leaves began to murmur low,
Shaping its utterance to the mighty Past,
That backward came, on pinions floating slow.

“The ancient masters of the soil I knew,
Whose cane-roofed wigwams flecked the forest brown,
Their hunter-footsteps swept the early dew,
And their keen arrow struck the eagle down.

I heard the bleak December tempest moan,
When the tossed May-Flower moored in Plymouth Bay;
And watched yon classic walls, as stone by stone
The fathers reared them slowly toward the day.

But lo! a mighty Chieftain ’neath my shade,
Drew his bright sword, and reared his dauntless head,
And liberty sprang forth from rock and glade,
And donned her helmet for the hour of dread.

While in the hero’s heart there dwelt a prayer,
That Heaven’s protecting arm might never cease
To make his young, endangered land its care,
Till through the war-cloud looked the angel Peace.

“Be wise my children,” said that ancient Tree,
In earnest tone, as though a Mentor spake,
“And prize the blood-bought birthright of the free,
And firmly guard it, for your country’s sake.”

Thanks, thanks, Old Elm! and for this counsel sage,
May heaven thy brow with added beauty grace,
Grant richer emeralds to thy crown of age,
And changeless honours from a future race.
And then the book offered a historical essay on the elm.

Both poem and essay were picked up in Joshua Leavitt’s Selections for Reading and Speaking, for the Higher Classes in Common Schools (1850). And when a statement gets into schoolbooks, it get deeply rooted in the culture.

TOMORROW: More Victorian poetry. (For more on Sigourney, see the American Literary Blog and the Victorian Web.)

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