February 23, 2011

150 years ago: Timrod and Harper

 The Daily Courier in Charleston, South Carolina published "Ethnogenesis" in its February 23, 1861 issue. The poem, written by Henry Timrod, was immediately republished and celebrated throughout the South. Also known as "Ode on Occasion of the Meeting of the Southern Congress," asks that the date signifying the birth of the new Confederate States of America be marked in Heaven. At their first meeting of Congress, held in Montgomery, Alabama, Timrod was inspired to write his poem then and there. "At last, we are a nation among nations," he writes. Amid his rejoicing, however, Timrod considers the possibility of a violent response from the North:

What if, both mad and blinded in their rage,
Our foes should fling us down their mortal gage,
And with a hostile step profane our sod!
We shall not shrink, my brothers, but go forth
To meet them...

That same day, the Anti-Slavery Bugle published "To the Cleveland Union-Savers," a poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Subtitled "An Appeal from One of the Fugitive's Own Race," the poet notes that Union men who believed in freedom had yet to act strongly on behalf of enslaved people:

Men of Cleveland, had a vulture
   Clutched a timid dove for prey,
Would ye not, with human pity,
   Drive the gory bird away?

...On your Union's bloody altar
   Was your helpless victim laid;
Mercy, truth, and justice shuddered,
   But your hands would give no aid.

And ye sent her back to torture,
   Stripped of freedom, robbed of right, —
Thrust the wretched, captive stranger
   Back to Slavery's gloomy night!

Sent her back where men may trample
   On her honor and her fame
And upon her lips so dusky
   Press the cup of woe and shame.

There is blood upon your city, —
   Dark and dismal is the stain;
And your hands would fail to cleanse it,
   Though you should Lake Erie drain.

There's a curse upon your Union!
   Fearful sounds are in the air;
As if thunderbolts were forging
   Answers to the bondman's prayer...

But ye cannot stay the whirlwind,
   When the storm begins to break;
And our God doth rise in judgment
   For the poor and needy's sake.

And your guilty, sin-cursed Union
   Shall be shaken to its base,
Till ye learn that simple justice
   Is the right of every race.

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