Turning over the latest page of the calendar, you might think there’s nothing that special about today. Just a run-of-the-mill Monday; what’s more, a day that isn’t typically greeted with much fanfare. Okay, so it’s the start of the first full week of a new month, but that might be stretching the link to positive superstition. There may be something to latch onto and smile about; perhaps if it’s a particularly sunny day or otherwise if summer holidays are just around the corner. There could even possibly be a home-grown sporting victory to still celebrate, if near-miracles do indeed occur (and if not, sorry to rub salt into the wounds, Andy). But there is something marked clearly on this date that is of great importance – and the cause of a whole lot of fanfare – to our friends across the pond, and it’s for certain that over in the States this Monday will be anything but mundane.
Independence Day, marking America’s independence from Great Britain and the birth of a nation, has been commemorated in fine style since 1777; although it has only been recognised as an official holiday in the US for a mere seventy years. Indeed, the toss could be argued that true American independence wasn’t achieved until the War of 1812, plus there’s the added confusion of whether the day came with the official signing of the Declaration of Independence – which was believed to have been on August 2nd rather than July 4th. Such technicalities haven’t hampered the state-to-state festivities however; it’s little wonder that the sound of so many fireworks being simultaneously set off doesn’t travel with more velocity over the Atlantic Ocean. Even if you don’t have any significant connections to the land of the free and home of the brave, and the nearest you get to displaying an allegiance is by wearing something starry and/or stripy or by visiting certain fast-food or coffee chains, the day can still be observed regardless of nationality – especially by looking at American literature and poetry.
The States have provided us with many great poets, some more well-known than others: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow…the list goes on. One that is perhaps less commonly talked about, but who seems specifically suitable to symbolise pride in the American nation that is felt especially strongly on this day, is Vachel Lindsay. Born in Springfield, Illinois, Lindsay initially rose to literary fame through his status as a travelling poet; his public readings were partly responsible for fostering a strong appreciation for the spoken art of poetry in the US. Not only were the rhythms of his poems, in tone with American vernacular, signifiers of his strong ties to his homeland but so were their themes and subjects. Lindsay paid tribute to the most famous resident of Springfield and indeed one of the most famous Americans of all, Abraham Lincoln, in verse. Geography – specifically the very immediate kind – was to be an importance influence in his work; Lindsay was born in a house previously inhabited by Lincoln’s sister-in-law and later resided next door to the Governor of Illinois, who was eulogised by Lindsay for his role in the Haymarket Affair in The Eagle That Is Forgotten. And it’s with this poem that we observe America’s ‘birthday’; solemn perhaps, but also stirring, and testament to the ideals of American culture. Also appropriate seeing as the eagle is the nation’s official emblem (alongside unofficial ones such as apple pie, hamburgers and Coca Cola), representing as it does strength, freedom and independence.
(and for any Canadians reading – we’d like to offer belated good wishes for Canada Day at the end of last week)
The Eagle That Is Forgotten
Sleep softly . . . eagle forgotten . . . under the stone.
Time has its way with you there, and the clay has its own.
“We have buried him now,” thought your foes, and in secret rejoiced.
They made a brave show of their mourning, their hatred unvoiced.
They had snarled at you, barked at you, foamed at you day after day,
Now you were ended. They praised you . . . and laid you away.
The others that mourned you in silence and terror and truth,
The widow bereft of her crust, and the boy without youth,
The mocked and the scorned and the wounded, the lame and the poor,
That should have remembered forever . . . remember no more.
Where are those lovers of yours, on what name do they call,
The lost, that in armies wept over your funeral pall?
They call on the names of a hundred high-valiant ones,
A hundred white eagles have risen the sons of your sons,
The zeal in their wings is a zeal that your dreaming began
The valor that wore out your soul in the service of man.
Sleep softly . . . eagle forgotten . . . under the stone,
Time has its way with you there and the clay has its own.
Sleep on, O brave-hearted, O wise man that kindled the flame—
To live in mankind is far more than to live in a name,
To live in mankind, far, far more . . . than to live in a name.
Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931)