Academic journal article The Hudson Review

For All Occasions

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

For All Occasions

Article excerpt

For All Occasions

Despite our lack, until relatively recently, of official Poets Laureate, Americans possess a long and (mostly) distinguished history of public occasional poems that lie close to our collective hearts, minds, and memories. Our national anthem, to mention an obvious case, was written immediately - as in the next day - after the 1814 event and published as "The Defence of Fort McHenry" within two weeks, first as a broadside and subsequently in newspapers up and down the Atlantic seaboard. It took 117 years for it to become our official national anthem, but it had won its place in our citizens' hearts from the beginning, perhaps because it was set to the melody of a popular drinking song. Most Americans, if my students over the years are any measure (I regularly use it as a way of introducing "dramatic situation" in discussing poetry), are surprised to learn that it is actually four stanzas long and that the stanza we sing is probably the only national anthem in the world framed as a real, not a rhetorical, question. "Will God save our gracious Queen," anyone? The second line of that British equivalent is definitely not a question.

On a September evening in 1814, a date that we shall surely celebrate a year from now, Francis Scott Key, a Baltimore lawyer, went aboard a British man-of-war to argue for the release of a Dr. Beanes, whom the British had taken hostage. The British commander, who seems to have been a decent enough fellow, allowed this, but delayed the event for 24 hours, worried that Dr. Beanes had heard the British officers discuss their plans for the attack on the city and might reveal them. So it happened that Key, Dr. Beanes, and one or more faitiiful companions stayed up through the long night to observe the bombardment of the city's fortifications, when only the fleeting glimpse of the flag, through "the rockets' red glare," revealed that the fort had not surrendered. At dawn, none of the assembled company could see through the fog, and the poem's opening four lines impressively capture the uncertainty of the battle's outcome. It is clear that Key is remembering how he queried his companions at just this moment, but it is not until the penultimate line of the second stanza that he answers his own question: "'Tis the starspangled banner!" The rest of the poem, two more stanzas, is filled witfi what Baltimore's most famous literary pundit would have called patriotic "bushwa," but the first half of the poem is dramatic in the best way, raising suspense by asking a crucial question and delaying its answer until its eventual appearance. It's good work.

What are our other notable occasional poems? I think of several Revolutionary War poems by Philip Freneau, our long unacknowledged "father of American poetry," and of those by Emerson (the quotable "Concord Hymn"), Whittier ("Ichabod," an excoriation of Daniel Webster), Holmes ("Old Ironsides," which launched a children's crusade to save the ship), and Longfellow ("The Arsenal at Springfield"). I don't know that the last of these is stricdy occasional, for it sprang from a honeymoon visit (!) by Mr. and Mrs. Longfellow to the site that its title describes. It is a remarkable poem, though, first describing the brand-new rifles, in their serried ranks assembled on the walls, as a "huge organ," then using the musical conceit throughout to demonstrate how music and warfare (think of the bugles, the drums, the pipes!) have often been conflated. The poem ends thus, in stanzas that I have found never less than thrilling and never less than moving:

Down the dark future, through long generations,

The echoing sounds grow fainter and then cease;

And like a bell, with solemn, sweet vibrations,

I hear once more the voice of Christ say, "Peace!"

Peace! and no longer from its brazen portals

The blast of War's great organ shakes the skies!

But beautiful as songs of the immortals,

The holy melodies of love arise. …

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