Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483
The principal argument of the poem is that the times are clearly out of joint. Its strongest sentiments relate to the failure of men (such as Webster) to stand on the side of freedom and humanity, and against slavery and military aggression, whether in Mexico or in Poland. Though the poem is not a call to arms, its lofty stanzas accuse the “little men” who have betrayed Virtue and Right and give only lip service to Freedom. Instead, men force things and people out of their proper spheres and thereby “mix and mar,” confusing things with human values. This idea is expressed sardonically in the use of “chattel” (line 48)—placed appropriately at the center of the ode—which means “movable possessions”; here, it refers to both livestock and slaves. In their passion to aggrandize themselves, men have reduced humanity to a thing and elevated things to a place of eminence. The poet suggests a remedy: One should live for “friendship,” for “love,” and for “truth’s and harmony’s behoof” (lines 67-68). One must not be too zealous and get taken in by the “priest’s cant” and “statesman’s rant” or drawn into their “politique.”
The poet is centrally concerned with the arena in which the issues are bruited and the battle waged. He depicts this concern by using geographical references (New Hampshire, Boston Bay, and the “southern crocodile,” for example) and by instancing local figures and activities (the horseman, neatherd, merchant, and so on). In this way, the poem asserts that though one must be cognizant of the revered past, the present has a place and importance equal to the other, if not superior to it, and the issues addressed are endemic to the setting.
A strong faith permeates the ode and explains in part the poet’s attack on the “little men” and those who have lost sight of Virtue and Freedom; it is a faith in order (“Every one to his chosen work”), in the issues, in the “over-god,” and in man himself. Despite the destructive nature of man, the “over-god” will find “thousands” who will defend freedom and the arts. Meanwhile, the poet does not turn away from the evils—he is no “blindworm,” for he has beheld the transgressions of “the famous States” (line 16) and has himself found, by the rivers of the North, the “jackals of the negro-holder.” Perhaps the poet’s “honied thoughts” are akin to the “honey” that the over-god “Knows to bring . . ./ Out of the lion” (lines 86-87). If so, the lion remains for the moment in his den (“My study”), naming the evils and their causes and cautioning his countrymen to proceed with a clear understanding of the distinction between men and things. The poet is optimistic that freedom and poetry will be defended even when a state is devastated, and the soldiers shall come from the ranks of the invaders themselves.