Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, November 19, 2006

American soldiers at war, far from home on Thanksgiving Day: The journalist-poet Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) makes that the subject of her poem about a Union soldier in the Civil War. A few years older than Emily Dickinson, a few years younger than Walt Whitman, Larcom was nothing like a great poet, but she was a competent writer, as demonstrated by some selections from "The Volunteer's Thanksgiving." It begins:

The last days of November, and everything so green!

A finer bit of country my eyes have never seen.

'Twill be a thing to tell of, ten years or twenty hence,

How I came down to Georgia at Uncle Sam's expense.

Four years ago this winter, up at the district school,

I wrote all day, and ciphered, perched on a white-pine stool;

And studied in my atlas the boundaries of the States,

And learnt the wars with England, the history and the dates.

Larcom's teenage character, whose birthday falls on the day after Thanksgiving, remembers home:

They're sitting at the table this clear Thanksgiving noon;

I smell the crispy turkey, the pies will come in soon --

The golden squares of pumpkins, the flaky rounds of mince,

Behind the barberry syrups, the cranberry and the quince.

After reciting the menu to himself, he imagines the people:

I'm very sure they'll miss me at dinner time to-day,

For I was good at stowing their provender away.

When mother clears the table, and wipes the platters bright,

She'll say, "I hope my baby don't lose his appetite!"

An abolitionist who both taught and worked in New England textile mills, Larcom is confident and specific about the cause for which her boyish soldier is willing to die:

I'm just nineteen to-morrow, and I shall surely stay

For freedom's final battle, be it until I'm gray,

Unless a Southern bullet should take me off my feet.

There's nothing left to live for, if Rebeldom should beat;

For home and love and honor and freedom are at stake,

And life may well be given for our dear Union's sake;

So reads the Proclamation, and so the sermon ran;

Do ministers and people feel it as soldiers can?

When will it all be ended? 'Tis not in youth to hold

In quietness and patience, like people grave and old:

A year? three? four? or seven? -- O then, when I return,

Put on a big log, mother, and let it blaze and burn,

And roast your fattest turkey, bake all the pies you can,

And if she isn't married, invite in Mary Ann!

Hang flags from every window! we'll all be glad and gay,

For Peace will light the country on that Thanksgiving Day.

Topical but generic, poignant though formulaic, the poem belongs to a period when poetry met a need more likely to be filled today by popular entertainment. Its limitations are pretty clear. The Emancipation Proclamation loses some of its force by being linked to a series of over-spacious abstract nouns -- "home and love and honor and freedom" -- just as "blaze and burn" are synonyms filling out a line.

But Larcom manages to communicate the conviction of her young soldier, and her own. That conviction, and the simple terms of the poem's closing lines, generate real emotion, in part because the phrase "we'll all be glad and gay" is shadowed by doubt -- and by the unprecedented violence of the Civil War. The boy's interest in "Mary Ann," reveals his vulnerability.

Blake, Whitman, Dickinson are on another level from Lucy Larcom, in dealing with the tangle of thanks and innocence, harm and joy, emancipation and death. But the homely voice of her poem has its own power, in calling up a communal need for reassurance. The national celebration of Thanksgiving Day on the final Thursday of November was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in the terrible year of 1863. Lincoln's proclamation of the day directs itself, like Larcom's poem, toward the hoped-for peace.

(Lucy Larcom's poem "The Volunteer's Thanksgiving" can be found in "The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America," edited by Donald Hall. Oxford Univ. . Copyright © 1985 by Donald Hall.)

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