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The Poetry of the Past

This Week in Uses of American Poetry in Public

Last month, we wrote about Amanda Gorman’s poetry performance at the presidential inauguration. This month, earnest uses of American poetry in public continued to amaze.

On Sunday, February 7th, a month after the insurrection at the capitol and two days before the beginning of the impeachment trial, some of America watched the Superbowl. The 2021 Superbowl began with a blessing of sorts in the form of Amanda Gorman performing, via video, another original poem, “The Chorus of the Captains.”

We would have written this whole post about Gorman’s poem, its very 19th-century American (specifically Whitmanian) title and aspirations, its multi-media entanglements, its impressive cloud of feminine, internal, and slant rhymes, and maybe also its too-close resemblance to a specific genre of Superbowl commercial, but we have to interrupt that regularly scheduled programming because that same week also saw the use of ACTUAL NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN POEMS on the Senate floor.

On Wednesday, FEB 9th, we found ourselves a bit stunned by the bathos-ridden spectacle of David Schoen (on Trump’s defense team for a hot second) meandering toward the end of his baffling opening statements. Choking back tears, Schoen stumbled through the thirty-five closing lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1849 poem, “The Building of the Ship.” So riveted were we by this moment that we almost missed the fact that Schoen’s evocation of Longfellow wasn’t even the first nineteenth-century poetry moment of the day.  Meredith McGill, however, was quick to notice that the senate chaplain began the first day of the Senate’s trial of the former president by reading lines from a poem written by James Russell Lowell in 1845.

Where did this sudden enthusiastic revival of old-fashioned American poetry come from? Was everyone at the Senate trial inspired to imitate the success of Amanda Gorman in striking a national lyric chord?

Maybe. But for a long time Lowell and Longfellow, both Boston Brahmin Harvard professors, have been the personifications of the kind of nineteenth-century American poetry we thought we weren’t supposed to think of as national anymore. This was poetry written when manly White supremacy was explicitly — not just implicitly — the law of the land.

So what’s happening this week with the nostalgia for old-timey, triumphantly White nineteenth-century American poetry? What were Lowell and Longfellow both doing on the Senate floor, as antebellum bookends framing the whole shelf of crimes and misdemeanors so recently committed by yet another White guy in America’s name?

James Russell Lowell

The answer to that question is just about as bad as you think it is, but as it turns out, one of these things was not like the other.

The Lowell poem was part of the blessing given before the proceedings by Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black, the first African American and the first Seventh-Day Adventist to serve in the position. Black read lines from Lowell’s poem “The Present Crisis.” And despite the fact that Lowell is definitely an Old White Guy, “The Present Crisis,” has a storied history in radical Black thought. First published in 1845 in a Boston newspaper, Lowell’s poem became an anti-slavery anthem.

Or at least some lines from it did, once they were taken out of the longer anti-slavery poem and made into a hymn called “Once to Every Man and Nation” that circulated in many different churches, including Black churches, for a long time — from later in the nineteenth century until around 1980.  In 1910, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named its official magazine The Crisis after the title of Lowell’s poem. Martin Luther King often repeated lines from the poem in his essays and speeches. In the Senate on February 9th, Black read only two lines of the hundred-line poem, lines that begin the poem’s fifth stanza but that are better known as the hymn’s first quatrain:

Once to ev’ry man and nation

Comes the moment to decide,

In the strife of Truth and Falsehood,

For the good or evil side.


After he read the lines, Black moved seamlessly into his own–or he hoped, our own–question:  “Mighty God, could it really be that simple? Could it really be truth striving against falsehood, and good striving against evil?”  Whatever God’s intentions may be, Black was asking poetry to make the Senators’ own intentions clear.  Or he was hoping it might.  Or he was using it to pretend that a choice was possible, and not already a foregone conclusion.

Black probably knows as well as we do that the majority of “men” in the Senate wouldn’t heed his urgent prayer to listen and choose truth over falsehood. As we now well know, and as their questions proved, those men are beyond good and evil–they’re beyond truth, performing their dog whistles for those who they believe will help them maintain power.

The fact that the lines that Black chose for this purpose were penned by a famous White man writing against slavery and appropriated by the Black Christian nationalist tradition certainly shaded the distinctions he was urging those Senators to make. If anyone still needs proof that the afterlife of slavery (in Saidiya Hartman’s phrase) continues to inform everything that happens in this country, then the events of January 6th that occasioned the Senate trial should put such doubts to rest yet again.  As the poet Jericho Brown said late last month, ”There were all those people running around displaying their nineteenth-century mindsets—they were waving Confederate flags!”

Yes, they were. So the question for us is this: is nineteenth-century public poetry being recruited in answer to those PDAs? Is the idea behind the resurgence of public poetry that nineteenth-century ways might be the best response to nineteenth-century means?

If so, then what Trump’s lawyer David Schoen did when he read the last lines of Longfellow’s “The Building of the Ship” for over two minutes as he closed his opening remarks was to make those ways justify the means. If Black’s use of Lowell’s lines was highly motivated and embedded in a tradition of ministerial and political practice, Longfellow’s lines seemed to come out of nowhere.  As a Washington Post columnist wrote, “it was a weird end to a weird day.”

But as he choked on the first words of the man he called “Poet Longfellow” (had he forgotten his first two names?), Schoen actually joined a long Anglo-American tradition. While rhetorically skillful uses of Lowell’s lines are now part of Black political speech, teary renditions of Longfellow’s lines have become part and parcel of the performance of White supremacy.

We have a lot to say about Longfellow’s role in the making of American literary Whiteness, but here are a few highlights: Longfellow was the most popular Anglophone poet of the nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic. He invented the American version of the Humanities at Harvard in the 1840s. And, he is the single figure from which modern American literary criticism and modern American poetic practice emerged, though neither literary critics nor poets want to acknowledge this.

And why would they? His idea that a concert of world literatures (what Goethe called the Weltliteratur) came together to form the new poetry he was writing made America into the realization of the dream of Western culture. In short, Longfellow became the laureate for the souls of White folk.

Gentle-Seeming Supremacist Project

There are long stories to be told about how Longfellow created a White poetics by defining it against BIPOC figures (think The Song of Hiawatha), but the important part of the story for Schoen’s purposes is the way Longfellow managed to get everyone on board for his gentle-seeming version of the Euro/Anglo supremacist project.  In an important way — a behind-the-Looking-Glass sort of way — Longfellow was Gorman’s predecessor in making old genres seem to have new popular promise.

Consider, for example, the title of Gorman’s poem “Chorus of the Captains.” Why “chorus? That word can mean many things — it fits into popular music, but it also often means some kind of collective voice that sings to the troops returning from battle (as in Pindar) or that comment on the action or the moral of the drama (as in the chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy). Gorman used all those referents— the offstage drama of the poem was based on the heroic pandemic-battle actions of the leader, the healer, and the educator that Gorman was staging for us to honor, and Gorman was the elegant director of the chorus that we were, by the end of the poem, invited to join. As she did in her previous public poems (“The Republic Rising,” “Believer’s Hymn for the Republic,” “The Republic Gives Thanks,” “The Hill We Climb”) she remixed nineteenth-century genres of public address. She made something old feel new.

 That’s a trick Longfellow knew too. Even when Longfellow was writing, his forms felt retrofitted; he managed to make ballads and psalms and even epics into songs that resonated with the new spirit of the age. “Ye, who love a nation’s legends/ Love the ballads of a people,” he wrote in infamous trochaic tetrameters in Hiawatha. In 1855 this was already an antiquated address to readers cast as illiterate listeners who could feel that through the poem, they became “we the people.” (the same people conducting a genocidal war on the people the poem turned into myths — yet — and this is another long story — those colonized people would also make Longfellow’s poem their own).

As Meredith McGill has written, Longfellow made his poems into mass-mediated spectacles, at least in the nineteenth-century sense: his varieties of print and performance turned poems into something more like pop music than what we now think of as print poetry.  His poems were written for a moment that did not laugh at or fear metrical predictability.  You can still find people who know “A Psalm of Life” or the first lines of Evangeline by heart, and if you do they were either born in the 1930s or they went to an old-fashioned high school. When someone sincerely reads Longfellow outside a classroom, they are more often than not activating something Longfellow cared about very much, a signal tool of White supremacy — an invented nostalgia.

And that invented nostalgia leads to earnestly felt, but nevertheless fabricated victimization, to tears. The Longfellow that Schoen brought into the Senate trial was not the poet who adapted dactylic hexameter for modern use but was instead just the poet famous for making a lot of White people cry together, for getting them to experience their poetic “white fragility.”

At the beginning of Trump’s trial, Trump’s lawyer, predictably for a gaslighting Republican, told a story about Abraham Lincoln. Right before the Civil War, this story goes, when Lincoln apparently began to read Longfellow’s “The Building of the Ship” (the poem known, as our friend Michael Warner quipped, for rhyming “Madagascar” with “Lascar”), his secretary, who had memorized the piece at school (since that’s how people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries took Longfellow into their hearts), recited the whole thing for the president. We are told that the performance “stirred something deep in Lincoln.  His eyes filled with tears, and his cheeks were wet.  He did not speak for some minutes, but finally said with simplicity: ‘It is a wonderful gift to be able to stir men like that.’ ”

Is that the effect Schoen was going for?  Despite the immediate ridicule on twitter, the poem has a long track record that might have made him think it would — at least if he were living in the last century.  When the poem was first published in 1849, it was performed in Boston to an audience of over three thousand by the British actress Fanny Kemble (herself once the mistress of a Southern plantation, but that’s another story). As Longfellow wrote approvingly in his journal, “standing upon the platform, book in hand, trembling, palpitating, and weeping, and giving every word its true weight and emphasis,” Kemble brought the crowd to tears.  Almost a century later, the lines seem not to have lost their power, at least not for FDR, who sent the last five lines in 1941 to Winston Churchill as affirmation of their alliance in entering WWII. Roosevelt wrote that the message of the lines “applies to you people as it does to us.”  Churchill repeated the message and the lines in his broadcast, and immediately that bit of the poem graced cards and calendars and newspapers and ads. The lines were meant to move Anglo-Americans to impassioned communal violence, and they did.

But even if this brief history begins to give some weight to Schoen’s silly performance, it’s not really the performance itself that interests us here. No one except the performer cared about it, not even when it came to the last five lines that roused such multitudes in the past:

Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!

Our hopes, our hearts are all with thee,

Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,

Our faith triumphant o’er our fears,

Are all with thee,–are all with thee!

There are several predictable frames for this appeal (the rhyme, the tetrameter lines) but it’s really the repetition of “Our” (eight times!) and the chiasmus of hopes and hearts added to prayers and tears that are meant to get us in these lines.

By “get us” we mean not only make us pray and cry and hope and be brave, but also get us— all the listeners, with all our different experiences and interests — to become an us, to join together in a first- person plural, forming a “we” that can possess an “our,” a collective chorus that feels compelled to address the “Ship of State” as the vehicle taking us all where we want to go. Why would anyone climb aboard the ridiculous metaphorical vehicle that Schoen’s Longfellow asked us to address? We don’t even believe that the 43 Senators who voted to acquit Trump want to be on that boat. But Reader, we just sailed forth.

How different to be on the USS Schoen-Longfellow than in the “Chorus of the Captains,” to return to the Gorman’s Superbowl poem. Gorman also hailed us as our political leader, clad in a jacket in Dorothy-in-Oz blue, with a cut that hearkened back to the 2016 Superbowl half-time performance of “Formation” by Beyoncé, which, itself may have gestured back in military-inspired costume to both the Black Panthers and Janet Jackson’s 1984 (!!!!) “Rhythm Nation.” The coat-dress’s soft color only served to amplify its formality. From Moschino’s current collection, on Gorman it seemed like the apparel of an ethereal commanding officer. Gorman seemed to want to recapture what it might mean to stage a Pindaric ode that is striving to be a chorus in place of a national anthem, and we were moved by how literally she rendered that task and, again, by how many were moved by her.  Yet that television cameo and the Senate proceedings were ships that passed in the night (another line from Longfellow), and neither changed the other’s course.

If the poetry of the future asks us to interpret old forms anew, in public, in new media landscapes, and to somehow work collectively toward a time and a democracy in which we become that time and that democracy, then the poetry of the past recited on the Senate floor last week yanked us back into the present crisis.  For many, interpreting the past still seems to mean waving old poems like old flags appropriate to all future occasions, inhabiting a time and place when and where White men still make all the rules.  And don’t they? If all this recent American poetry in public harks back to nineteenth-century themes (even to nineteenth-century poems), that may be because Jericho Brown is right, alas, that those themes still advertise all too accurately who we still are, still speak as if they were our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears.


Meredith Martin is Associate Professor of English at Princeton University, where she also is the director of the Digital Humanities Center and the Princeton Prosody Archive.

Virginia Jackson is UCI Endowed Chair of Rhetoric and Critical Theory in the Departments of English and Comparative Literature at UC Irvine.












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