May 29, 2010

Flag of the free heart's hope and home

On May 29, 1819, the poet Joseph Rodman Drake saw his most famous poem published, "The American Flag." It was printed in the New York Evening Post, and almost instantly put Drake in the highest rank of American poets at the time.

The New York City-born poet had his earliest work published before he was 16 years old. His first book of collected poems, The Culprit Fay and Other Poems, was not published until well after his death. He was particularly mourned by his close friend Fitz-Greene Halleck, equally famous in those days, equally forgotten today. The two had collaborated frequently and, so the story goes, Halleck re-wrote one of the stanzas in "The American Flag" as a favor. What follows is just a part of the poem. The full version is here.

When Freedom, from her mountain height,
  Unfurled her standard to the air,
She tore the azure robe of night,
  And set the stars of glory there;
She mingled with its gorgeous dyes
The milky baldric of the skies,
And striped its pure, celestial white
With streakings of the morning light;
Then, from his mansion in the sun,
She called her eagle bearer down,
And gave into his mighty hand,
The symbol of her chosen land.

Majestic monarch of the cloud!
  Who rear'st aloft thy regal form,
To hear the tempest-trumpings loud,
  And see the lightning-lances driven
When strive the warriors of the storm,
And rolls the thunder-drum of heaven—
Child of the sun! to thee 't is given
  To guard the banner of the free,
To hover in the sulphur smoke,
To ward away the battle-stroke,
And bid its blendings shine afar,
Like rainbows on the cloud of war,
  The harbingers of victory! [...]

Flag of the free heart's hope and home,
  By angel hands to valor given;
Thy stars have lit the welkin dome,
  And all thy hues were born in heaven.
Forever float that standard sheet!
  Where breathes the foe but falls before us,
With Freedom's soil beneath our feet,
  And Freedom's banner streaming o'er us?

The year "The American Flag" was published, Drake was already sick with tuberculosis. Drake ("The Bronx Poet," he was later called) was 25 when he died of the disease.

In 1915, 95 years after the publication of "The American Flag," Drake was memorialized by the Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences. The poem was set to music by a local school teacher and, according to the program, "Sung by One Hundred Pupils of the School, accompanied by the Morris High School Orchestra." The party proceeded, by "automobile," to Drake's grave to unveil his restored memorial marker. They also dedicated Joseph Rodman Drake Park, which still exists. At its dedication that day, a poem by Halleck was read.

*The image above is captioned "At Drake's Grave Restored - May 29, 1915" and was published in the booklet which was printed after the commemoration.

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