I don’t read much poetry, but I stand in awe of this one, which I stumbled across this morning:
Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones
And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones;
Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,
Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,
They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;
And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock
The riotous glass houses built on rock,
And candles gutter by an empty altar,
And light is where the landless blood of Cain
Is burning, burning the unburied grain.
A bit different view of the American Puritan legacy than you’ll hear in conservative Protesant circles, don’t you think? At the time Lowell wrote this poem he was a Roman Catholic, apparently a fierce one.
Leave a comment if you like, but not about whether Lowell’s portrait is fair and balanced; why look to him for that? But the poet has leveled an accusation, and it’s worth thinking about how much truth it contains. I’m somewhat sympathetic to Lowell’s concise history of the U.S., and so I’ll spend some time thinking about whether the connection he makes with Puritanism is a home truth for agrarians, or just a partisan attempt to place the blame.
For further reading, I highly recommend this piece by Ron Rosenbaum about the poem, which does a bit of exegisis and a bit of historical investigation. (Warning: a particular obscenity appears a few times, but not in a prurient way.) Among other good observations, Rosenbaum points out that to read the poem properly you need to know what unhouseled means.