Chosen by Dr Oliver Tearle
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’.
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
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. Click on the link above to read all of this patriotic American poem/hymn and learn more about it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘A Nation’s Strength’.
What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?
It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock…
What makes a nation great, and what factors or qualities contributed towards making the United States the envy of the world? In this patriotic American 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’.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work…
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’.
Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
Of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on…
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’.
‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’
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. Click on the link above to read the full poem and learn about its history.
E. E. Cummings, ‘next to of course god america i’. This poem is one of Cummings’ takes on the sonnet form, although as we’d expect from a technical innovator like Cummings, he plays around with the rhyme scheme (rhyming his poem ababccdefgfeg), spacing (‘deafanddumb’), and line endings (‘beaut- / iful’ spans two lines). The poem summons a number of earlier patriotic poems about the United States, such as Key’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and, perhaps, Felicia Dorothea Hemans’ poem about the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers. Is the poem patriotic or critical of blind American patriotism? It appears to be both, suggesting that if one loves one’s country, one should hold it up for rebuke when it does something reprehensible (such as getting involved in foreign wars: Cummings was, famously, a pacifist).
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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.