American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

The American Flag: 2009, 1819

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Fourth of July thoughts on Dick of the Dead and the Croaker poems, continuing on from what I wrote a few days ago:

The biggest difference between the two bodies of work may lie in their authors’ views of the United States. Dick is a product of post-Watergate America, of the Bush years and the Patriot Act. The Croaker poems were written after the War of 1812, in which Fitz-Greene Halleck (“Croaker, Junior”) took drills as a member of the Iron Grays, a New York militia. He and his collaborator, Joseph Rodman Drake (“Croaker”), were patriots in the old-fashioned sense; they waved their flag without anxiety or qualms. Rachel Loden, who wrote Dick of the Dead, is also a patriot, but she waves her flag under threat of confiscation, in opposition to the security state; her anxieties and qualms are inevitable:

My Secret Flag

What a giant I must seem to them, an exhausted giant who dozes above her sewing.

Asleep in mid-stitch, sorting the day’s haul of cinders, rubies, griefs —

They were laughing and carrying on, their tiny silver needles flying in and out, tiny silver thimbles on their fingers.

It’s no use of course, keeping secrets from them, when chattering is almost their religion.

Some held corners of the flag like an enormous quilt, and some danced on little shelves above the workshop.

They were so merrie that I fell asleep again.

In the morning my beautiful flag was finished, every stitch in place and every seam.

So now I raise it — slowly, underneath a secret sky.

Near the door to the half daft and the cradle of kleptocracy.

Where it rips and shivers, rips and shivers once more

And makes me furiously glad, and fills me up with serious pleasure.

flag1

Sheet music for an 1861 setting of one of the Croaker poems

The flag brings serious pleasure to the Croaker poets as well, but their gladness is without fury. Even when they are stinging politicians, they maintain a good humor; facetiousness is their principal mode of attack. But there is no sting, no facetiousness, in their tribute to the flag. The poem (published in the New York Evening Post, May 29th, 1819) is hardly typical of their work. It is neither a satire, nor a picture of contemporary life; the recent war is evoked, but loftily. For this very reason, however, it is easily detached from the rest of the series. Indeed, it became the one Croaker poem to achieve lasting fame. A song was later made of it with music borrowed from Bellini, and Dvořák was commissioned to set it as a cantata. Generally credited to Drake, the poem includes a few finishing touches from Halleck:

The American Flag

When Freedom from her mountain height,
Unfurl’d her standard to the air,
She tore the azure robe of night,
And set the stars of glory there!
She mingled with its gorgeous dyes
The milky baldric of the skies,
And striped its pure celestial white
With streakings of the morning light;
Then, from his mansion in the sun,
She call’d her eagle bearer down,
And gave into his mighty hand
The symbol of her chosen land!

Majestic monarch of the cloud!
Who rear’st aloft thy regal form,
To hear the tempest-trumpings loud,
And see the lightning-lances driven,
When stride the warriors of the storm,
And rolls the thunder-drum of heaven!
Child of the Sun! to thee ’tis given
To guard the banner of the free,
To hover in the sulphur smoke,
To ward away the battle stroke,
And bid its blendings shine afar,
Like rainbows on the cloud of war,
The harbingers of victory!

Flag of the brave! thy folds shall fly,
The sign of hope and triumph high!
When speaks the signal trumpet-tone,
And the long line comes gleaming on,
(Ere yet the life-blood, warm and wet,
Has dim’d the glist’ning bayonet,)
Each soldier’s eye shall brightly turn
To where thy meteor-glories burn,
And, as his springing steps advance,
Catch war and vengeance from the glance!
And when the cannon-mouthings loud,
Heave in wild wreaths the battle-shroud,
And gory sabres rise and fall,
Like shoots of flame on midnight’s pall!
Then shall thy victor-glances glow,
And cowering foes shall shrink beneath,
Each gallant arm that strikes below,
That lovely messenger of death.

Flag of the seas! on ocean’s wave
Thy star shall glitter o’er the brave,
When death, careering on the gale,
Sweeps darkly round the bellied sail,
And frighted waves rush wildly back
Before the broad-sides reeling rack,
Each dying wanderer of the sea
Shall look at once to heaven and thee,
And smile, to see thy splendours fly,
In triumph, o’er his closing eye.

Flag of the free heart’s only home,
By angel hands to valour given!
The stars have lit the welkin dome
And all thy hues were born in heaven!
For ever float that standard sheet!
Where breathes the foe but falls before us?
With Freedom’s soil beneath our feet,
And Freedom’s banner streaming o’er us!

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