TEN POEMS ABOUT JOHN BROWN
selected by Robert Willis Allen
These poems were written by northerners who lived at the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid. I had hoped to discover some southern poems but have found none of merit. If any visitor to this website knows of such poems, please send an e-mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Our first poem is by Edmund Clarence Stedman who was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1833, and worked for many years as a poet, critic, and editor. Stedman first gained notoriety as a poet in 1859 when he penned satirical verses about the wedding of Frances Bartlett, a teenager, to an aging, wealthy Cuban. That same year, he wrote the lines below as a plea to stay the execution of John Brown. He is also given credit for writing the words to the first campaign song for Lincoln, "Honest Abe of the West."
HOW OLD BROWN TOOK HARPER’S FERRY
John Brown in Kansas settled, like a steadfast Yankee farmer.
Brave and godly, with four sons, all stalwart men of might.
There he spoke aloud for freedom, and the Border-strife grew warmer,
Till the Rangers fired his dwelling, in his absence, in the night;
And Old Brown,
Came homeward in the morning—to find his house burned down.
Then he grasped his trusty rifle and boldly fought for freedom;
Smote from border unto border the fierce, invading band;
And he and his brave boys vowed—so might Heaven help and speed ‘em!—
They would save those grand old prairies from the curse that blights the land;
And Old Brown,
Said, "Boys, the Lord will aid us!" and he shoved his ramrod down.
And the Lord did aid these men, and they labored day and even,
Saving Kansas from its peril; and their very lives seemed charmed,
Till the ruffians killed one son, in the blessed light of Heaven,—
In cold blood the fellows slew him, as he journeyed all unarmed;
Then Old Brown,
Shed not a tear, but shut his teeth, and frowned a terrible frown!
Then they seized another brave boy,—not amid the heat of battle,
But in peace, behind his ploughshare,—and they loaded him with chains;
And with pikes, before their horses, even as they goad their cattle,
Drove him cruelly, for their sport, and at last blew out his brains;
Then Old Brown,
Raised his right hand up to Heaven, calling Heaven’s vengeance down.
And he swore a fearful oath, by the name of the Almighty,
He would hunt this ravening evil that had scathed and torn him so;
He would seize it by the vitals; he would crush it day and night;
He would so pursue its footsteps, so return it blow for blow,
That Old Brown,
Should be a name to swear by, in backwoods or in town!
Then his beard became more grizzled, and his wild blue eye grew wilder.
And more sharply curved his hawk’s nose, snuffing battle from afar;
And he and the two boys left, though the Kansas strife waxed milder,
Grew more sullen, till was over the bloody Border War,
And Old Brown,
Had gone crazy, as they reckoned by his fearful glare and frown.
So he left the plains of Kansas and their bitter woes behind him,
Slipt off into Virginia, where the statesmen all are born,
Hired a farm by Harper’s Ferry, and no one knew where to find him,
Or whether he’d turned parson, or was jacketed and shorn;
For Old Brown,
Mad as he was, knew texts enough to wear a parson’s gown.
He bought no ploughs and harrows, spades and shovels, and such trifles;
But quietly to his rancho there came, by every train,
Boxes full of pikes and pistols, and his well-beloved Sharps rifles;
And eighteen other madmen joined their leader here again.
Says Old Brown,
"Boys, we’ve got an army large enough to march and take the town!
‘Take the town and seize the muskets, free the negroes and then arm them;
Carry the County and the State, ay, and all the potent South.
On their own heads be the slaughter, if their victims rise to harm them—
These Virginians! who believed not, nor would heed the warning mouth,"
Says Old Brown,
"The world shall see a Republic, or my name is not John Brown."
‘T was the sixteenth of October, on the evening of a Sunday;
"This good work," declared the captain, "shall be on a holy night!"
It was on a Sunday evening, and before the noon of Monday,
With two sons, and Captain Stephens, fifteen privates—black and white,
Marched across the bridged Potomac, and knocked the sentry down;
Took the guarded armory-building, and the muskets and the cannon;
Captured all the country majors and the colonels, one by one;
Scared to death each gallant scion of Virginia they ran on,
And before the noon of Monday, I say, the deed was done.
Mad Old Brown,
With his eighteen other crazy men, went in and took the town.
Very little noise and bluster, little smell of powder made he;
It was all done in the midnight, like the Emperor’s coup d’etat.
"Cut the wires! Stop the rail-cars! Hold the streets and bridges!" said he,
Then declared the new Republic, with himself for guiding star,—
This Old Brown,
And the bold two thousand citizens ran off and left the town.
Then was riding and railroading and expressing here and thither;
And the Martinsburg Sharpshooters and the Charlestown Volunteers,
And the Shepherdstown and Winchester Militia hastened whither
Old Brown was said to muster his ten thousand grenadiers.
Behind whose rampart banner all the North was pouring down.
But at last, ‘t is said, some prisoners escaped from Old Brown’s durance,
And the effervescent valor of the Chivalry broke out,
When they learned that nineteen madmen had the marvellous assurance—
Only nineteen—thus to seize the place and drive them straight about;
And Old Brown,
Found an army come to take him; encamped around the town.
But to storm, with all the forces I have mentioned, was too risky;
So they hurried off to Richmond for the Government Marines,
Tore them from their weeping matrons, fired their souls with Bourbon whiskey,
Till they battered down Brown’s castle with their ladders and machines;
And Old Brown,
Received three bayonet stabs, and a cut on his brave old crown.
Tallyho! the old Virginia gentry gather to the baying!
In they rushed and killed the game, shooting lustily away;
And whene’er they slew a rebel, those who came too late for slaying,
Not to lose a share of glory, fired their bullets in his clav;
And Old Brown,
Saw his sons fall dead beside him, and between them laid him down.
How the conquerors wore their laurels; how they hastened on the trial;
How Old Brown was placed, half dying, on the Charlestown court-house floor;
How he spoke his grand oration, in the scorn of all denial;
What the brave old madman told them,—these are known the country o’er.
"Hang Old Brown,
Said the judge, "and all such rebels!" with his most judicial frown.
But Virginians, don’t do it! for I tell you that the flagon,
Filled with blood of Old Brown’s offspring, was first poured by Southern hands;
And each drop from Old Brown’s life veins, like the red gore of the dragon,
May spring up a vengeful Fury, hissing through your slave-worn lands!
And Old Brown,
May trouble you more than ever, when you’ve nailed his coffin down!
Although she is best known for writing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Julia Ward Howe wrote several volumes of poetry in her day, and many of them are worth reading. Some of these are contained in my new book about John Brown’s ghost. The one below records a conversation she may have had with one of her own children. From the poem, you may note that she was pregnant at the time. This was her sixth and last child, Samuel Gridley Howe, Jr., who was born a few weeks after John Brown's execution.
THE FIRST MARTYR
My five-year’s darling, on my knee,
Chattered and toyed and laughed with me:
"Now tell me, mother mine," quoth she,
"Where you went i’ the afternoon."
"Alas! my pretty little life,
I went to see a sorrowing wife,
Who will be widowed soon."
"Now, mother, what is that?" she said,
With wondering eyes and restless head:
"Will, then, her husband soon be dead?
Tell me, why must he die?
Is he like flowers the frost doth sear,
Or like the birds, that, every year,
Melt back into the sky?"
"No, love: the flowers may bloom their time,
The birdlings sing their merry chime,
Till bids them seek another clime
The Winter sharp and cold;
But he who waits with fettered limb,
Nor God nor Nature sends for him,—
He is not weak nor old.
"He lies upon a prison bed
With sabre gashes on his head:
And one short month will see him led
Where vengeance wields the sword.
Then shall his form be lifted high,
And strangled in the public eye
With horrible accord."
"But, mother, say, what has he done?
Has he not robbed or murdered one?"
"My darling, he has injured none.
To free the wretched slaves
He led a band of chosen men,
Brave, but too few; made captives them,
And doomed to felon graves."
"O mother! let us go this day
To that sad prison, far away;
The cruel governor we’ll pray
To unloose the door so stout.
Some comfort we can bring him, sure:
And is he locked up so secure,
We could not get him out?"
"No, darling: he is closely kept."
Then nearer to my heart she crept,
And, hiding there her beauty, wept
For human misery.
Child! it is fit that thou shouldst weep;
The very babe unborn would leap
To rescue such as he.
O babe unborn! O future race!
Heir of our glory and disgrace,
We cannot see thy veiled face;
But shouldst thou keep our crime,
No new Apocalypse need say
In what wild woe shall pass away
The falsehood of the time.
William Dean Howells of Ohio earned a considerable reputation in his day as a novelist. He also wrote occasional poems like the following. During the Civil War, President Lincoln appointed Howells to serve in the American consulate in Venice, Italy. From this experience, Howells wrote the book Venetian Life published in 1866.
Success goes royal-crowned through time,
Down all the loud applauding days,
Purpled in History’s silkenest phrase,
And brave with many a poet’s rhyme.
While unsuccess, his peer and mate,
Sprung from the same heroic race,
Begotten of the same embrace,
Dies at his brother’s palace gate.
The insolent laugh, the blighting sneer,
The pointing hand of vulgar scorn,
The thorny path, and wreath of thorn,
The many-headed’s stupid jeer.
Show where he fell. And by-and-by,
Comes History, in the waning light,
He pen-nib worn with lies, to write
The failure into infamy.
Ah, God! but here and there, there stands
Along the years, a man to see
Beneath the victor’s bravery
The spots upon the lily hands :
To read the secret will of good,
(Dead hope, and trodden into earth.)
That beat the breast of strife for birth,
And died birth-choked, in parent blood.
Old Lion! tangled in the net,
Baffled and spent, and wounded sore,
Bound, thou who ne’er knew bonds before;
A captive, but a lion yet.
Death kills not. In a later time,
(O, slow, but all-accomplishing!)
Thy shouted name abroad shall ring,
Wherever right makes war sublime :
When in the perfect scheme of God,
It shall not be a crime for deeds
To quicken liberating creeds,
And men shall rise where slaves have trod;
Then he, the fearless future Man,
Shall wash the blot and stain away,
We fix upon thy name to-day—
Thou hero of the noblest plan.
O, patience! Felon of the hour!
Over thy ghastly gallows-tree
Shall climb the vine of Liberty,
With ripened fruit and fragrant flower.
John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet and abolitionist, was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1807. He is best known for his poem "Snow-Bound," and is also remembered for penning the lines to a hymn, "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind." During the Civil War, he wrote "Barbara Frietchie," a ballad about the Maryland woman who dared to wave the American flag in the face of Stonewall Jackson’s troops. The poem below and the one that follows are just two of many inspired by one of the great myths American history. Supposedly, John Brown kissed a slave baby before being taken to the gallows. The incident, though widely reported in the newspapers of the day, never happened.
BROWN OF OSAWATOMIE
John Brown of Osawatomie
Spake on his dying day :
"I will not have, to shrive my soul,
A priest in slavery’s pay;
But, let some poor slave-mother,
Whom I have striven to free,
With her children, from the gallows-stair,
Put up a prayer for me!"
John Brown of Osawatomie,
They led him out to die;
And, lo!—a poor slave mother
With her little child pressed nigh.
Then the bold, blue eye grew tender,
And the old, harsh face grew mild,
As he stooped between the jeering ranks
And kissed the negro’s child!
The shadows of his stormy life
That moment fell apart:
Without, the rash and bloody hand,
Within, the loving heart.
That kiss, from all its guilty means,
Redeemed the good intent,
And round the grisly fighter’s hair
The Martyr’s aureole bent!
Perish with him the folly
That seeks through evil, good;
Long live the generous purpose
Unstained with human blood!
Not the raid of midnight terror,
But the thought which underlies;
Not the outlaw’s pride of daring,
But the Christian’s sacrifice.
O! never may yon blue-ridged hills
The Northern rifle hear,
Nor see the light of blazing homes
Flash on the negro’s spear.
But let the free-winged angel Truth
Their guarded passes scale,
To teach that Right is more than Might
And Justice more than Mail!
So vainly shall Virginia set
Her battle in array;
In vain her trampling squadrons knead
The winter snow with clay.
She may strike the pouncing eagle,
But she dare not harm the dove;
And every gate she bars to Hate
Shall open wide to Love!
In her day, Lydia Maria Francis Child was a fearless abolitionist. She and her husband David Lee Child published a radical newspaper called the National Anti-Slavery Standard at a time when it was very unpopular to be opposed to slavery. After John Brown’s capture at Harper’s Ferry, Lydia applied to Henry Wise to go to Charlestown as Brown’s nurse. Permission was denied. The poem below first appeared in The Freedmen’s Book published in 1866.
JOHN BROWN AND THE COLORED CHILD
A winter sunshine, still and bright,
The Blue Hills bathed with golden light,
And earth was smiling to the sky,
When calmly he went forth to die.
Infernal passions festered there,
Where peaceful Nature looked so fair;
And fiercely, in the morning sun,
Flashed glitt’ring bayonet and gun.
The old man met no friendly eye,
When last he looked on earth and sky;
But one small child, with timid air,
Was gazing on his hoary hair.
As that dark brow to his upturned,
The tender heart within him yearned;
And, fondly stooping o’er her face,
He kissed her for her injured race.
The little one she knew not why
That kind old man went forth to die;
Nor why, ‘mid all that pomp and stir,
He stooped to give a kiss to her.
But Jesus smiled that sight to see,
And said, "He did it unto me."
The golden harps then sweetly rung,
And this the song the angels sung:
"Who loves the poor doth love the Lord;
Earth cannot dim thy bright reward:
We hover o’er yon gallows high,
And wait to bear thee to the sky."
This more accurate and insightful poem about the death of John Brown was composed by Henry Howard Brownell of Providence, Rhode Island. During the Civil War, he served on board the U.S.S. Hartford as an ensign, and was an eyewitness to the battle of Mobile Bay. He wrote many poems during the war, sometimes writing them in the heat of battle. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote the last poem in this set, called Brownell "Our Battle Laureate."
THE BATTLE OF CHARLESTOWN
Fresh palms for the Old Dominion!
New peers for the valiant Dead!
Never hath showered her sunshine,
On a field of doughtier dread—
Heroes in buff three thousand,
And a single scarred tray head!
Fuss, and feathers, and flurry—
Click, and rattle, and roar—
The old man looks around him
On meadow and mountain hoar;
The place, he remarks, is pleasant,
I had not seen it before.
Form, in your boldest order,
Let the people press no nigher!
Would ye have them hear to his words—
The words that may spread like fire?
‘Tis a right smart chance to test him—
(Here we are at the gallows tree.)
So knot the noose—pretty tightly—
Bandage his eyes—and we’ll see,
(For we’ll keep him waiting a little,)
If he tremble in nerve or knee.
There, in a string, we’ve got him!
(Shall the music bang and blow?)
The chivalry wheels and marches,
And airs its valor below.
Look hard in the blindfold visage,
(He can’t look back,) and inquire,
(He has stood there nearly a quarter,)
If he doesn’t begin to tire?
Not yet! how long will he keep us,
To see if he quail or no?
I reckon it’s no use waiting
And ‘tis time that we had the show.
For the trouble—we can’t see why—
Seems with us and not with him,
As he stands ‘neath the autumn sky,
So strangely solemn and dim!
But high let our standard flout it!
"Sic semper"—the drop comes down—
And, (woe to the rogues that doubt it!)
There’s an end of old John Brown!
December 5, 1859
Amos Bronson Alcott was a poet and philosopher who lived for a large portion of his life in Concord, Massachusetts, near the home of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Alcott’s path through life was very rocky. His attempt to integrate his Boston children’s school was a failure, as was his attempt at communal farming at Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts. He did, however, have great success in his later years organizing evening entertainments at which he acted as host, interviewing important people of the day, thereby becoming America’s first talk-show host.
Bold Saint, thou firm believer in the Cross,
Again made glorious by self-sacrifice,—
Love’s free atonement given without love’s loss,—
That martyrdom to thee was lighter pain,
Since thus a race its liberties should gain;
Flash its sure consequence in Slavery’s eyes
When, ‘scaping sabre’s clash and battle’s smoke,
She felt the justice of thy master-stroke :
Peaceful prosperity around us lies,
Freedom with loyalty thy valor gave;
Whilst thou, no felon doomed, for gallows fit,
O Patriot true! O Christian meek and brave!
Throned in the martyrs’ seat henceforth shalt sit;
Prophet of God! Messias of the Slave!
Louisa May Alcott, best known for her novel Little Women, was the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott. She was something of a tomboy while growing up, always taking the male lead in the plays she and her sisters presented for friends and family. During the Civil War, her adventurous nature carried her to Washington, D.C., where she served as a nurse until a bout of typhoid fever made her too sick and debilitated to continue. Aside from the poem below, she has written one other poem of note, "Thoreau’s Flute," written to commemorate the death of her friend Henry David Thoreau in 1862.
With a Rose
That Bloomed on the Day of John Brown’s Martyrdom.
by Louisa May Alcott
In the long silence of the night,
Nature’s benignant power
Woke aspirations for the light
Within the folded flower.
Its presence and the gracious day
Made summer in the room.
But woman’s eyes shed tender dew
On the little rose in bloom.
Then blossomed forth a grander flower,
In the wilderness of wrong.
Untouched by Slavery’s bitter frost,
A soul devout and strong.
God-watched, that century plant uprose,
Far shining through the gloom.
Filling a nation with the breath
Of a noble life in bloom.
A life so powerful in its truth,
A nature so complete;
It conquered ruler, judge and priest,
And held them at its feet.
Death seemed proud to take a soul
So beautifully given,
And the gallows only proved to him
A stepping-stone to heaven.
Each cheerful word, each valiant act,
So simple, so sublime,
Spoke to us through the reverent hush
Which sanctified that time.
That moment when the brave old man
Went so serenely forth
With footsteps whose unfaltering tread
Reëchoed through the North.
The sword he wielded for the right
Turns to a victor’s palm;
His memory sounds forever more,
A spirit-stirring psalm.
No breath of shame can touch his shield,
Nor ages dim its shine;
Living, he made life beautiful,—
Dying, made death divine.
No monument of quarried stone,
No eloquence of speech
Can grave the lessons on the land
His martyrdom will teach.
No eulogy like his own words,
With hero-spirit rife,
"I truly serve the cause I love,
By yielding up my life."
Our next poet is probably best known to generations of college students who have been forced to read his turgid novel Moby Dick for freshman English classes. In his early writings, Melville thrilled readers with his personal accounts of being shipwrecked on an island inhabited by cannibals. His later work on Moby Dick came from his own experience working on New England whalers. Although he was not known for his poetry, he did indulge in writing verse from time to time. The one below, though written in the mid 19th century sounds and looks very modern.
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
Oliver Wendell Holmes was a well-known 19th century physician, poet, and humorist from Cambridge, Massachusetts, not to be confused with his son O.W. Holmes, Jr., who became a Supreme Court Justice. The two poems presented here contain only one verse which mentions John Brown. They were written as a tribute to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery novel written in the middle of the 19th century. Holmes’s most famous poems are "The Chambered Nautilus" and "Old Ironsides." The latter poem was written when Holmes learned that the U.S. Navy planned to decommission and scrap the frigate U.S.S. Constitution which had seen action in the War of 1812. His poem about the old sailing ship caused such a public outcry against its impending destruction that the Navy had to abandon its plans. To this day, the Constitution remains at its dock in Boston Harbor near the Bunker Hill monument. It has been made part of the Boston Freedom Trail.
TWO POEMS TO HARRIET BEECHER STOWE
I. AT THE SUMMIT
Sister, we bid you welcome, — we who stand
On the high table-land;
We who have climbed life’s slippery Alpine slope,
And rest, still leaning on the staff of hope,
Looking along the silent Mer de Glace,
Leading our footsteps where the dark crevasse
Yawns in the frozen sea we all must pass, —
Sister, we clasp your hand!
Rest with us in the hour that Heaven has lent
Before the swift descent.
Look! the warm sunbeams kiss the glittering ice;
See! next the snow-drift blooms the edelweiss;
The mated eagles fan the frosty air;
Life, beauty, love, around us everywhere,
And, in their time, the darkening hours that bear
Sweet memories, peace, content.
Thrice welcome! shining names our missals show
Amid their rubrics’ glow,
But search the blazoned record’s starry line,
What halo’s radiance fills the page like thine?
Thou who by some celestial clue couldst find
The way to all the hearts of all mankind,
On thee, already canonized, enshrined,
What more can heaven bestow!
II. THE WORLD’S HOMAGE
If every tongue that speaks her praise
For whom I shape my tinkling phrase
Were summoned to the table,
The vocal chorus that would meet
Of mingling accents harsh or sweet,
For every land and tribe, would beat
The polyglots at Babel.
Briton and Frenchman, Swede, and Dane,
Turk, Spaniard, Tartar of Ukraine,
Hidalgo, Cossack, Cadi,
High Dutchman and Low Dutchman, too,
The Russian serf, the Polish Jew,
Arab, Armenian, and Mantchoo,
Would shout, "We know the lady!"
Know her! Who knows not Uncle Tom
And her he learned his gospel from
Has never heard of Moses;
Full well the brave black hand we know
That gave to freedom’s grasp the hoe
That killed the weed that used to grow
Among the Southern roses.
When Archimedes, long ago,
Spoke out so grandly, "dos pou sto—
Give me a place to stand on,
I’ll move your planet for you, now,"—
He little dreamed or fancied how
The sto at last should find its pou
For woman’s faith to land on.
Her lover was the wand of art,
Her fulcrum was the human heart,
Whence all unfailing aid is;
She moved the earth! Its thunders pealed,
Its mountains shook, its temples reeled,
The blood-red fountains were unsealed,
And Moloch sunk to Hades.
All through the conflict, up and down
Marched Uncle Tom and Old John Brown,
One ghost, one form ideal;
And which was false and which was true,
And which was mightier of the two,
The wisest sibyl never knew,
For both alike were real.
Sister, the holy maid does well
Who counts her beads in convent cell,
Where pale devotion lingers;
But she who serves the sufferer’s needs,
Whose prayers are spelt in loving deeds,
May trust the Lord will count her beads
As well as human fingers.
When truth herself was Slavery’s slave,
Thy hand the prisoned supplaint gave
The rainbow wings of fiction.
And Truth who soared descends to-day
Bearing an angel’s wreath away,
Its lilies at thy feet to lay
With Heaven’s own benediction.
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