While visiting Boston, a couple of friends and I went to Concord, Massachusetts. It is a lovely little town which played a role in the nation’s history and was the home of several literary giants of the nineteenth century. As a mostly retired teacher of American literature, I was pleased to have this opportunity.
We first paid a visit to what came to be called The Old Manse, a stately (for its time – 1770) home that would bear witness to its owners’ and guests’ important political, philosophical and literary contributions. This is where Ralph Waldo Emerson lived for a time and wrote his seminal and quintessentially American essay “Nature.” It was home to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia in their newlywed days. They scratched poems to each other on its windows. The house and its visitors served as inspiration for The House of the Seven Gables, Blithedale Romance and several short stories. Henry David Thoreau (Walden Pond) was a frequent visitor. The opening of the American Revolution, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, took place on the Concord River, much of it literally in the back yard of the Old Manse, at the North Bridge on April 19, 1775.
The morning of our visit, the river – a robust stream, really – had flooded parts of the surrounding fields and woods. It was cold and the skies were mostly cloudy with the occasional break of sun. It was not hard to envision the scene as the British marched their way up the river through Lexington and into Concord while the Minutemen, forewarned by Paul Revere’s famous ride, stood ready. (For those interested The American Battlefield Trust has a summary of events, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/lexington-and-concord.)
Most of my thoughts during our visit were on the simple monument to the Minutemen and the battle. It is a 25-foot granite obelisk – that ancient shorthand for “take note of and remember this important thing.” Its base presents a brief inscription summarizing the events. It was at the dedication of this monument that Emerson’s poem “Concord Hymn” was first presented, from which the phrase “the shot heard ‘round the world” originated. The “shot” was not the first shot of the battle, but rather the shots fired in Concord by the Minutemen who first repulsed the British aggressors.
At the monument’s dedication on July 4, 1837, broadside papers with the poem were passed around and a choir led in singing the poem to a common hymn tune. The tune is one many would still recognize today. It is known as “Old Hundredth” because it was used for singing Psalm 100 as the hymn “You faithful servants of the Lord.” It is also recognizable as the tune to any number of other hymns and the Doxology “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Emerson wrote the poem in “Long Meter,” a traditional and easy to produce rhythm and accompanying rhyme.to
I have always been drawn to this simple poem. There are eight beats per line (or four iambs, the “short-long” feet of poetry called iambic tetrameter). There are four lines at a time (each stanza is a quatrain) and every other line in a stanza rhymes. There are only four stanzas (16 lines total). When it is sung, because some clauses extend beyond the end of line and end in the middle of the next (called enjambment), the meter and rhyme and tune produce an effect that is elegant and moving. That any group of people could gather to turn the poem into song, instantly if they desired, has always struck me as especially poignant.
Its message has a similar effect upon me. The poem contains a simple request: to remember those who died so their children could be free. Upon consideration, the theme becomes far more profound and consequential.
There is a statue, “The Minuteman,” dedicated in 1874 at the place where the North Bridge stood, that has the first verse of the poem inscribed upon it. There is also a small memorial to the British soldiers who died there. We toured the Old Manse and enjoyed a fine National Parks Service interpretation. We also made a trip to Walden Pond; but it is the simple obelisk and Emerson’s hymn to freedom that remain with me.
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument on July 4, 1837
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.