April 9, 2011

Smith: Freedom stooped to wipe the tears

Rev. Samuel Francis Smith is remembered, if at all, for one reason: he wrote the words to "My Country 'Tis of Thee," now a well-known patriotic song often referred to as "America." He wrote it in 1831 but continued writing other songs and poems for the rest of his long life (he died in 1895 at the age of 87).

As he prepared what became his final book, Poems of Home and Country, Smith was contacted by an admirer faraway in Japan. The music from "America" had been appropriated by the Japanese and given new words to sing at national events. The admirer also mentioned a story about two American women who had been away from their native country for nearly a decade traveling through Asia. When the two heard the band play "America," one fainted and the other wept for joy. That story inspired Smith to write one more poem, becoming the first in his new book, and dated April 9, 1895. "Echoes of America" is one of his last poems:

What are these notes of melody that float around me here, —
The tones of love that in my youth broke on my ravished ear,
The swelling notes from infant lips, the anthem of the free,
When childish voices trilled the song, "My country, 't is of thee"?

My fate has led me far from home; new scenes salute my eyes;
New climes and seasons greet me here, new flowers, fruits, & skies,
But still my heart, untravelled, turns, dear native land to thee;
I sing again the old refrain, "Sweet land of liberty"!

She spoke in sweet and gentle tones, her cheeks with tears were wet;
"Dear native land, its light, its love, how can I e'er forget?"
She heard the strain; her bounding heart longed for the brave and free;
She breathed in ecstasy of love, "Sweet land of Liberty!"

Another pilgrim, far from home, heard the same echoing strain;
Her throbbing heart grew wild with joy to greet the thrill again.
She fainted as the glorious sound along the gamut ran,
"Is this the land of liberty?" "Alas, 't is but Japan!"

But Freedom stooped to wipe the tears, to kiss the dead to life, —
Freedom that speaks the words of peace, healer of human strife.
Visions of love came o'er the soul; in faith, they rose to see
The tribes of all the peopled earth made, through the Gospel, free.

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