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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Sunday, July 11, 2010

James R. Lowell: “Musing Beneath the Legendary Tree”

On 3 July 1875, Cambridge planned a big public celebration of the centennial of Gen. George Washington’s first full day as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. The focus of that event was the Cambridge common, and specifically the Washington Elm.

The city invited local poet James Russell Lowell to compose and deliver an ode on the occasion. Lowell wrote to a friend:

We, too, here in my birthplace, having found out that something happened here a hundred years ago, must have our centennial; and since my friend and townsman Dr. [Oliver Wendell] Holmes couldn’t be had, I felt bound to do all the poetry for the day. We have still standing the elm under which Washington took command of the American army, and under which also [Rev. George] Whitefield had preached some thirty years before.
Actually, Whitefield’s name had become attached to another elm, “a few rods” away; he reportedly preached under it in 1740 when he wasn’t welcomed into the pulpit of the Congregationalist meeting-house. But that tree had fallen down in 1872, and his audience might have been big enough to range under the Washington Elm, too, right?

Lowell’s letter shows how the idea that Washington “took command of the American army,” really only hinted at in the first published mentions of the Washington Elm, had become standard history. His poem is quite long, and doesn’t even get to the tree and Gen. Washington until the third section:
Beneath our consecrated elm
A century ago he stood,
Famed vaguely for that old fight in the wood
Whose red surge sought, but could not overwhelm
The life foredoomed to wield our rough-hewn helm:
From colleges, where now the gown
To arms had yielded, from the town,
Our rude self-summoned levies flocked to see
The new-come chiefs and wonder which was he.
No need to question long; close-lipped and tall,
Long trained in murder-brooding forests lone
To bridle others’ clamors and his own.
Firmly erect, he towered above them all,
The incarnate discipline that was to free
With iron curb that armed democracy.

A motley rout was that which came to stare, 

In raiment tanned by years of sun and storm, 

Of every shape that was not uniform, 

Dotted with regimentals here and there; 

An army all of captains, used to pray 

And stiff in fight, but serious drill’s despair, 

Skilled to debate their orders, not obey; 

Deacons were there, selectmen, men of note
In half-tamed hamlets ambushed round with woods,
Ready to settle Freewill by a vote,
But largely liberal to its private moods;
Prompt to assert by manners, voice, or pen,
Or ruder arms, their rights as Englishmen,
Nor much fastidious as to how and when:
Yet seasoned stuff and fittest to create
A thought-staid army or a lasting State:
Haughty they said he was, at first, severe,
But owned, as all men own, the steady hand
Upon the bridle, patient to command,
Prized, as all prize, the justice pure from fear,
And learned to honor first, then love him, then revere:
Such power there is in clear-eyed self-restraint
And purpose clean as light from every selfish taint.

Musing beneath the legendary tree,
The years between furl off: I seem to see
The sun-flecks, shaken the stirred foliage through,
Dapple with gold his sober buff and blue
And weave prophetic aureoles round the head
That shines our beacon now nor darkens with the dead.
O, man of silent mood,
A stranger among strangers then,
How art thou since renowned the Great, the Good,
Familiar as the day in all the homes of men!
The winged years, that winnow praise and blame,
Blow many names out: they but fan to flame
The self-renewing splendors of thy fame.
Lowell obviously expected his audience to recognize his allusions to Washington without needing to hear the general’s name until later. Indeed, he expected them to understand references like “that old fight in the wood” (Braddock’s defeat) and “buff and blue” (the uniform Washington had designed for his Virginia militia regiment, eventually adopted by the Continentals as well).

The politics of Lowell’s poem are less subtle: Washington’s mission was to “curb that armed democracy.” The final lines are a paean to Virginia, “Mother of States and unpolluted men,” welcoming that Confederate state back into the U.S. of A.

Despite Lowell’s letter, neither he nor Holmes was the most popular poet living in Cambridge at the time. That was their friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but he didn’t enjoy public speaking. Longfellow excerpted Lowell’s ode in his huge Poems of Places anthology, but was never inspired to write his own verse about the Washington Elm. Instead, he supposedly wrote one line.

TOMORROW: Cambridge adopts the Washington Elm as a civic symbol.

1 comment:

Rob Velella said...

Whenever I read his work, I am always reminded how much I dislike Lowell's poetry... other than A Fable for Critics (1848). I had forgotten that Lowell also wrote about the Washington Elm so thanks for the reminder. Oh, and I enjoy seeing your blog play in the 19th century (come on over! the water's fine!).