July 3, 2011

Lowell: Here, where we stand, stood he

Legend has it that, when George Washington first took command of the Continental Army in the early days of the American Revolution, he did so while standing under the shade of an elm tree on Cambridge Common in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He certainly did take command on July 3, 1775, but the question is not yet settled whether there was an elm tree involved or not.

That did not stop American writers from advocating the legend. Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in a home that witnessed the event, just across from the Common. His poem "Under the Washington Elm" was written 80 years after the alleged event. 20 years after that, on the centennial of Washington's taking command, a large ceremony was held under the elm tree. The poet of the day was James Russell Lowell (whose own birthplace, though standing in 1775, was too far to have witnessed Washington; by coincidence, Lowell and Washington also share a birthday). From "Under the Old Elm," presented on July 3, 1875:

Words pass as wind, but where great deeds were done
A power abides transfused from sire to son:
The boy feels deeper meanings thrill his ear,
That tingling through his pulse life-long shall run,
With sure impulsion to keep honor clear,
When, pointing down, his father whispers, "Here,
Here, where we stand, stood he, the purely great,
Whose soul no siren passion could unsphere,
Then nameless, now a power and mixed with fate."
Historic town, thou holdest sacred dust,
Once known to men as pious, learned, just,
And one memorial pile that dares to last;
But Memory greets with reverential kiss
No spot in all thy circuit sweet as this,
Touched by that modest glory as it past,
O'er which yon elm hath piously displayed
These hundred years its monumental shade.

Lowell muses that there is no greater monument than a tree as it renews itself every spring. Its physical presence serves as a reminder of the event and connects the present to the past. Whether that event really happened or not, Lowell looks back in awe at Washington:

Beneath our consecrated elm
A century ago he stood...
Firmly erect, he towered above them all,
The incarnate discipline that was to free
With iron curb that armed democracy.

Lowell, who would become U.S. Minister to Spain two years later, wrote to a friend that he hoped poetry would reunite the country in the decade after the Civil War. Six members of Lowell's family were killed in Virginia during the Civil War and he noted to a friend that his poem was meant "to hold out a hand of kindly reconciliation to Virginia":

Virginia gave us this imperial man
Cast in the massive mould
Of those high-statured ages old
Which into grander forms our mortal metal ran;
She gave us this unblemished gentleman:
What shall we give her back but love and praise
As in the dear old unestranged days
Before the inevitable wrong began?

*For more on the Washington Elm legend, visit the Cambridge Historical Society or this post on Boston1775.com by historian J. L. Bell.

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