October 19, 2010

Hayne: from the war-wearied hand

After a five-day siege of Yorktown, Virginia by combined American and French forces, the commander, Charles Cornwallis, and his British troops surrendered on October 19, 1781. Soon after, the British government recognized the independence of the United States.

100 years after the surrender at Yorktown, Southern poet Paul Hamilton Hayne commemorated the event in poetry. The American Revolution theme seems unusual for a poet more known for his connection to the Civil War. In a fairly lengthy poem titled "Yorktown Centennial Lyric," dated October 19, 1881, he writes:

Hark! hark! down the century's long reaching slope
To those transports of triumph, those raptures of hope...
And mark how the years melting upward like mist
Which the breath of some splendid enchantment has kissed,
Reveal on the ocean, reveal on the shore
The proud pageant of conquest that graced them of yore.

Hayne notes the difficulty in America's founding ("stubborn the strife ere the conflict was won!") and how the colonists might have lost hope ("the wild whirling war wrack half stifled the sun"). Instead:

The day turned to darkness, the night changed to fire,
Still more fierce waxed the combat, more deadly the ire,
Undimmed by the gloom, in majestic advance,
Oh, behold where they ride o'er the red battle tide,
Those banners united in love as in fame.

Much of the poem is dedicated to the support of France and "the lilies, the luminous lilies of France." Cornwallis, on the other hand, "sharpens his broadsword" which "so oft has reaped rebels like grain."  A bold boast, the poem notes, for a man who will soon be running in fear. The siege ends ("O morning superb!") and the soldiers walk away in silence. They know peace is upon them:

When Peace to her own, timed the pulse of the land,
And the war weapon sank from the war-wearied hand,
Young Freedom upborne to the height of the goal
 She had yearned for so long with deep travail of soul,
A song of her future raised, thrilling and clear,
Till the woods learned to hearken, the hill slopes to hear: —
Yet fraught with all magical grandeurs that gleam
On the hero's high hope, or the patriot's dream,
What future, though bright, in cold shadow shall cast
The proud beauty that haloes the brow of the past.

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