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, July 10, 2010

O. W. Holmes: “Under the Brave Old Tree”

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) was born in the house beside Cambridge common which Gen. Artemas Ward and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety used as their headquarters in the first weeks of the Revolutionary War.

From his father Holmes inherited a keen sense of local history, which came out in poems like “The Last Leaf,” “Dorothy Q,” and “Old Ironsides.” He grew up within sight of the tree that by the late 1830s had become known as the “Washington Elm.”

As the U.S. Civil War began, Holmes took inspiration from that tree for this poem:

Under the Washington Elm, Cambridge
April 27, 1861


EIGHTY years have passed, and more,
Since under the brave old tree
Our fathers gathered in arms, and swore
They would follow the sign their banners bore,
And fight till the land was free.

Half of their work was done,
Half is left to do,—
Cambridge, and Concord, and Lexington!
When the battle is fought and won,
What shall be told of you?

Hark!—’tis the south-wind moans,—
Who are the martyrs down?
Ah, the marrow was true in your children’s bones
That sprinkled with blood the cursed stones
Of the murder-haunted town!

What if the storm-clouds blow?
What if the green leaves fall?
Better the crashing tempest’s throe
Than the army of worms that gnawed below;
Trample them one and all!

Then, when the battle is won,
And the land from traitors free,
Our children shall tell of the strife begun
When Liberty’s second April sun
Was bright on our brave old tree!
According to the American Literary Blog’s analysis of this poem, shortly before Holmes wrote, his namesake son had enlisted to serve in the Union Army after Harvard. It looks like the poet was also responding to news of the riot in Baltimore on 19 Apr 1861 in which four Massachusetts soldiers and twelve local Confederate sympathizers died.

Notably, Holmes did not mention Washington, except in the title of his poem. He emphasized “Our fathers,” the collective community of Cambridge, rather than one heroic leader. His main allusion was to the alleged gathering of militiamen on Cambridge common on 19 Apr 1775 rather than the arrival of the commander-in-chief months later.

TOMORROW: Yet more Victorian poetry.

1 comment:

Rob Velella said...

I do like this poem! Then again, I love most of Holmes's poetry.