October 8, 2010

Blackened and bleeding in Chicago

The Great Chicago Fire burned for three days beginning on October 8, 1871. As with many other national tragedies, several poets were inspired to memorialize the event and its unfortunate victims lyrically. Bret Harte, for example, wrote "Chicago" a description of the horrific devastation left behind: "Blackened and bleeding, helpless, panting, prone / On the charred fragments of her shattered throne."

On the other hand, John Greenleaf Whittier noted how Americans were unified in the need to stay hopeful in his own poem, also named "Chicago":

From East, from West, from South and North,
The messages of hope shot forth,
And, underneath the severing wave,
The world, full-handed reached to save.

John Boyle O'Reilly personified Chicago as a woman "who was once so fair," but now "charred and rent are her garments." Like Whittier, O'Reilly notes that she is "rich in her treasures" because she has friends who will assist her. The country, after all, is striving for Chicago's rebirth:

Silent she stands on the prairie,
Wrapped in her fire-scathed sheet:
Around her, thank God, is the Nation,
Weeping for her desolation,
Pouring its gold at her feet...

It is estimated that as many as 400 people died in the Great Chicago Fire. The rumor persisted for years that the fire which destroyed four square miles was started by the family cow owned by the O'Leary family.

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