For most Americans today, Fourth of July celebrations involve some combination of cookouts, music concerts, movies, sports, games, and (of course!) fireworks. In the 19th century, however, one of the most important parts of many cities’ celebrations was the formal oration, in which an invited speaker would address either a selected group of citizens or sometimes a larger crowd. These declamatory ceremonies would often involve a reading of the Declaration of Independence, a reading from Scripture, the singing of patriotic songs, and—most notably for From the Catbird Seat readers—the recitation of an ode or other poem.
In the decade following the Civil War, interest in celebrating the Fourth through poetry or other means declined—perhaps for obvious reasons—in the South, and also waned in the North. It wasn’t until 1876, the centennial anniversary of American independence, that citizens of North and South displayed renewed interest in the holiday. The largest celebration took place in Philadelphia as part of its months-long Centennial Exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of American independence. The Fourth of July program included a reading from the original Declaration of Independence by Richard Henry Lee, who at the Second Continental Congress made the motion to declare independence from Great Britain. The highlight of the program, though, might have been Bayard Taylor’s recitation of his “National Ode.”
Taylor, a poet, journalist, and travel writer, was originally tasked by the Centennial Exhibition’s Executive Committee with writing the “National Hymn” for the Fourth of July celebration. However, after the honor of writing the more prominent “National Ode” had been declined, for various reasons, by William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he was asked instead to write the “National Ode.” Taylor was both honored and apprehensive to be appointed the celebration’s Centennial Poet. “I dare not decline,” he wrote in a letter to Sidney Lanier, “yet I feel the weight of the task, and shall both work and pray ardently for success.”
Taylor recited his “National Ode” to an audience of at least four-thousand people on Independence Square, one the largest live audiences for a poetry reading in the United States until Robert Frost’s recitation of “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural. Although little remembered today, Bayard’s poem was a national sensation, reprinted in dozens of newspapers shortly after the Fourth, including on the front page of Washington D.C.’s National Republican (see right), and published as a book first by J. R. Osgood in 1876, and the following year in an illustrated edition by William F. Gill and Co. The publisher’s note for the latter edition claims that “its delivery by the author was the crowning success of the memorable exercises of this eventful day.” And indeed, a clearer picture of the success of Taylor’s recitation is provided in volume 2 of Life and Letters of Bayard Taylor, which vividly sets the scene for Taylor’s performance before describing the recitation and its aftermath:
With his wife and daughter, [Taylor] marched in the procession which formed at the hotel, and proceeded to the square, where an immense platform had been built, running the length of Independence Hall. It had seats for four or five thousand people, who were partially sheltered from the violence of the sun by awnings stretched above them. In front of the platform was a dense, surging mass of people, who were at the sun’s mercy for five hours. A few enterprising ones had climbed the shady trees and were ensconced in the branches, whence they peeped out upon the multitude below, but all were full of enthusiasm. They greeted with cheers the guests as they took their places. . . .
The overture from the band at the other end of the square could scarcely be heard from the platform, so restless was the great crowd. At last Bayard Taylor’s part came. He stood upon the speaker’s stand, without manuscript or notes of any kind, and in his full, strong voice began,—
Sun of the stately Day.
There was something in his presence, erect, impressive, filled with a solemn sense of the moment, something in his voice, clear, penetrating, sonorous, and charged with profound emotion, which stilled the noise and tumult of those before him, hushed even the lively creatures in the branches, and made the vast audience listen. He had mastered the situation in a moment, and filled with his theme, he poured out his ode with a majesty of expression which held the people to the close. It was a real victory for Poetry. When the last word was uttered, a great shout rose from the enthusiastic people. Shortly before the close of the exercises, Bayard Taylor and his party watched their opportunity to escape. General Sheridan was just leaving, and the crowd opened to allow him to pass. They followed close behind. People were packed like a wall on both sides, some on the shoulders of others, and as they caught sight of him, they called out eagerly, “That’s Bayard Taylor! That’s the poet! Hurrah for our poet!” and hands were thrust out to seize his in the general excitement and enthusiasm. Whatever criticism might be given in cooler moments to his ode, Bayard Taylor had the rare pleasure of knowing that his lofty strains had fallen upon the delighted ears of the common people. Nor was this the only tribute, for as soon as the ode had been published in the journals, letters from friends and strangers rained down upon him.
Taylor’s poem, which runs about 300 lines, meditates on the successes and failures of the the United States during its first hundred years. It closes with a hopeful vision of the future of America, one which is likely to resonate with and be embraced by many readers today:
Look up, look forth, and on!
There’s light in the dawning sky:
The clouds are parting, the night is gone:
Prepare for the work of the day!
Fallow thy pastures lie
And far thy shepherds stray,
And the fields of thy vast domain
Are waiting for purer seed
Of knowledge, desire, and deed,
For keener sunshine and mellower rain!
But keep thy garments pure:
Pluck them back, with the old disdain,
From touch of the hands that stain!
So shall thy strength endure.
Transmute into good the gold of Gain,
Compel to beauty thy ruder powers,
Till the bounty of coming hours
Shall plant, on thy fields apart,
With the oak of Toil, the rose of Art!
Be watchful, and keep us so:
Be strong, and fear no foe:
Be just, and the world shall know!
With the same love, love us, as we give;
And the day shall never come,
That finds us weak or dumb
To join and smite and cry
In the great task, for thee to die,
And the greater task, for thee to live!
Poetry was one of many vehicles used to celebrate the Fourth of July in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you’d like to learn more about other ways the holiday has been celebrated historically, staff from our Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room have created a guide, “4th of July Celebrations, 1876-1911,” that provides links to historical newspaper coverage of Independence Day celebrations from our Chronicling America database, along with suggestions for locating additional newspaper coverage of the topic. If, in your searching, you locate any noteworthy poems celebrating the Fourth, feel free to share them in the comments below!