Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
II. May-Day and Other Pieces

THE ROCKY 1 nook with hilltops three
  Looked eastward from the farms,
And twice each day the flowing sea
  Took Boston in its arms;
The men of yore were stout and poor,        5
And sailed for bread to every shore.
And where they went on trade intent
  They did what freemen can,
Their dauntless ways did all men praise,
  The merchant was a man.        10
The world was made for honest trade,—
To plant and eat be none afraid.
The waves that rocked them on the deep
  To them their secret told;
Said the winds that sung the lads to sleep,        15
  ‘Like us be free and bold!’
The honest waves refused to slaves
The empire of the ocean caves.
Old Europe groans with palaces,
  Has lords enough and more;—        20
We plant and build by foaming seas
  A city of the poor;—
For day by day could Boston Bay
Their honest labor overpay.
We grant no dukedoms to the few,        25
  We hold like rights, and shall;—
Equal on Sunday in the pew,
  On Monday in the mall,
For what avail the plough or sail,
Or land or life, if freedom fail?        30
The noble craftsman we promote,
  Disown the knave and fool;
Each honest man shall have his vote,
  Each child shall have his school.
A union then of honest men,        35
Or union never more again.
The wild rose and the barberry thorn
  Hung out their summer pride,
Where now on heated pavements worn
  The feet of millions stride.        40
Fair rose the planted hills behind
  The good town on the bay,
And where the western hills declined
  The prairie stretched away.
What care though rival cities soar        45
  Along the stormy coast,
Penn’s town, New York and Baltimore,
  If Boston knew the most!
They laughed to know the world so wide;
  The mountains said, ‘Good-day!        50
We greet you well, you Saxon men,
  Up with your towns and stay!’
The world was made for honest trade,—
To plant and eat be none afraid.
For you,’ they said, ‘no barriers be,        55
  For you no sluggard rest;
Each street leads downward to the sea,
  Or landward to the west.’
O happy town beside the sea,
  Whose roads lead everywhere to all;        60
Than thine no deeper moat can be,
  No stouter fence, no steeper wall!
Bad news from George on the English throne;
  ‘You are thriving well,’ said he;
‘Now by these presents be it known        65
  You shall pay us a tax on tea;
’T is very small,—no load at all,—
Honor enough that we send the call.’
‘Not so,’ said Boston, ‘good my lord,
  We pay your governors here        70
Abundant for their bed and board,
  Six thousand pounds a year.
(Your Highness knows our homely word)
  Millions for self-government,
  But for tribute never a cent.’        75
The cargo came! and who could blame
  If Indians seized the tea,
And, chest by chest, let down the same,
  Into the laughing sea?
For what avail the plough or sail,        80
Or land or life, if freedom fail?
The townsmen braved the English king,
  Found friendship in the French,
And honor joined the patriot ring
  Low on their wooden bench.        85
O bounteous seas that never fail!
  O day remembered yet!
O happy port that spied the sail
  Which wafted Lafayette!
Pole-star of light in Europe’s night,        90
That never faltered from the right.
Kings shook with fear, old empires crave
  The secret force to find
Which fired the little State to save
  The rights of all mankind.        95
But right is might through all the world;
  Province to province faithful clung,
Through good and ill the war-bolt hurled,
  Till Freedom cheered and joy-bells rung.
The sea returning day by day        100
  Restores the world-wide mart;
So let each dweller on the Bay
  Fold Boston in his heart,
Till these echoes be choked with snows,
Or over the town blue ocean flows.        105
Let the blood of her hundred thousands
  Throb in each manly vein;
And the wits of all her wisest,
  Make sunshine in her brain.
For you can teach the lightning speech,        110
And round the globe your voices reach.
And each shall care for other,
  And each to each shall bend,
To the poor a noble brother,
  To the good an equal friend.        115
A blessing through the ages thus
  Shield all thy roofs and towers!
  Thou darling town of ours! 2
Note 1. Although this poem did not come to its birthday until December 16, 1873, when Mr. Emerson read it in Faneuil Hall, on the Centennial Celebration of the destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor, it was conceived years before. Mr. Emerson wrote in his journal in 1842:—
  “I have a kind of promise to write, one of these days, a verse or two to the praise of my native city, which in common days we often rail at, yet which has great merits to usward. That too, like every city, has certain virtues, as a museum of the arts. The parlors of private collectors, the Athenæum Gallery, and the college become the city of the city. Then a city has this praise, that as the bell or band of music is heard outside beyond the din of carts, so the beautiful in architecture, or in political and social institutions, endures; all else comes to nought, so that the antiquities and permanent things in each city are good and fine.”
  On his walks with his children on Sunday afternoons Mr. Emerson would often recite poetry to them, and they remember well his telling of his desire to write his Boston poem, and his pleasure in this image,—
  And twice a day the flowing sea
Takes Boston in its arms.
  In his manuscript it opens thus:—
  The land that has no song
  Shall have a song to-day:
The granite hills are dumb too long,
  The vales have much to say:
For you can teach the lightning speech,
And round the globe your voices reach.
  Mr. Emerson was never able to finish the poem to his satisfaction. He wished to have a sort of refrain of two rhyming lines at the end of each verse, but after his illness in 1872 his powers of composition failed, and but a portion of his verses were thus rounded out.
  The poem appeared first in print in the Atlantic Monthly for February, 1876, and in Mr. Emerson’s Selected Poems, published the same year, it was the concluding poem.
  The motto of Boston, which precedes the poem, he translates thus in the last verse,—
Note 2. The poem was begun in the sad days preceding the war, when its author blushed for the timidity shown by many of Boston’s first citizens, scholars and merchants, and their subservience in the interests of union and commerce to the demands made by the slave-power upon their honor and conscience. When the war had cleared the air, the poem was quite remodelled in a happier day, for the “Boston Tea-Party” celebration.
  The following are some of the verses, composed at a sadder time, which, in the early form, followed the lines on Lafayette:—

  O pity that I pause!
  The song, disdaining, shuns
To name the noble sires because
  Of the unworthy sons;
For what avail the plough or sail,
Or land or life, if freedom fail?
But there was chaff within the flour,
  And one was false in ten,
And reckless clerks in lust of power
  Forgot the rights of men;
Cruel and blind did file their mind,
And sell the blood of human kind.
Your town is full of gentle names
  By patriots once were watchwords made;
Those war-cry names are muffled shames
  On recreant sons mislaid.
What slave shall dare a name to wear
Once Freedom’s passport everywhere?
Oh welaway! if this be so,
  And man cannot afford the right,
And if the wage of love be woe,
  And honest dealing yield despite.
For never will die the captive’s cry
On the echoes of God till Right draws nigh.

  Here is a verse written at another time of patriotic mortification:—
  O late to learn, O long betrayed,
  O credulous men of toil,
Who took the traitor to your hearths
  Who came those hearths to spoil.
O much-revering Boston town
  Who let the varlet still
Recite his false, insulting tale
  On haughty Bunker Hill.
  The following fragment in lighter vein also occurs in the verse-book:—
  O Boston city, lecture-hearing,
O Unitarian, God-fearing,
But more, I fear, bad men revering,
Too civil by half; thine evil guest
Makes thee his byword and his jest,
And scorns the men that honeyed the pest,—
Piso and Atticus with the rest.
Thy fault is much civility,
Thy bane respectability,
And thou hadst been as wise and wiser
Lacking the Daily Advertiser.
Ah, gentlemen—for you are gentle—
And mental maids, not sentimental—
  In the volume called Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers, is included Mr. Emerson’s lecture “Boston,” in which he shows his pride and interest in his native town. Mrs. Ednah Cheney contributed an interesting chapter on “Emerson and Boston” to the book published in 1885 by the Concord School of Philosophy, called Genius and Character of Emerson. [back]

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