The Tale of a Gunner at the Battle of Plattsburgh, 1814
Jock bit his mittens off and blew his thumbs;
He scraped the fresh sleet from the frozen sign: Men Wanted--Volunteers. Like gusts of brine
He whiffed deliriums
Of sound--the droning roar of rolling, rolling drums
And shrilling fifes, like needles in his spine,
And drank, blood-bright from sunrise and wild shore,
The wine of war.
With ears and eyes he drank and dizzy brain
Till all the snow danced red. The little shacks
That lined the road of muffled hackmatacks
Were roofed with the red stain,
Which spread in reeling rings on icy-blue Champlain
And splotched the sky like daubs of sealing-wax,
That darkened when he winked, and when he stared
Caught fire and flared.
Men Wanted--Volunteers! The village street,
Topped by the slouching store and slim flagpole,
Loomed grand as Rome to his expanding soul;
Grandly the rhythmic beat
Of feet in file and flags and fifes and filing feet,
The roar of brass and unremitting roll
Of drums and drums bewitched his boyish mood--
Till he hallooed.
His strident echo stung the lake's wild dawn
And startled him from dreams. Jock rammed his cap
And rubbed a numb ear with the furry flap,
Then bolted like a faun,
Bounding though shin-deep sleigh-ruts in his shaggy brawn,
Blowing white frost-wreaths from red mouth agap
Till, in a gabled porch beyond the store,
He burst the door;
"Mother!" he panted. "Hush! Your pa ain't up;
He's worser since this storm. What's struck ye so?"
"It's volunteers!" The old dame stammered
"Oh!" and stopped, and stirred her sup
Of morning tea, and stared down in the trembling cup.
"They're musterin' on the common now." "I know,"
She nodded feebly; then with sharp surmise
She raised her eyes:
She raised her eyes, and poured their light on him
Who toward glowing there--bright lips apart,
Cap off, and brown hair tousled. With quick smart
She felt the room turn dim
And seemed she heard, far off, a sound of cherubim
Soothing the sudden pain about her heart.
How many a lonely hour of after-woe
She saw him so!
"Jock!" And once more the white lips murmured "Jock!"
Her fingers slipped; the spilling teacup fell
And shattered, tinkling--but broke not the spell.
His heart began to knock,
Jangling the hollow rhythm of the ticking clock.
"Mother, it's fight, and men are wanted!" "Well,
Ah well, it's men may kill us women's joys,
It's men--not boys!"
"I'm seventeen! I guess that seventeen--"
"My little Jock!" "Little! I'm six-foot one.
(Scorn twitched his lip.) You saw me, how I skun
The town last Halloween
At wrastlin'" (Now the mother shifted tack.)
You won't be leavin' Jean?" "I guess a gun
Won't rattle her." He laughed, and turned his head.
His face grew red.
"But if it does--a gal don't understand:
It's fight!" "Jock, boy, your pa can't last much more,
And who's to mind the stock--to milk and chore?"
Jock frowned and gnawed his hand.
"Mother, it's men must mind the stock--our own born land,
And lick the invaders." Slowly in the door
Stubbed the old, worn-out man. "Woman, let me!
"It's struck him like fork-lightnin' in a pine.
I felt it, too, like that in seventy-six;
And now, if 'twa'nt for creepin' pains and cricks
And this one leg o' mine,
I'd holler young Jerusalem like him, and jine
The fight; but fight don't come from burnt-out wicks;
It comes from fire." "Mebbe," she said, "it comes
From fifes and drums."
"Dad, all the boys are down from the back hills.
The common's cacklin' like hell's cocks and hens;
There's swords and muskets stacked in the cow-pens
And knapsacks in the mills;
They say at Isle aux Noix Redcoats are holding drills,
And we're to build a big fleet at Vergennes.
Dad, can't I go?" "I reckon you're a man:
Of course you can.
"I'll do the chores to home, you do 'em thar!"
"Dad!"--"Lad!" The men gripped hands and gazed upon
The mother, when the door flew wide. There shone
A young face like a star,
A gleam of bitter sweet 'gainst snowy islands far,
A freshness, like the scent of cinnamon,
Tingeing the air with ardor and bright sheen.
Jock faltered: "Jean!"
"Jock, don't you hear the drums? I dreamed all night
I heard 'em, and they woke me in black dark.
Quick, ain't you comin'? Can't you hear 'em? Hark!
The men-folks are to fight.
I wish I was a man!" Jock felt his throat clutch tight.
"Men-folks!" It lit his spirit like a spark
Flashing the pent gunpowder of his pride.
"Come on!" he cried.
"Here--wait!" The old man stumped to the back wall
And handed down his musket. "You'll want this;
And mind what game you're after, and don't miss.
Good-by: I guess that's all
For now. Come back and get your duds." Jock, looming tall
Beside his glowing sweetheart, stooped to kiss
The little shrunken mother. Tiptoe she rose
And clutched him--close.
In both her twisted hands she held his head
Clutched in the wild remembrance of dim years--
A baby head, suckling, half dewed with tears;
A tired boy abed
By candlelight; a laughing face beside the red
Log-fire; a shock of curls beneath her shears--
The bright hair falling. Ah, she tried to smother
Her wild thoughts.--"Mother!
"Mother!" he stuttered. "Baby Jock!" she moaned
And looked far in his eyes.--And he was gone.
The porch door banged. Out in the blood-bright dawn
All that she once had owned--
Her heart's proud empire--passed, her life's dream sank unthroned.
With hands still reached, she stood there staring, wan.
"Hark, woman!" said the bowed old man. "What's tolling?"
Drums--drums were rolling.
Shy wings flashed in the orchard, glitter, glitter;
Blue wings bloomed soft through blossom-colored leaves,
And Phoebe! Phoebe! whistled from gray eaves
Through water-shine and twitter
And spurt of flamey green. All bane of earth and bitter
Took life and tasted sweet at the glad reprieves
Of spring, save only in an old dame's heart
That grieved apart.
Crook-back and small, she poled the big wellsweep: Creak went the pole; the bucket came up brimming,
On the bright water lay a cricket swimming
Whose brown legs tried to leap
But, dragging, twitched and foundered in the circling deep.
The old dame gasped; her thin hand snatched him, skimming.
"Dear Lord, he's drowned," she mumbled with dry lips;
"The ships! the ships!"
Gently she laid him in the sun and dried
The little dripping body. Suddenly
Rose-red gleamed through the budding apple tree
And "Look! a letter!" cried
A laughing voice; "and lots of news for us inside!"
"How's that, Jean? News from Jock! Where--where is he?"
"Down in Vergennes--the ship yards." "Ships! Ah, no!
It can't be so."
"He's going to fight with guns and be a tar.
See here: he's wrote himself. The post was late.
He couldn't write before. The ship is great!
She's built, from keel to spar,
And called the Saratoga; and Jock's got a scar
Already--" "Scar?" the mother quavered. "Wait,"
Jean rippled, "let me read." "Quick, then, my dear, He'll want to hear--
"Jock's pa; I guess we'll find him in the yard.
He ain't scarce creepin' round these days, poor Dan!"
She gripped Jean's arm and stumbled as they ran,
And stopped once, breathing hard.
Around them chimney-swallows skimmed the sheep-cropped sward
And yellow hornets hummed. The sick old man
Stirred at their steps, and muttered from deep muse:
"Well, ma, what news?"
"From Jockie--there's a letter!" In his chair
The bowed form sat bolt upright. "What's he say?"
"He's wrote to Jean. I guess it's boys their way
To think old folks don't care
For letters." "Girl, read out." Jean smoothed her wilding hair
And sat beside them. Out of the blue day
A golden robin called; across the road
A heifer lowed;
And old ears listened while youth read: "Friend Jean,
Vergennes: here's where we've played a Yankee trick.
I'm layin' in my bunk by Otter Crick
And scribblin' you this mean
Scrawl for to tell the news--what-all I've heard and seen:
Jennie, we've built a ship, and built her slick--
A swan!--a seven hundred forty tonner,
And I'm first gunner.
"'You ought to seen us launch her t'other day!
Tell dad we've christened her for a fight of hisn--
He fought at Saratoga. Now just listen!
She's twice as big, folks say,
As Perry's ship that took the prize at Put-in-Bay;
Yet forty days ago, hull, masts, and mizzen,
The whole of her was growin', live and limber,
In God's green timber.
"'I helped to fell her main-mast back in March.
The woods was snowed knee-deep. She was a wonder:
A straight white pine. She fell like roarin' thunder
And left a blue-sky arch
Above her, bustin' all to kindlin's a tall larch.--
Mebbe the scart jack-rabbits skun from under!
Us boys hoorayed, and me and every noodle
Yelled Yankee Doodle!
"'My, how we haw'd and gee'd the big ox-sledges
Haulin' her long trunk through the hemlock dells,
A-bellerin' to the tinkle-tankle bells,
And blunted our ax edges
Hackin' new roads of ice 'longside the rocky ledges.
We stalled her twice, but gave the oxen spells
And yanked her through at last on the home-clearin'--
Lord, wa'n't we cheerin'!
"'Since then I've seen her born, as you might say:
Born out of fire and water and men's sweatin',
Blast-furnace rairin' and red anvils frettin'
And sawmills, night and day,
Screech-owlin' like 'twas Satan's rumhouse run away
Smellin' of tar and pitch. But I'm forgettin'
The man that's primed her guns and paid her score:
"'Macdonough--he's her master, and she knows
His voice, like he was talkin' to his hound.
There ain't a man of her but ruther'd drown'd
Than tread upon his toes;
And yet with his red cheeks and twinklin' eyes, a rose
Ain't friendlier than his looks be. when he's round,
He makes you feel like you're gentleman
"'But I must tell you how we're hidin' here.
This Otter Crick is like a crook-neck jug,
And we're inside. The Redcoats want to plug
The mouth, and cork our beer;
So last week Downie sailed his British lake fleet near
To fill our channel, but us boys had dug
Big shore intrenchments, and our batteries
Stung 'em like bees
"'Till they skedaddled whimperin' up the lake;
But while the shots was flyin', in the scrimmage,
I caught a ball that scotched my livin' image,--
Now, Jean, for Sam Hill's sake,
Don't let-on this to mother, for, you know, she'd make
A deary-me-in' that would last a grim age.
'Tain't much, but when a feller goes to war
What's he go for
"'If 'taint to fight, and take his chances?'" Jean
Stopped and looked down. The mother did not speak.
"Go on," said the old man. Flush tinged her cheek.
"Truly I didn't mean--
There ain't much more. He says: 'Goodbye now, little queen;
We're due to sail for Plattsburgh this day week.
Meantime I'm hopin' hard and takin' stock.
The girl's voice ceased in silence. Glitter, glitter,
The shy wings flashed through the blossom-colored leaves,
And Phoebe! Phoebe! whistled from gray eaves
Through water-shine and twitter
And spurt of flamey green. But bane of thought is bitter.
And mother's heart spurned May's sweet make-believes,
For there, through falling masts and gaunt ships looming,
Guns--guns were booming.
Plattsburgh--and windless beauty on the bay;
Autumnal morning and the sun at seven:
Southward a wedge of wild ducks in the heaven
Dwindles, and far away
Dim mountains watch the lake, where lurking for their prey
Lie, with their muzzled thunders and pent levin,
The war-ships--Eagle, Preble, Saratoga,
And now a little wind from the northwest
Flutters the trembling blue with snowy flecks.
A gunner, on Macdonough's silent decks,
Peers from his cannon's rest,
Staring beyond the low north headland. Crest on crest
Behind green spruce-tops, soft as wild-fowls' necks,
Glide the bright spars and masts and whitened wales
Of bellying sails.
Rounding, the British lake-birds loom in view,
Ruffling their wings in silvery arrogance:
Chubb, Linnet, Finch, and lordly Confiance
Leading with Downie's crew
The line. With long booms swung to starboard they heave to,
Whistling their flock of galleys who advance
Behind, then toward the Yankees, four abreast,
Tack landward, west.
Landward the watching townsfolk strew the shore;
Mist-banks of human being blur the bluffs
And blacken the roofs, like swarms of roosting choughs.
Waiting the cannon's roar
A nation holds its breath for knell of Nevermore
Or peal of life: this hour shall cast the sloughs
Of generations--and one old dame's joy:
Her gunner boy.
One moment on the quarter-deck Jock kneels
Beside his Commodore and fighting squad.
Their heads are bowed, their prayers go up toward God--
Toward God, to whom appeals
Still rise in pain and mangling wrath from blind ordeals
Of man, still boastful of his brother's blood.--
They stand from prayer. Swift comes and silently
Macdonough holds his men, alert, devout:
"He that wavereth is like a wave of the sea
Driven with the wind. Behold the ships, that be
So great, are turned about
Even with a little helm." Jock tightens the blue clout
Around his waist, and watches casually
Close-by a game-cock, in a coop, who stirs
And spreads his spurs.
Now bristling near, the British war-birds swoop
Wings, and the Yankee Eagle screams in fire;
The English Linnet answers, aiming higher,
And crash along Jock's poop
Her hurtling shot of iron crackles the game-cock's coop.
Where, lo! the ribald cock, like a town crier
Strutting a gunslide, flaps to the cheering crew-- Yankee-doodle-doo!
Boys yell, and yapping laughter fills the roar:
"You bet we'll do 'em!" "You're a prophet, cocky!"
"Hooray, old rooster!" "Hip, hip, hip!" cries Jockie.
Calmly the Commodore
Touches his cannon's fuse and fires a twenty-four.
Smoke belches black. "Huzza! That's blowed 'em pocky!"
And Downie's men, like pins before the bowling,
"Boom! flash the long guns, echoed by the galleys.
The Confiance, wind-baffled in the bay
With both her port-bow anchors torn away,
Flutters, but proudly rallies
To broadside, while her gunboats range the water-alleys.
Then Downie grips Macdonough in the fray,
And double-shotted from his roaring flail
Hurls the black hail.
The hail turns red, and drips in the hot gloom.
Jock snuffs the reek and spits it from his mouth
And grapples with great winds. The winds blow south,
And scent of lilac bloom
Steals from his mother's porch in his still sleeping-room.
Lilacs! But now it stinks of blood and drouth!
He staggers up, and stares at blinding light:
"God! This is fight!"
Fight! The sharp loathing retches in his loins;
He gulps the black air, like a drowner swimming,
Where little round suns in a dance go rimming
The dark with golden coins;
Round him and round the splintering masts and jangled quoins
Reel, rattling, and overhead he hears the hymning--
Lonely and loud--of ululating choirs
Strangling with wires.
Fight! But no more the roll of chanting drums,
The fifing flare, the flags, the magic spume
Filling his spirit with a wild perfume;
Now noisome anguish numbs
His sense, that mocks and lears at monstrous vacuums. Whang! splits the spanker near him, and the boom
Crushes Macdonough, in a jumbled wreck,
Stunned on the deck.
No time to glance where wounded leaders lie,
Or think on fallen sparrows in the storm--
Only to fight! The prone commander's form
Stirs, rises stumblingly,
And gropes where, under shrieking grape and musketry,
Men's bodies wamble like a mangled swarm
Of bees. He bends to sight his gun again,
Bleeding, and then--
Oh, out of void and old oblivion
And reptile slime first rose Apollo's head;
And God in likeness of Himself, 'tis said,
Created such an one,
Now shaping Shakespeare's forehead, now Napoleon,
Various, by infinite invention bred,
In His own image molding beautiful
The human skull.
Jock lifts his head; Macdonough sights his gun
To fire--but in his face a ball of flesh,
A whizzing clod, has hurled him on a mesh
Of tangled rope and tun,
While still about the deck the lubber clod is spun
And bouncing from the rail, lies in a plesh
Of oozing blood, upstaring eyeless, red--
A gunner's head.
* * * * *
Above the ships, enormous from the lake,
Rises a wraith--a phantom dim and gory,
Lifting her wondrous limbs of smoke and glory;
And little children quake
And lordly nations bow thier foreheads for her sake,
And bards proclaim her in their fiery story;
And in her phantom breast, heartless, unheeding,
Hearts--hearts are bleeding.
Macdonough lies with Downie in one land.
Victor and vanquished long ago were peers.
Held in the grip of peace an hundred years,
England has laid her hand
In ours, and we have held--and still shall hold--the band
That makes us brothers of the hemispheres;
Yea, still shall keep the lasting brotherhood
Of law and blood.
Yet one whose terror racked us long of yore
Still wreaks upon the world her lawless might:
Out of the deeps again the phantom Fight
Looms on her wings of war,
Sowing in armèd camps and fields her venomed spore,
Embattling monarch's whim against men's right,
Trampling with iron hoofs the blooms of time,
Back in the slime.
We, who from dreams of justice, dearly wrought,
First rose in the eyes of patient Washington,
And through the molten heart of Lincoln won
To liberty forgot,
Now standing lone in peace, 'mid titans strange distraught,
Pray much for patience, more--God's will be done!--
For vision and for power nobly to see
The world made free.