The Fourth of July is an occasion for families and communities to gather and celebrate our country and what it means to be an American. In the 242 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we have celebrated the holiday with parades and picnics, fireworks and food, and often speeches and the reciting of patriotic poems.
HMH is proud to have published many distinguished poets during our 186-year history. Here is a selection of poems about our country to read during your own Fourth of July celebrations.
“O Ship of State,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Longfellow was the most famous American poet of the 19th century and is best remembered today for poems in which he burnished many of the myths and legends around the founding of our nation: “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” “The Courtship of Myles Standish,” and “Evangeline,” for example.
Any of these would be good choices if you want to go the historical route for your celebration. But I would recommend the final stanza from his long 1849 poem, “The Building of the Ship.” This stanza is often referred to as “O Ship of State”—especially since 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted it in a letter to Winston Churchill, who himself later read it in a speech that you can now find on YouTube.
The whole poem is an extended metaphor about the building of the new nation (“Cedar of Maine and Georgia pine / Here together shall combine”) and ends with this stanza of hope for the future. It begins with “Sail on, O Ship of State! / Sail on, O Union, strong and great!” and ends with:
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee,
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o'er our fears,
Are all with thee, — are all with thee!
“America the Beautiful,” Katharine Lee Bates
Bates was a poet and a literary critic as well as a professor of English at Wellesley College and a tireless fighter for women’s education. In 1893, she taught summer school in Colorado Springs and, so the story goes, when she climbed Pike’s Peak and looked out over the (purple) mountains, she was inspired to write this poem. It was published in a Congregationalist magazine that year, and she later revised it for inclusion into a 1904 collection of her poems. It was that later version that was set to music in 1910 and became immediately popular.
“The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus
Lazarus was a prolific poet as well as a translator of both French and German poets; she published several books during her lifetime. Lazarus is known today for her poem “The New Colossus,” which is engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and helped define the statue as a welcoming symbol of the U.S. Her words are worth hearing again this year on the Fourth:
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
If you’d like to know more about her life, there’s an HMH children’s book about her from 2013, Emma’s Poem.
“America,” Claude McKay
Our poets have often best expressed conflicted feelings of love. In the early 1920s, Claude McKay published the poem “America” in his collection Harlem Shadows, which describes well the love and the hate, the hope and the fear of the present and the future:
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
“The Congressional Library,” Amy Lowell
Lowell is considered one of the first modernist poets in America and one of the earliest to experiment with imagery and form. This poem was inspired by a visit she made to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and it is sometimes difficult to figure out what exactly she is referring to.
But there is something wonderful about declaring that a library is a metaphor for America – vast, diverse, and filled with stories. The poem appeared in her 1925 Pulitzer Prize winning collection, What’s O’Clock. It’s very long, so I would recommend reading the final stanza:
This is America,
This vast, confused beauty,
This staring, restless speed of loveliness,
Mighty, overwhelming, crude, of all forms,
Making grandeur out of profusion,
Afraid of no incongruities,
Sublime in its audacity,
Bizarre breaker of moulds,
Laughing with strength,
Charging down on the past,
Glorious and conquering,
Invincible pith and marrow of the world,
An old world remaking,
Whirling into the no-world of all-colored light.
“Fourth of July Night,” Carl Sandburg
It would be possible to say that all of Carl Sandburg’s poems are about the U.S., and if you have any connection to Chicago you may want to include in your Fourth celebrations his poem “Chicago” about the city, with its famous first lines—“HOG Butcher for the World, / Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, / Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler; / Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders.” But for everyone else I would suggest this poem, which evokes the simple pleasure of the day:
The little boat at anchor in black water sat murmuring to the tall black sky
A white sky bomb fizzed on a black line.
A rocket hissed it’s red signature into the west.
Now a shower of Chinese fire alphabets,
A cry of flower pots broken in flames,
A long curve to a purple spray, three violet balloons—
Drips of seaweed tangled in gold, shimmering symbols of mixed numbers,
Tremulous arrangements of cream gold folds of a bride’s wedding gown—
A few sky bombs spoke their pieces, then velvet dark.
The little boat at anchor in black water sat murmuring to the tall black sky.