What are some characteristics of Revolutionary poetry?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Oddly enough, one of the more prominent Revolutionary poets was Phyllis Wheatley(1753-1784), an emancipated African slave whose owners taught her to read and write. She captured both the spirit of the Revolution and the sins of America in her poetry that imitates the popular style of poetry of her time:  She uses a Latinate vocabulary, inversions, and elevated diction. For instance, in this stanza from her poem to the earl of Dartmouth, a new appointee as secretary of state in charge of the American Colonies, Wheatley hopes that Dartmouth will be open to the colonists' grievances:

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,

Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,

Whence flow these wishes for the common good,

By feeling hearts alone best understood,

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:

...Such, such my case.  And can I then but pray

Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Much of the Revolutionary poetry used rhetoric to amplify the cause and spirit of the Revolution.  However, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who did not live during the Revolutionary period, wrote about the Revolution in a different tone as he sought to define the intention and significance of the Founding Fathers' actions.  In such poems as "A Nation's Strength," he asks and answers the question "What  makes a nation's pillars high/And its foundations strong?"

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor's sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

In his poem "Concord Hymn," Emerson extols the bravery of the soldiers of the Revolution,

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."

Some of the poetry written about the Revolution created an American mythology.  Critics feel that Walt Whitman did more to interpret the meaning of the Revolution than any poet as he projected the Revolutionary spirit into "a vision of citizenship" in his "I Hear America Singing":

Washington spoke; Friends of America look over the
  Altantic sea;
A bended bow is lifted in heaven, & a heavy iron chain
Descends link by link from Albion's cliffs across the sea to bind
Brothers & sons of America, till our faces pale and yellow;
Heads deprest, voices weak, eyes downcast, hands work-bruis'd,
Feet bleeding on the sultry sands, and the furrows of the whip
Descend to generations that in future times forget.—


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