Literature

The Best Poems for American Independence Day

Previously, we’ve offered some of the best very short poems by American poets, and in this post we turn our thoughts to poems about America, which we feel are especially appropriate for the Fourth of July. Here are some of the most fervently patriotic poems about the United States for Independence Day.

Francis Scott Key, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. This is something of a misnomer, since the name of the patriotic hymn and national anthem for the United States comes from a poem with a different official title, ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry’, which was written on September 14, 1814 by Francis Scott Key (distant cousin of his namesake, F. Scott Fitzgerald) after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships in Baltimore Harbor during the Battle of Baltimore (part of the War of 1812). Key was inspired by the large U.S. flag, with 15 stars and 15 stripes (i.e. the Star-Spangled Banner), which was flying triumphantly above the fort during the U.S. victory.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘A Nation’s Strength’. What makes a nation great, and what factors or qualities contributed towards making the United States the envy of the world? In this poem, Emerson – a key figure in the American Transcendentalist movement – asks if gold, the sword, or pride make a nation powerful, before concluding that the most important thing is the men – ‘Brave men who work while others sleep’.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’. One of the most famous poems about the American Revolution (or War of Independence), Longfellow’s narrative poem details the journey made by the American patriot Paul Revere on 18 April 1775, with a good side-helping of poetic licence thrown in. Revere awaits the signal telling him how and where the British will attack American troops, and when he hears they are attacking by sea, the devout patriot rides full pelt across Massachusetts to warn his fellow Americans. Longfellow’s poem did much to create the modern ‘myth’ of Paul Revere, whose celebrated night-time ride wasn’t mentioned in obituaries reporting his death in 1818.

Walt Whitman, ‘I Hear America Singing’. Although Whitman (1819-92) was a pioneer of free verse and often wrote long, expansive poems, ‘I Hear America Singing’ is just eleven lines long, though Whitman crams a lot into those eleven lines. What better way to continue our brief introduction to America’s best poets than with a poem by one of American poetry’s pioneers, praising the many different people in his nation and the various songs they sing?

Julia Ward Howe, ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’. Although this poem had its origins in another American war – the US Civil War rather than the American War of Independence – it has become one of the most famous patriotic American hymns. Howe later recalled the circumstances of the poem’s composition (which was conceived as some new lyrics to an old tune, ‘John Brown’s Body’): ‘I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.” So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.’

Julia Ann Moore, ‘Fourth of July’. ‘Fourth of July, how sweet it sounds, / As every year it rolls around. / It brings active joy to boy and man, / This glorious day throughout our land.’ Although Moore has a reputation for being ‘the female William McGonagall’, her poetry wasn’t always as bad as that sobriquet might imply. Here, she offers a rousing paean to the American holiday of Independence Day.

Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’. Emma Lazarus (1848-87) is most famous for writing this one poem, a sonnet which adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Written in 1883, the poem helped to shape the popular idea of the Statue of Liberty as a welcoming mother, and of America as the great nation of immigrants. This view was helped by the fact that the Statue was the first great US landmark that immigrants arriving in the United States would see.

Rita Dove, ‘Banneker’. What better poem to round off this pick of the best poems about America for the Fourth of July? Dove, a contemporary African American poet, wrote ‘Banneker’ about Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), the black American polymath who published a series of popular almanacs and helped to survey the area that became the nation’s capital, Washington D. C.

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