September 22, 2012

Boker: A living force, a shaping will

September 1862 turned out to be an important month in the American Civil War. After a record-breakingly bloody day at Antietam, the Union Army was able to emerge victorious. Days after the battle, on September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. That same day, Republican and Union supporter George Henry Boker wrote his poem "The Flag" (one of several poems chronicling the progress of the war):

Spirits of patriots, hail in heaven again
   The flag for which ye fought and died,
Now that its field, washed clear of every stain,
   Floats out in honest pride!

Free blood flows through its scarlet veins once more,
   And brighter shine its silver bars;
A deeper blue God's ether never wore
   Amongst the golden stars.

See how our earthly constellation gleams;
   And backward, flash for flash, returns
Its heavenly sisters their immortal beams
   With light that fires and burns, —

That burns because a moving soul is there,
   A living force, a shaping will,
Whose law the fate-forecasting powers of air
   Acknowledge and fulfil.

At length the day, by prophets seen of old,
   Flames on the crimsoned battle-blade;
Henceforth, O flag, no mortal bought and sold,
   Shall crouch beneath thy shade.

That shame has vanished in the darkened past,
   With all the wild chaotic wrongs
That held the struggling centuries shackled fast
   With fear's accursed thongs.

Therefore, O patriot fathers, in your eyes
   I brandish thus our banner pure:
Watch o'er us, bless us, from your peaceful skies,
   And make the issue sure!

The poem seems to reflect both an acknowledgment of the bloodshed at Antietam and the hopeful promise of freeing enslaved people. Boker invokes the Founding Fathers ("O patriot fathers") using the symbolism of the flag and implies that the contemporary generation had finished the charge of the previous one to expand freedom ("Henceforth, O flag, no mortal bought and sold"). Or, perhaps, he implies that those Founding Fathers had guided them in fulfilling that challenge.

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