Good Poem #20 – Barbara Frietchie

In the wake of recent events, flag-waving patriotism has become suspect in many quarters, but for decades celebrating being American was a defining characteristic of ours.  Few touchstones for Americanism were as deeply felt as patriotic poetry, learned and recited by school children everywhere.  It gave us a common heritage and informed us of America’s uniqueness:  “Paul Revere’s Ride”,”In Flanders Field” (although written by a Canadian), “Evangeline”, “O Captain, My Captain”, “Concord Hymn”, “Old Ironsides”, “The Ballad of William Sycamore”.  It’s hard to imagine such poems being written and taken seriously today.

A favorite is John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Barbara Frietchie” which is not to be outdone in its legendary celebration of sacrifices Americans are supposed to be willing to make for their country. It recounts an event that allegedly took place in 1862 as Stonewall Jackson’s army moved through Frederick, Maryland, to meet the Union army at Antietam Creek. Winston Churchill is said to have known it by heart.

“Barbara Frietchie” is an example of a poem that you can enjoy without loving all of it.  I used to think of the first verse every time we drove through Frederick to visit daughter Mary at school in Baltimore: “. . . the clustered spires of Frederick stand, green-walled by the hills of Maryland.” Barbara Frietchie’s house still stands in Frederick.

“Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag, she said.”

Barbara Frietchie
By John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892)
John Greenleaf Whittier
Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,
Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.
Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;
In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.
Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.
“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:
“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.
Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

Great Song #6 – Galaxy Song

Monty Python, God bless them for all the humor they’ve brought the world, are not just brilliant sketch comedians.  They also write some clever songs.  Here’s one to put us in our place in the universe, “Galaxy Song”.  It was written by Eric Idle (and long-time collaborator John Du Prez) for the movie, “Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life”.

Have a listen.

Reflections on China Trip – Volume 4

Recollections of China continued… Various signs in Kunming airport men’s room (in English): “The civilization in the restroom determines the level of a nation’s civilization.” “Caution – slippery slope.” “Do not stamp on toilet seat.”  This last is due to, I suppose, a long ingrained habit of squatting. In the elevator of the Shangi-La Hotel in Guilin: 8 year old Chinese girl to me:  “Good morning.” Me, speaking very slowing:  “Your English is excellent.  Where are you from?” Chinese girl: “Toronto.” You can never forget you’re in China.  One minute you want to embrace it, breath it in, become one with it. The next minute you’re thinking, Lord, get me out of here. Other than the temples there are few old buildings. Most were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. It’s interesting to speculate what China would be like if Mao had been constrained. In all events, China is a wonderful place, full of surprises and wonder.  The people are gentle and kind though standoffish, but the slightest indication of interest is rewarded with a smile and a “hallow”.  In perhaps the most surreal experience of the trip, Debbie and I were waiting in line for security in the modern Guilin airport. Behind us was a large number of Chinese ladies, seemingly on a group tour.  One of them, a diminutive middle-aged lady, brushed against me when she sneaked up next to me so her friend could take a picture of the two of us. When I turned they looked apprehensive as if they’d been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.  I laughed and flashed the peace sign which in China means something like everything’s good.  This opened the flood gates of good will and laughter and we found ourselves caught up in an episode of Chinese amateur paparazzi.  Something like a dozen women, most of whom didn’t come up to my chest, snuggled up to Debbie or to me, one or two at a time, so that their friends could take a picture. This went on so long that I was afraid we were going to get in trouble with the security fellows who looked on stolidly but did nothing.  After a while the storm abated and we continued through security and to our gate.  If we ever saw any of those women again, I wouldn’t know; we were back in the standard Chinese mode of distancing ourselves but maybe our picture graces many a Chinese travel photo album. I can hear their friends now:  “Who, in God’s name, is that?” Ed with Chinese PrincessOne more China blog to follow. But I digress . . .

Good Poem #19 – Mandalay

I couldn’t leave Kipling off my list.  I’ve enjoyed his poems from the days I first got interested in poetry.  He, like many other earnest Victorian era poets, have fallen into disregard in our days of cynicism and irony, but I still enjoy his poems: “Danny Deever”, “Gunga Din”, “Tommy”, “The Ballad of East and West”, and “If”, but especially this one. “Mandalay” is an old soldier’s recollection of his service to the Empire in Southeast Asia. Kipling was a great admirer and supporter of the British common soldier. Overlook the dialect. Disney cartoon fans should know that Kipling wrote “Jungle Book”.

“Ship me somewhere east of Suez where the best is like the worst”


By Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)


By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking’ lazy to the sea, there’s a Burma girl asittin’ and I know she thinks of me; For the wind is in the palm-trees and the temple bells they say: Come you back, you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay. Come you back to Mandalay, where the old Flotilla lay; Can’t you hear their paddles chunking’ from Rangoon to Mandalay? On the road to Mandalay where the flying’ fishes play and the dawn comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green, An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen, An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot, An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot: Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud! On the road to Mandalay…

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow, She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo! With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak. Elephints a-pilin’ teak In the sludgy, squdgy creek, Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘alf afraid to speak! On the road to Mandalay…

But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away An’ there ain’t no busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay; An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells: “If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.” No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else But them spicy garlic smells, An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells; On the road to Mandalay…

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones, An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones; Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand, An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand? Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and – Law! wot do they understand? I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land! On the road to Mandalay…

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst; For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea; On the road to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay, With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay! O the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’-fishes play, An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

Great Song #5 – Choctaw Bingo

Singer-songwriter James McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo” describes a Western family through the story of a reunion at their Uncle Slayton’s.  It’s funny and right on target. One critic has proposed that “Choctaw Bingo” be the new national anthem.  It may miss out on that honor, but it’s a heck of a alt-country/outlaw song with a beat that keeps carrying it forward. James McMurtry is Larry McMurtry’s son.

“Uncle Slayton’s got his Texan pride, back in the thickets with his Asian bride.”

Listen up.

Great Movie #9 – The Man Who Would Be King

This 1975 movie, adapted from a Kipling story and directed by John Huston, stars Michael Caine and Sean Connery at their best. It’s a beautifully realized buddy film that follows the twosome as they travel from India during the Raj to the Northwest through the Khyber Pass and seek to use their experience as British soldiers to become kings in Kafiristan.  As in a classical Greek play, just as the goal is in their grasp, hubris proves their undoing.  Christopher Plummer plays Rudyard Kipling. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards.

man who would be king

“But Peachy did come back and in all that time Danny never left his side.”

Watch the trailer.

Reflections on China Trip – Volume 3

A Long Way from Home

We saw only a tiny bit of the huge country (visiting Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Yunnan and Chinese Tibet) so my describing it is like the blind man who, after grabbing an elephant’s trunk, said that the elephant was just like a snake.

Still, I’ll risk some random reflections in an effort to solve the riddle that is China in fifteen days:  We see very few Westerners, even in Hong Kong, so they’re still a novelty in many places; a billion and a half Chinese have no idea what my life is like; we cruise along an eight-lane highway watching women hack at a small plot of land with a grubbing hoe and men plow with oxen; a passerby is straight-faced, even stern, until you catch her eye and then she smiles broadly and uses her only English word “hallow”; a child squats and shits in the gutter of a busy city street (this is such a common practice that the children wear pants with slits in the crotch); and brightly lit stores sell things I had no idea what they were, even after I went in them; air pollution is unremarkable.

In Hong Kong, fighting jet lag which had its death grip on us, we found an English language tv station and caught the popular show of sportscaster Wang Dong who’s apparently very big in China.

There are construction and debris piles everywhere.  Toddlers are tended by old people. This is understandable since most are only children (and only grandchildren) due to China’s policy of heavy fines for Han Chinese who have more than one child. Even so, todders play at the construction sites.  They wander beside busy roads. Helmetless, they ride on the backs of motor scooters.

China appears to be an authoritarian state, but not a police state.  There are fewer police in evidence that in the U.S.  It appears that conformity and orderliness are imposed culturally and not from the top down. There are many tribes, languages and ancient grudges and suspicions. Nineteenth and Twentieth Century humiliations by European powers still rankle the Chinese.

In the rice terraces area, Zhang tribal women carry your luggage a half mile to the hilltop hotel on their backs in wicker baskets.  Men will carry you in a litter chair, one at each end.  They halfheartedly offered to take me and curiously seemed relieved when I declined.

woman with luggage basket

Grateful to be hungry any time, it means you aren’t sick.  But, the food is good and cheap as is the beer – $1.70 US for a large Tsingtao.

On a Li River cruise as lunch was being fixed at stern of boat:
Ed: “That’s kind of suspect.”
Canadian girl sitting across from us:  “Everything in China’s kind of suspect.”

More random thoughts to follow.

But I digress. . .





Good Poem #18 – Dover Beach

Here are Matthew Arnold’s thoughts on the modern human condition.  His unforgettable imagery lends itself to description of any number of situations. Note the dichotomy between the beginning and the conclusion.

“. . . on a darkling plain. . . where ignorant armies clash by night”

Dover Beach (Fourth Stanza)

By Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888)

Matthew Arnold

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.