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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Thursday, February 03, 2011

“And Shouting Greet, with Peals of Joy…”

After George Washington accepted the post of commander-in-chief of the new Continental Army in June 1775, he wrote to the various independent militia companies he had agreed to lead in Virginia to explain that he would not be coming back to them after all.

The Virginia Gazettes and many other American newspapers reprinted Washington’s letter, and under it several printed this poetry:

Go, gallant WASHINGTON——
And when (all milder means withstood)
Ambition, tam’d by loss of blood,
Regains her reason; then, on angels wings,
Shall peace descend, and shouting greet,
With peals of joy, these happy climes.
That struck me as a curious verse, given its turn to what P. G. Wodehouse would call “daring rhymes” in the latter lines. So I went looking for an explanation.

It turns out those lines were adapted from “Ode the Second: in which is The Sailor’s Prayer Before Engagement,” by Edward Young (1683-1765, shown above courtesy of the University of Oklahoma). This was part of a longer patriotic, anti-French poem called A Sea-Piece, published in 1733. As published in Young’s collected poems, the original (several pages long) ends:
“Let GEORGE the just chastise the vain:
Thou, who dost curb the rebel main,
To mount the shore when boiling billows rave!
Bid GEORGE repel a bolder tide,
The boundless swell of Gallic pride,
And check ambition’s overwhelming wave.

“And when (all milder means withstood)
Ambition, tam’d by loss of blood,
Regains her reason; then, on angels wings,
Let peace descend, and shouting greet,
With peals of joy, Britannia’s fleet,
How richly freighted? It, triumphant, brings
The poise of kingdoms, and the fate of kings.”
So there are the missing rhymes. Different George, though.

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