30Days30Poets: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”

April 19th, 2013

On April 19, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first military engagements of the Revolutionary War, were fought. These battles would inspire Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous poem, “Concord Hymn,” which he wrote for the July 4, 1837 dedication of a memorial obelisk commemorating the fight at Concord. 

On April 14, British General Thomas Gage received orders to destroy a suspected weapons cache that the rebellious colonists had in Concord, a village 20 miles north of Boston. Following these orders, Gage sent troops toward Concord early on the 19th, but the colonists had already been alerted. Paul Revere famously rode into the countryside to warn residents of the British troop movement, and the militia at Lexington gathered on the town green. British regulars who had been sent out ahead of the main contingent were the first to encounter the colonists whose commander, John Parker, ordered his men to disperse to avoid a confrontation. His orders were either misheard or ignored as shortly thereafter, a shot rang out, and the British troops began to fire their guns, killing eight militiamen.

The British then moved to Concord, the site of the suspected weapons stockpile. Once in Concord, the British were unable to defeat the colonists. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the Redcoats quickly retreated south, back to Boston. Today, each April, Massachusetts celebrates the Battles of Lexington and Concord on Patriot’s Day

Emerson (1803–82), a native of Boston, had personal ties to the Battle of Concord: his grandfather, William Emerson, was a chaplain and had helped organize the Minutemen, while his family watched much of the battle from their home—the Old Manse—which overlooked the spot where the North Bridge stood over the Concord River and the Minutemen faced down regulars of the British Army. At the July 4th ceremony, his poem was sung by a choir to the tune of the familiar hymn “Old Hundredt.” 

Why is this poem called a hymn? Compare the first two stanzas, picturing the changes to the battlefield described by the poet. What has happened to the battlefield since the “shot heard around the world”? Why is the dedication of the monument (the “votive stone” in the third stanza) necessary? How can memory “redeem” the Minutemen’s deeds at Concord? Is erecting a memorial enough to preserve that memory? What is the “Spirit” that moved the Minutemen at Concord? What is the speaker asking the Spirit to do? How is national memory created? 

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

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.

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