Sunday, September 15, 2013

John Greenleaf Whittier- Poetry

Next up in the poetry book is John Greenleaf Whittier, with a poem called 'Barbara Frietchie'.  I haven't heard of the poet or poem prior to this.  (Is there a reason that 19th century poets all have three names?)  The lead in to the poem says that this is based on an actual event during the American civil war.  The poem is long, but worth reading.

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple and peach tree fruited deep,
Fair as the garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain-wall;
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.
Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;
In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.
Up the street the Rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced; the old flag met his sight.
"Halt!"-the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
"Fire!"-out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf.
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman's deed and word;
"Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the Rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good night.
Barbara Frietchie's work is o'er'
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall's bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie's grave,
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round they symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

I'd never read this before but I'm quite taken with it.  The poetry is simple but effective.  I think I've heard 'Shoot if you must, this old gray head' before.  It's a very striking line.
The poem was written in 1864, while the Civil war was still raging.  It's wildly patriotic, especially compared to more modern sentiment.  Note: I don't think that's a bad thing.  It's hard not to respect the courage needed to stand up to soldiers who could shoot you dead without any trouble.  Obviously the soldiers had that same respect.
I wish I'd run across this poem right around Memorial Day.  I'll have to remember to revisit it again next May.

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