Home  »  Volume XVI: American EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 6. The Events of the Conflict Traced in Contemporary Poems; John Brown; Secession; The Call to Arms

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

II. Poets of the Civil War I

§ 6. The Events of the Conflict Traced in Contemporary Poems; John Brown; Secession; The Call to Arms

To get a really vivid idea of the lyric expression of the time one should look less to individual writers or groups of writers than to the subjects which were most commonly their themes. The John Brown affair found many poets: Stedman in How Old Brown Took Harper’s Ferry, Brownell in The Battle of Charlestown, fiercely ironic, Whittier in Brown of Ossawatomie, and, above all, the anonymous author (he may have been Charles Sprague Hall) of John Brown’s Body, which, set to the air of an old Methodist hymn, became the most popular marching song of the Union armies, and survived innumerable parodies and rival versions—to be sung not only by American but by British troops in the present war. The secession of South Carolina called forth the earnest, affectionate Brother Jonathan’s Lament for Sister Caroline by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Stedman and Brownell were but two of the many stirred to verse by the attack on Sumter. The spirit of the volunteers was celebrated in A Call to True Men by Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Who’s Ready? by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Heart of the War by J. G. Holland; Theodore Tilton published in The Independent for 18 April, 1861, his clanging and exciting tocsin The Great Bell Roland; even Bryant had a strange fire in Our Country’s Call:

  • Lay down the axe; fling by the spade;
  • Leave in its track the toiling plough;
  • The rifle and the bayonet-blade
  • For arms like yours were fitter now;
  • And let the hands that ply the pen
  • Quit the light task, and learn to wield
  • The horseman’s crooked brand, and rein
  • The charger on the battle-field.