May 31, 2010

Coates: For Death make room!

On May 31, 1889, the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania suffered a massive flood when a neglected dam failed during a storm. The man-made Conemaugh Lake was released, dumping 20 million tons of water on the town. A stone bridge temporarily blocked the onslaught of water but as debris piled up a fire was sparked (it burned for three days). All in all, the disaster caused the death of over 2,200 people.

Philadelphia poet Florence Earle Coates was one of several who paid poetic tribute to the tragic event. Coates frequently published poems in periodicals but here first book, Poems, was published in 1898 and included "By the Conemaugh":

Foreboding sudden of untoward change,
   A tight'ning clasp on everything held dear,
A moan of waters wild and strange,
   A whelming horror near;
And, 'midst the thund'rous din a voice of doom, —
"Make way for me, O Life, for Death make room!

"I come like the whirlwind rude,
   'Gainst all thou hast cherished warring;
I come like the flaming flood
   From a crater's mouth outpouring;
I come like the avalanche gliding free —
And the Power that sent thee forth, sends me!

"Where thou hast builded with strength secure,
   My hand shall spread disaster;
Where thou hast barr'd me, with forethought sure,
   Shall ruin flow the faster;
I come to gather where thou hast sowed, —
But I claim of thee nothing thou has not owed!

"On my mission of mercy forth I go
   Where the Lord of Being sends me;
His will is the only will I know,
   And my strength is the strength He lends me;
Thy loved ones I hide 'neath my waters dim,
But I cannot hide them away from Him!"

Coates's poem is collected with several others which were written about the Johnstown Flood. The town's residents immediately set to rebuilding (rather than abandoning) and Clara Barton came to aid in their efforts.

Coates published a few other books. James Whitcomb Riley (who also wrote of a natural disaster around this time) said of her work, "The poems are truly poems because of their simple, natural inspiration. A new uplift and hopefulness comes with the reading of the volume — every line!"

*The image above depicts Johnstown after the flood. Photographers rushed to the scene to create stereograph images which were sold to tourists and others.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this most-interesting posting. I enjoyed reading the other Conemaugh poems (from your link) as well. Nineteenth-century poets certainly wrote with a great sense of drama and vitality.

    If I may add a sort-of Memorial Day reference: I happened to notice, in scrolling through the link, some poems about the Battle of Manila Bay, of "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley," fame (Admiral George Dewey). Though this is not a literary reference per se, I wanted to mention that Dewey's ship, the "U.S.S. Olympia," which is a floating museum on Philadelphia's waterfront, is currently endangered. There is a strong possibility that it will close at the end of this summer and that this wonderfully historic ship, which is expensive to maintain and in need of repairs, will be scrapped or sunk as a reef. What a terrible loss of an important piece of history that would be. Let's hope that she can be saved by some generous benefactor.