Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thornton Burgess, Civic Poet

On September 21, 1901, this curious poem appeared prominently in the pages of the Springfield Homestead, credited to T.W. Burgess. Readers at the time would have known immediately what it was about, but readers today may have more difficulty...
"It is God's way. His will be done."
Even as when
From templed hill from plain and from the homes of men
The shuddering forces of the night withdraw at dawn
Before the advancing splendor of the perfect morn
So in this hour of gloom, grief weighted and profane
Our cloistered hearts, sore stricken and sorrow bound,
Refusing to be comforted and making mourn
For him who we so loved, whose death naught can atone
He speaks and lo! A ray divine of purest light
Pierces the curtains of the enveloping night
"It is God's way. His will be done."

"It is God's way" We cannot question it when he,
Before the gates ajar with simple faith could see
The fullness of the Master's plan, and mindful still
Of his great charge, make clear to us the higher will
So would he comfort us and bravely presents the way.
Seeing beyond the crushing gloom the break of day
And we above our noble and illustrious dead,
Mourning the great spirit that was so foully sped
And fearful of the future affairs of state
In growing faith shall hear his voice without the gate
"It is God's way. His will be done."
What is Burgess talking about? The assassination of William McKinley, whose last words title the poem. The death of McKinley was a shock to the nation leading to a period of what seems to have been sincere mourning. Burgess's poem, which appeared the week following McKinley's death, appears to be an attempt at a kind of public consolation for the Springfield readership.

Poetry, of course, served more of a public function one hundred years ago than it does today. It is interesting to see Burgess, the patriotic good citizen, using his pen for ceremonial verse. He had long done occasional verse, providing holiday filler for the New England Homestead with countless poems about Santa Claus, Thanksgiving turkeys, and Valentine flowers. By 1903, however, these poems were appearing on the cover of the Springfield Homestead, no longer filler but rather something akin to the ritual voice of the community.

Here for example, is his 1903 Fourth of July commemoration.
Hark! With tumult that shakes the earth
A nation remembers her day of birth!
From hill and valley--from sea to sea,
Wherever on earth her sons may be,
Above the shout and the cannon's roar,
O'er plain and mountain from shore to shore,
There sounds the note of an ancient bell
Cracked and marred, yet who shall tell
How ineffably sweet is the message rung
From its brazen throat by its iron tongue!
Or, more appropriately, a 1903 cover poem, titled "Voices of the spring:"
From flower strewn mead and templed hills
A mighty anthem rising, thrills
The heart of Nature, and its theme
In grandeur rolls till it would seem
No spirit crushed or over-borne
No heart so buffeted and torn
But still must needs, uplifted, find
Surcease from sorrow, hope to bind
The bleeding wounds and faith to voice
All Nature's song--"Rejoice, rejoice!"
This is not Burgess the romantic, writing reveries about communion with nature based on his own experiences. This is Burgess employing the highly symbolic and formal language of public poetry. (He repeats the "templed hills" of the McKinley poem--you may be reminded of his neo-classical parody advertising the "Origin of Shredded Wheat.")

Next: Thornton Burgess, propagandist

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