Even though his work is mostly forgotten today, William Ross Wallace’s
poetry was popular and well-respected in the middle of the nineteenth century.
He was a close friend of Edgar Allan Poe, and Poe praised Wallace’s poetry.
The well-known poet William Cullen Bryant also thought highly of Wallace’s
work. Wallace was born in 1819, and he spent the majority of his
writing career in New York City. His poems were intensely patriotic,
and he had an almost mythical reverence for the American Revolution and
George Washington. Numerous catalogues of American literature describe
Wallace as a very popular poet, which suggests that his thoughts on the
revolution were in tune with the beliefs of many Americans. After
the outbreak of the Civil War, Wallace continued to write patriotic poetry
in support of the Union. Some of these works were well-known and
well-liked by Union soldiers.
In Wallace’s poetry of the 1850’s, he treated the revolution in symbolic and grandiose terms. In “The Liberty Bell,” he describes the ringing of the liberty bell, which was rung on July 4, 1776, as a reverberation of a unanimous belief among Americans that their time for freedom had arrived. He even goes so far as to say that the revolution was an “era sublime.” He clearly idealizes the revolution in his work; he almost never mentions the bloody, distasteful aspects of war. In fact, he barely sees the revolution as a war at all; he seems to think of it as a pure, blessed period in America’s history. In the “Last Words of Washington,” Wallace explicitly calls Washington a “savior” of his country. Even though the scene Wallace describes in this poem is Washington’s death, Wallace does not seem to describe him as an ordinary man bowing to death. Washington appears in this poem as a transcendent being who is being welcomed into an elite legion of timeless, scarcely mortal, “heroes.” Wallace’s poems portray the American Revolution as an unblemished age when images of true greatness graced American soil.
The following text is taken from Wallace, William Ross. Meditations in America. New York: Charles Scribner. 1851.
Meditations in America
“The Liberty Bell”
A sound like a sound of thunder rolled,
And the heart of a nation stirred—
For the bell of Freedom, at midnight tolled,
Through a mighty land and was heard.
And the chime still rung
From its iron tongue
Steadily swaying to and fro;
And to some it came
Like a breath of flame—
And to some a sound of wo.
Above the dark mountain, above the blue wave
It was heard by the fettered, and heard by the brave—
It was heard in the cottage, and heard in the hall—
And its chime gave a glorious summons to all—
The sabre was sharpened—the time-rusted blade
Of the Bond started out in the pioneer’s glade
Like a herald of wrath: And the host was arrayed!
Along the dark mountain, along the blue wave
Swept the ranks of the Bond—swept the ranks of the Brave;
And a shout as of waters went up to the dome.
When a star blazing banner unfurled,
Like the wing of some Seraph flashed out from its home,
Uttered freedom and hope to the world.
O’er the hill-top and tide its magnificent fold,
With a terrible glitter of azure and gold,
In the storm, in the sunshine, and darkness unrolled.
It blazed in the valley—it blazed on the mast—
It leaped with its Eagle abroad on the blast;
And the eyes of whole nations were turned to its light;
And the heart of the multitude soon
Was swayed by its stars, as they shone through the night
Like an ocean when swayed by the moon.
Again and through the midnight that Bell thunders out,
And banners and torches are hurried about:--
A shout as of waters! a long-uttered cry!
How it leaps, how it leaps from the earth to the sky!
From the sky to the earth, from the earth to the sea,
Hear a chorus re-echoed, “The People are Free!”
That old Bell is still seen by the Patriot’s eye,
And he blesses it ever, when journeying by;
Long years have passed o’er it, and yet every soul
Will thrill in the night to its wonderful roll;
For it speaks in its belfry, when kissed by the blast,
Like a glory-breathed tone from the mystical Past.
Long years shall roll o’er it, and yet every chime
Shall unceasingly tell of an era sublime
More splendid, more dear than the rest of all time.
O yes! If the flame on our altars should pale,
Let its voice but be heard, and the Freeman shall start
To rekindle the fire, while he sees on the gale,
All the stars, and the stripes of the Flag of his heart!
“Last Words of Washington”
--So had the hero lain all night,
With folded arms, and large white brow serene,
Like the calm stature of a deity,
Reposing after some benignant work,
That Grecian genius wrought adoringly,
When Greece, as yet with harp of serious touch,
And agonies divine in Delphic deeps,
And trumpets blown along Olympian peaks,
Worshipped the grander Gods. So lay the chief.
O! how unlike the time when he rode forth
To battle, or when he in council sate,
Mailed in the supreme splendor of his supreme strength,
And bearing on his front a nation’s will.
But power, as if it only slumbered, lay
Upon his presence yet, and waiting there
For some great circumstance to bid it wake:
And in his eyes the glory lingered still,
When looking round, he saw the stately shapes
Which were unseen by those that near the couch
Kept weeping watch: for all the ample room,
And long dim corridors, and passages
Remote, were filled with the majestic ghosts
Of ancient heroes—come to see him die:
And all the space was breathless with its awe.
So Night went heavily on, with her old pomp
Of spangling stars and dusk magnificence
Unmarked by our sad people: well they knew
That he, the sire and savior of the land,
Was taking death. But when the morning came,
The hero rose, as if at his command
Life flushed his stately forehead; and his face
Put on that mild but awful look that bowed
The wills of men, and made the loftiest kings
Rise up to do him reverence; and his voice
Went down like solemn music to the Land.
And all the space was breathless with its awe.
“Not that I shall so soon consent to death;
Not that ye nevermore may hear my voice,
O, men! who dwell where freedom dwells, and Thought
Hath chartered right to sound the Universe
I call to ye; for that which I would speak,
So touches your firm weal and majesty,
It hath no need of solemn circumstance,
And yet the time may dignify my speech,
And truths ranged in the spectral shade of death
May hold a grander hue; as mountains loom
More glorious and awful when eclipse
Broods a dread darkness, and all eyes
Are large with expectations and a fear.
So listen that I may die in calm content;
Not trembling lest the Past—troubled by war,
And deeds of high renown, and freedom won,
And clarions sweetly blown for victory,
And Peace at blissful summer on the hills,
Singing a stately hymn, and Government
By thought served and acclamation built—
Was but a dream: but knowing that all things
Were ordered goldenly—things which a world,
Worn out by crowns and chains and agonies,
Might haply take and so renew its youth.
Nor at the last shall such fruition fail
If ye are wise; nor shall ye know how hard
A Tyrant is—free speech, free thought, free homes
Beat down to make full space for one mad will—
If ye are true, while not a single jar
Comes in to break that august harmony
Made by a hundred States at triumph calm.
Nor fear ambition’s loss of ample scope,
Nor lapse of power in that forbearance made
Each unto each. What were the worlds if moved
Alone? and where the light, the symmetry
Without one common love, one common sun
Burning for all? By these the Universe
Is ordered every way; and married orbs
In that bright union there serenely roll
Eternal music to the thrones of God.