September 17, 2010

Sprague: a purer and holier flame

The city of Boston, Massachusetts celebrated the anniversary of its settlement on September 17, 1830 (though listed as a "centennial," it was actually the bicentennial; Boston's founding dates to 1630, ten years after the Mayflower). To commemorate the event in poetry, they chose that city's most famous and most accomplished poet: Charles Sprague.

A Boston banker by day, Sprague presented "An Ode: Pronounced Before the Inhabitants of Boston, at the Centennial Celebration of the Settlement of the City" before an enthusiastic audience. As might be expected for an event like this, Sprague's poem chronicles the history of Boston, beginning with "Our Fathers" who "braved a pathless sea" to establish a new "empire," as he calls it. He then invites the spirits of those founders to join the celebration, to come "as ye came of yore" to establish "the beacon-banner of another world." From the tenth stanza:

O many a time it hath been told,
The story of those men of old:
For this fair poetry hath wreathed
  Her sweetest, purest flower;
For this proud eloquence hath breathed
  His strain of loftiest power;
Devotion, too, hath lingered round
Each spot of consecrated ground,
  And hill and valley blessed;
There, where our banished Fathers strayed,
There, where they loved and wept and prayed,
  There, where their ashes rest.

Sprague, who typically avoided controversial topics, also notes that the "savages" that were encountered upon settling the New World are true men who share in love and spiritual beliefs. For that reason, Sprague speaks on behalf of "the red man" whose love for freedom rivals any other American. The poem passionately speaks about their history, intertwined with the founding of the country. He also pleads for Bostonians to seek "a purer and holier flame": instead of pursuing gold (which can be as much a tyrant as the monarch Americans revolted against), remember that freedom means one can never be poor.

The city of Boston paid for the poem to be printed and distributed. City council members called it an "elegant, interesting and instructive Poem."


  1. And I just discovered Sprague has a poem about smoking (Hooray!): "To My Cigar"

    Perhaps he was using that pure and holy flame to light up his cigar!

  2. Ed, yes, that's a very... interesting... poem. Only Sprague could find a way to make the act of smoking a cigar into a moral lesson!


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