Reporter's Notebook

Poem of the Week
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This year, in honor of National Poetry Month, we compiled some of the best poems published throughout The Atlantic’s 160-year history… and we didn’t want to stop. Come back every week to read another poem from our archives, and go here to check out our month of poetry recommendations from staff and readers.

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Poem of the Week: ‘August’ by H. H.

Victor Fraile / Reuters

It’s August again, and here in D.C., where we’ve had a cool and cloudy week, it’s already starting to feel a bit like fall.

It’s a time of year that Helen Hunt Jackson (under the diminutive pen name “H. H.”), captured in our pages almost a century and a half ago. In “August,” from our August 1876 issue, she describes the loveliness, and ephemerality, of a summer nearing its end:

Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic, summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.

You can read the full poem here.  

Interior view of a slave pen, showing the doors of cells where the slaves were held before being sold
Slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia Library of Congress

This year I’ve spent my working hours in a distant American past, reading contemporaneous accounts of abolitionism, civil war, and Reconstruction in the deepest reaches of our archives.

Over the last few months this position has sometimes felt disjointed from the constant stream of news coming out of Congress and the White House. But this week the two eras collided violently when efforts to take down Confederate monuments were met with protests by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Confederate generals became the subject of articles, protests, and presidential flim flam, and Frederick Douglass reemerged on our homepage as a powerful political voice.

So, though it was written more than 150 years ago, William Cullen Bryant’s “The Death of Slavery” feels relevant today. In the poem, published in our July 1866 issue, Bryant hails the abolitionist victory at the close of the Civil War by addressing his words to the institution of slavery itself—that “great Wrong,” that “scourge,” finally at the end of its “cruel reign.”

Like The Atlantic’s founders, Bryant was fiercely opposed to slavery. He repeatedly gave voice to his abolitionism in the editorials he penned as the longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, and was an emphatic supporter of the anti-slavery Free-Soil and Republican Parties and particularly of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. The grand moral language and triumphant tone of “The Death of Slavery” evince the fervent outrage with which he viewed America’s “peculiar institution,” and the equally fervent exultation he felt when it finally ended.

The last stanza of the poem, in which Bryant addresses the physical remnants of slavery, feels particularly resonant at the end of this long and difficult week. It reads:

I see the better years that hasten by
   Carry thee back into that shadowy past,
   Where, in the dusty spaces, void and vast,
The graves of those whom thou hast murdered lie.
          The slave-pen, through whose door
          Thy victims pass no more,
Is there, and there shall the grim block remain
   At which the slave was sold; while at thy feet
Scourges and engines of restraint and pain
   Moulder and rust by thine eternal seat.
There, ’mid the symbols that proclaim thy crimes,
Dwell thou, a warning to the coming times.

You can read the rest of the poem here, and find more verse about the Civil War in our archives.

Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress

The first jazz recordings were made a century ago, in late February 1917. Just five years later, Carl Engel reported in our August 1922 issue, “Jazz is upon us everywhere.” The music was spreading into venues across the United States and Europe, and Engel, for one, was not a fan. He found the dancing inspired by “this delirious caterwauling” particularly offensive: “silly, lewd gyrations … the release of tension in a witless, neurotic stratum of society” that were “not precisely setting an example of modesty and grace.” Still, he later acknowledged, “jazz—good jazz—is not devoid of musical possibilities, not wanting in musical merit,” even if the “prurient panders of the musical fraternity” and “deplorable dances of our day” were beyond defense.

Theodore Maynard, on the other hand, thought modest and restrained dancing was ill-suited to the new music. In “Jazz,” from our January 1922 issue, he describes a cabaret scene in which wealthy patrons rise to dance to a jazz song. Maynard sees none of the “silly, lewd gyrations” that Engel condemned. Instead, he puzzles over the lack of passion and enthusiasm in the dancers, so out of touch with his own reaction to the music:

                                                           Gay
   They were not. They embraced without dismay,
Lovers who showed an awful lack of awe.

Then, as I sat and drank my wine apart,
   I pondered on this new religion, which
   Lay heavily on the face of the rich,
Who, occupied with ritual, never smiled—
Because I heard, within my quiet heart,
Happiness laughing like a little child.

You can read the full poem here.