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.”