July 4, 2010

Taylor: the greater task, for thee to live!

As part of the nation's centennial celebration on July 4, 1876, Pennsylvania poet and travel writer Bayard Taylor (pictured) was chosen to present an original poem in Philadelphia. They also asked him to find someone to write an original Cantata. He first thought of Edmund Clarence Stedman, but he was out of the country. So he wrote to Sidney Lanier: "I am sure you can do this worthily. It's a great occasion, — not especially for poetry, as an art, but for Poetry to assert herself as a power."

Lanier agreed to it, and his cantata (set to music by Dudley Buck) was performed at the opening ceremonies of the centennial celebration in May. The event was a proud representation of both North and South.

The crowd gathered in Independence Square (site of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed) to hear Taylor recite his poem, "Centennial Ode." This is the final stanza:

     Look up, look forth, and on!
     There's light in the dawning sky:
The clouds are parting, the night is gone:
     Prepare for the work of the day!
     Fallow thy pastures lie
     And far thy shepherds stray,
And the fields of thy vast domain
     Are waiting for purer seed
     Of knowledge, desire, and deed,
For keener sunshine and mellower rain!
     But keep thy garments pure:
Pluck them back, with the old disdain,
     From touch of the hands that stain !
     So shall thy strength endure.
Transmute into good the gold of Gain,
Compel to beauty thy ruder powers,
     Till the bounty of coming hours
     Shall plant, on thy fields apart,
With the oak of Toil, the rose of Art!
     Be watchful, and keep us so:
     Be strong, and fear no foe:
     Be just, and the world shall know!
With the same love, love us, as we give;
     And the day shall never come,
     That finds us weak or dumb
     To join and smite and cry
In the great task, for thee to die,
And the greater task, for thee to live!

After Taylor's death two years later, John Greenleaf Whittier (who wrote a hymn for the same centennial celebration) assessed the writer's career: "It is perhaps too early to assign him his place in American literature... His Centennial ode [and others]... are sureties of the permanence of his reputation."

1 comment:

  1. South CarolinianJuly 4, 2010 at 10:21 AM

    What I love about this event is that Taylor was purposely trying to bring North and South together - he representing the North, and Lanier representing the South. In 1876, the need to celebrate the United States as a whole was incredibly important, considering the recent Civil War. Kudos to him.