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, January 07, 2011

Public Poetry to Remember the Revolution

Through the end of January, the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books Department is hosting an exhibit on “The Public Life of Poetry: Whitman, Dickinson, Longfellow, and Their Contemporaries.”

Mike Chasen of the Poetry and Popular Culture blog interviewed the exhibit’s main organizer, Prof. Nadia Nurhussein of the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Among other things, she discussed one of the poems commemorating the Revolution:

Another interesting scrapbook, elaborately bound and formally titled Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill 1775-1875, was compiled by Mellen Chamberlain, a 19th-century BPL librarian. As the title suggests, he was interested in collecting material related to Revolutionary War battles, including poetic treatments of these battles by Holmes, Whittier, and Emerson.

We are displaying a fair copy of [Ralph Waldo] Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” accompanied by a letter by Chamberlain explaining how he came into possession of the manuscript. He writes that Mrs. Charles Porter, Emerson’s cousin, offered to “prevail upon Mr Emerson to transcribe his battle hymn into the volume” if Chamberlain would travel with her to Concord. Chamberlain also notes that Emerson, whose “health was considerably broken,” died soon after.

P&PC: What do you mean by occasional verse? Does “Concord Hymn” qualify?

NN: “Concord Hymn” does qualify as occasional verse: it was written and performed at the dedication of an obelisk erected to commemorate the battles at Lexington and Concord. The Mellen Chamberlain manuscript is in the scrapbook case, but the occasional verse case includes a print copy of the poem (donated to the library by the family of William Lloyd Garrison) that was circulated at the event apparently for the purpose of audience participation.
Indeed, the “Concord Hymn” was written to fit the psalm tune “The Old Hundred,” and meant to be sung in chorus. Almost everybody knew the tune already, but they needed the new words.

(Photo of people gathered at the Concord obelisk above courtesy of jshyun, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)


RFuller said...

If you look closely at the pic of the people clustered around the obelisk, the monument is not what is holding their attention. The object of their fascination is the gentleman in this pic: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jshyun/2597184600/in/photostream/

...this is Bill Rose, one of our longtime park volunteers, like yourself, who give so much to make the park work!

Also, re the Concord Hymn, when it was sung in 1837 during the dedication of the obelisk at the North Bridge, the singers were a youth choir. One of its members was a 16 year old named Henry David Thoreau...

J. L. Bell said...

One reason I chose that photo was for the contrast between my mental picture of Concord of 1837, with people gathered beside the (bridgeless?) river singing a hymn, and its image of tourists lounging against the monument for shade today.

J. L. Bell said...

Here’s a quick link to Bill (and some small person lurking behind him).