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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Monday, August 02, 2010

Rediscovering Ruth Bryant

And can we walk through Concords streets
See where the crimson flood,
That gushing from our Brethrens hearts
Like ponds of water stood;

See where our mangled Brethren be
Their bodies scarcely cold!—
Can we embrace the murderers then
When we this scene behold?
These lines come from “An Address to the Sons of Liberty Written in the Year 1775” by Ruth Bryant, who was fifteen years old that year. She was the daughter of a doctor in North Bridgewater.

That poem was just published for the first time in the July 2010 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, as part of Rachel Hope Cleves’s article “‘Heedless Youth’: The Revolutionary War Poetry of Ruth Bryant (1760–83).” The journal’s abstract says:
The six manuscript poems by Ruth Bryant of Massachusetts, published here for the first time, are possibly the only surviving poems written by a female youth during the War for Independence, although revolutionary newspapers occasionally printed poems written by girls. The original poems are archived at the Bureau County Historical Society in Princeton, Illinois, where they were preserved because of the author’s connection to her nephew, the nineteenth-century poet and editor William Cullen Bryant.

Bryant’s poems reveal that girls could participate in the diffusion of revolutionary ideals not only through the rhetoric of “republican motherhood” evoked by adult women but also through a juvenile model of martial femininity. Bryant’s poems show a passion for the battlefield often absent from adult women’s poetry. And yet Bryant’s poems also operate comfortably within expectations for female poets during the eighteenth century, using typical feminine genres such as ex tempore courtship verses, elegies, and acrostics. The poems shed light on how, under revolutionary pressure, the gender system could bend without breaking.
While this article and others are available online only to subscribers, many research libraries carry print copies of the journal. (All the book reviews in this issue of the W.M.Q. can be downloaded here.)


Sam Ryan said...

Wow, this is a great find! Echoes of Phillis Wheatley in the quoted lines.

RFuller said...

"rivers of blood" imagery? There was no mass of casualties, and who the murderers were depended on the POV of April 19. 1775. Methinks Ms. Bryant was indulging in a bit of hexametric hyperbole...

J. L. Bell said...

A fifteen-year-old poet being overly dramatic! Who could have imagined that?

Rob Velella said...

I don't see Phillis Wheatley here; it actually seems very post 18th-century. Impressive; I wouldn't mind seeing the rest.

I wouldn't take the crimson gushing like a fountain image too seriously - poetically, it's gorgeous.

Sam Ryan said...

Rob, I was thinking of an anti-British/Tory strain also found in Wheatley's description of Ebenezer Richardson in "On the Death of Mr. Snider...":

In heavens eternal court it was decreed
How the first martyr for the cause should bleed

Where'er this fury darts his Pois'nous breath
All are endanger'd to the shafts of death

...which probably isn't representative of Wheatley overall, fair enough. But I remembered it reading this, from Bryant:

Can we embrace the murderers then
When we this scene behold?

They both seem like poems about crossing a line, in the context of increasing estrangement and violence between loyalists and rebels. They both have that "passion for the battlefield" mentioned above, in different ways.

Northern California Dreamer said...

I totally love your blog. I have been keeping a blog about searching for my family's roots and American identity at http://backwardho.blogspot.com. As a Californian all my life, I was suprised to find I had Puritan roots in New England and have been on a few exploratory missions there in Western Mass.

Anonymous said...


J. L. Bell said...

Whups! Thanks for the sharp eyes. I corrected that one misnaming.

Peter Fisk said...

Ruth's grave is pictured at findagrave.com.

She is on the same stone with her brother Oliver, who died Aug. 24, 1776, apparantly in service in the run-up to the Battle of Long Island.

Anonymous said...

She was from North Bridgewater, Massachusetts? Now known as Brockton, Massachusetts. I know this link is wiki, but I've seen some of the firsts that happened in Brockton listed elsewhere too.