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February 13 , 2009

Poems of American History


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On Ken Follett’s Facebook page Pan Macmillan created a storybank, as a place for readers to upload their own, real-life stories of World War Two. This ebook contains some of the incredible, moving stories that readers were inspired to post – the voices of a generation and its descendants – as well as a personal piece from Ken himself, about his…

The poetry relating to American history falls naturally into two classes: that written, so to speak, from the inside, on the spot, and that written from the outside, long afterwards. Of the first class, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is the most famous example, as well as perhaps the best. Even at this distant day, reading it with a knowledge of the circumstances which produced it, it has a power of touching the heart and gripping the imagination which goes far toward proving the genuineness of its art. Of the second class, "Paul Revere's Ride" is probably the most widely known, though Mr. Longfellow's own "Ballad of the French Fleet" is a better poem.

It is evident that, in compiling an anthology such as this, different standards must be used in judging these two classes. The first, aside from any quality as poetry which it may have, is of value because of its historical or political interest, because it is an expression and an interpretation of the hour which gave it birth. With it, poetic merit is not the first consideration, which is, perhaps, as well. Yet, however slight their merit as poetry may be, many of the early ballads possess an admirable energy, directness, and aptness of phrase, and there is about them a childlike simplicity impossible of reproduction in this sophisticated age—as where Stephen Tilden, in his epitaph on Braddock, requests the great commanders who have preceded that unfortunate soldier to the grave to

"Edge close and give him room."

With the retrospective ballad, on the other hand, poetic merit is a sine qua non. It has little value historically, however accurate its facts. It differs from the contemporary ballad in the same way that the "New Canterbury Tales" differ from Froissart; or as the "Idylls of the King" differ from "Le Morte Arthur." It is less authentic, less convincing, less vital. It may have atmosphere, but there is no infallible way of telling whether the atmosphere is right. Unless it is something more, then, than mere metrical history, the modern ballad has little claim to consideration.

These are the two principles which the present compiler has had constantly in mind. Yet the second principle has been violated more than once, since, in a collection such as this, one must cut one's coat according to the cloth; or, rather, one must make sure that one is decently covered, though the covering may here and there be somewhat inferior in quality. So it has been necessary, in order to keep the thread of history unbroken, to admit some strands anything but silken; and if the choice has sometimes been of ills, rather than of goods, the compiler can only hope that he chose wisely.

The most difficult and trying portion of his task has been, not to get his material together, but to compress it into reasonable limits. Especially in the colonial period was the temptation great to include more early American verse. Peter Folger's "A Looking-Glass for the Times," Benjamin Tompson's "New England's Crisis," Michael Wigglesworth's "God's Controversy with New England," the "Sot-Weed Factor," and many others, which it is recalling an old sorrow to name here, were excluded only after long and bitter debate. No doubt other exclusions will be noticed by nearly every reader of the volume—and it may interest him to know that the material gathered together would have made four such books as this.

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