John Brown Poetry
A collection of poetry related to John Brown, from 1859-1922, with critical materials. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
This collection contains a selection from among the many hundreds of poems relating to the abolitionist John Brown and the Harper's Ferry raid. The production of John Brown poetry began in the days following events at Harper's Ferry and has never ceased since, attracting both famous and obscure poets. This collection is arranged chronologically by date of publication. It traces the changing representations of Brown and social meanings attributed to his actions.
1859 - "How Old Brown Took Harper's Ferry," Edmund Clarence Stedman
This poem by Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908) is one of the most heavily anthologized of John Brown poems. It first appeared in the New York Daily Tribune, November 12, 1859, as “John Brown’s Invasion. How old Brown took Harper’s Ferry. A Ballad of the times (containing ye true history of ye great Virginia fight.)” and later appeared under the title “How Old Brown Took Harper’s Ferry” in Stedman, Poems, Lyrical and Idyllic (New York: Charles Scribner, 1860) 169-179. For a variant version, see The Poetical Works of Edmund Clarence Stedman (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884) 64-70.
The poem had a profound public effect when it was first published. Decades later, US secretary of state John Hay wrote in an undelivered celebratory address for Stedman’s birthday that “I remember how in an hour Stedman grew famous with that Tyrtaen ballad which rang like a reveille in the troubled and clouded morning of the great war, where the poet’s voice gave forth the deep inspiration of the prophet. It was when the scaffold was building for John Brown. I have not lost the sonorous refrain in forty years.” Putnam’s Magazine 1 (October 1906) 1: 15-16, at 16. Many appreciations of the poem appeared from those who remembered its impact in crystallizing much northern public opinion in favor of Brown. Henrietta Wright, for example, pronounced on this poem: “One of the most stirring ballads produced by the war, it will always hold a prominent place in the lyric poetry of America.” Wright, American Men of Letters: 1660-1896 (London: David Nutt, 1897) 67.
Stedman believed his poem to be an accurate reflection of John Brown’s history and cited it as an example of his artistic sobriety. In an 1882 letter he wrote “I have never written a ‘ballade,’ ‘rondeau,’ ‘villanelle,’ or other such frippery, and have no taste that way. Probably the young English poets consider my New England poems, ‘John Brown of Oassawatomie,’ etc., as nothing beside their elaborate ‘art for art’s sake.’ In conviction and habit I am their opposite extreme,—and never write poems, except spontaneously when a theme or thought possesses me.” Laura Stedman and George M. Gould [eds.], Life and Letters of Edmund Clarence Stedman, vol. 2 (New York: Moffat, Yard & Co., 1910) 72. However, as William Keeney recently demonstrated, the poem advances inaccurate history and provides a fantasized version of actual events. Keeney, “Hero, Martyr, Madman: Representations of John Brown in the Poetry of the John Brown Year,” in Peggy A. Russo and Paul Finkelman [eds.], Terrible Swift Sword (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005) 147-151. Equally questionable, even while sympathetic to John Brown, the poem indulges in characterizing him as “Mad Old Brown” (line 85) and a “brave old madman” (132). Suggestions that Brown was mentally ill, in which Stedman participates in this poem, reflect political incomprehension of his actions.
1859 - "The Petition - John Brown," Daniel Ricketson
Daniel Ricketson (1813-1898) was a wealthy Quaker attorney from New Bedford, Massachusetts, and a close friend to the Transcendentalist circle of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Ellery Channing, and Bronson Alcott. See Anna and Walton Ricketson [eds.], Daniel Ricketson and His Friends (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1902). He published two volumes of poetry, The Autumn Sheaf: A Collection of Miscellaneous Poems (1869) and The Factory-Bell and Other Poems (1873). By 1859 Ricketson had been an active abolitionist for many years, having embraced the cause in 1844-45. Kathryn Grover, The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001) 166. In this poem, written in November of that year as Brown awaited execution, Ricketson addresses Virginia governor Henry A. Wise with a petition for Brown’s life. Ricketson adopts an especially Quaker-like mode for his poetic petition, asking Wise to listen “to the voice of God that speaks within.” (line 6) Should Brown be executed, Ricketson suggests, “His blood will leave an everlasting stain.” (10)
1859 - "Old John Brown," Edmund Hamilton Sears
Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) was a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts and ardent foe of slavery. He published primarily theological works; as a poet, his best-known work was the Christmas carol “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” His antislavery tract Revolution or Reform: A Discourse Occasioned by the Present Crisis (Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Co., 1856) warned against the expansion of slavery and predicted retribution against the American nation. “Old John Brown,” written and published in November 1859, challenges characterization of Brown as a madman. In Sears’ view Brown spoke with complete accuracy: “[E]very word that falls / Goes straight and true, and hits the mark / More sure than cannon-balls.” (lines 3-5) Brown broke through “the crust of compromise” (15) and will pay with his life for his heroism. Sears predicts that Brown’s grave will become a pilgrimage site for “the humble poor.” (33)
1859 - "Samson Agonistes," Rose Terry Cooke
Rose Terry Cooke (1827-1892) was a prolific poet, novelist, short-story writer and essayist. A native of Connecticut, Cooke is associated with New England regionalism. As an advocate for women’s rights, she employed a conservative and deeply religious voice. See Carol Holly, “How Freedom Becomes Free: Religious Conversion in Rose Terry Cooke’s ‘Freedom Wheeler’s Controversy with Providence,’ American Literary Realism 40 (2008) 3:248-261. That religious conviction comes to the fore in this 16-line poem, dated the day of Brown’s execution, one that compares him to Samson in Gaza. The poem’s argument is that the real blindness lies with the Philistines-Virginians, not the Samson-Brown who is about to pull down the temple.
1859 - "Old John Brown," Alfred Gibbs Campbell
Alfred Gibbs Campbell (1826-1884) was an African American industrialist, newspaper publisher and abolitionist who lived mostly in Paterson, New Jersey. See notes on Campbell’s volume Poems for further biographical information. “Old John Brown” was published first in the Paterson Guardian and then reprinted in The Liberator (December 9, 1859). This poem was notable among post-execution popular poetry for its ferocity and praise of Brown’s rebellion. The poem begins in Brown’s defense by asserting that “Truth, honor and sincerity / Are treason to Virginia’s laws” (lines 2-3). Campbell repeatedly rejects characterizations of Brown as a traitor, stating instead that Brown is “The truest man ye ever saw” (11) and a “heroic martyr” (33). Militancy and outrage sweep through the poem’s tones.
1859 - "Brown of Ossawatomie," John Greenleaf Whittier
John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Brown of Ossawatomie” was probably the most famous and widely-reprinted John Brown poem. This poem, published in December 1859, attempts to reconcile Brown’s violence at Harpers Ferry with Whittier’s own Quaker pacifism, one that opposed violence over the slavery issue and sought to solve the conflict through spiritual reform. Like many other Americans opposed to slavery and who did not share his pacifist beliefs, Whittier realized that his political position was becoming untenable. Thus in reading accounts of Brown’s execution, Whittier seized upon a false report by New York Tribune journalist Henry Olcott, published on December 5, 1859. That report concerned an imagined kiss given to a black child by John Brown on his way to execution. In this poem, the exchange of this kiss transforms Brown’s violence into a new Christian redemption flowing from the power of love. Whittier so refigures Brown from fighter to saint: “That kiss from all its guilty means re- / deemed the good intent, / And round the grisly fighter's hair / the martyr's aureole bent!” (lines 21-24)
Lydia Maria Child’s “The Hero's Heart” employed the same fictitious report to characterize Brown’s death, although without the same emphasis on pacifism. Abolitionist orators such a Wendell Phillips and African American cleryman J. Sella Martin perpetuated the 'kiss to a Negro child' story. See Thomas Drew, The John Brown Invasion, an Authentic History of the Harper's Ferry Invasion (Boston: James Campbell, 1860) 77, and Emancipation Society, The Martyrdom of John Brown: The Proceedings of a Public Meeting held in London on the 2nd December 1863 to Commemorate the Fourth Anniversary of John Brown's Death (London, 1864). Thomas Hovenden’s famous 1884 painting “The Last Moments of John Brown” provides a visual realization of this common myth.
An earlier critic such as Cecil D. Eby found the poem “an unforgivable outrage upon Clio” and asserted that it produced enormous social harm not only for misrepresentation but because it “agitated a nation already hovering precariously upon the brink of war.” Eby, “Whittier’s Brown of Ossawatomie,” New England Quarterly 33 (Dec. 1960) 4: 452-461, at 452. In a contemporary reading, Zoe Trodd locates this poem within attempts to revise a “charter of blood” inherent within an understanding of Brown’s rebellion, common among African Americans, as self-defense. The poem, she argues, constitutes an initial instance of many subsequent cultural attempts to gentle Brown’s legacy, denature the historical events, and avoid confronting the social implications of Brown’s violence. See Trodd, “Writ in Blood: John Brown’s Charter of Humanity, the Tribunal of History, and the Thick Link of American Political Protest,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 1 (2006) 1: 1-29.
1860 - "With the Rose, that Bloomed on the Day of John Brown's Martyrdom," Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), writer and daughter of Bronson Alcott, wrote this John Brown poem in January 1860. Seven months later, in July 1860, her family hosted Brown’s widow and daughters at their home in Concord, Massachusetts. Brown’s portrait hung above the Alcott family’s fireplace mantle. See Sarah Elbert [ed.], Louisa May Alcott on Race, Sex and Slavery (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997) xxv-xxviii. The poem evidences Alcott’s complete loyalty in the abolitionist cause, in which she joined her family and friends. Unlike most John Brown poems, this one employs botanical language. Alcott begins in the first stanza with the metaphor of a rose, a symbolic reference to devotion and Christian martyrdom. In the second stanza she compares Brown to a century plant, the agave whose bloom can attain 20-25 feet, attributing a similar moral height to the poem’s hero. Three succeeding stanzas use more familiar triumphal language to describe Brown’s accomplishment as a martyr.
1860 - "The Hero's Heart," Lydia Maria Child
Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880), abolitionist, social activist, and writer, composed this poem for an American Anti-Slavery Society program at Boston’s Music Hall on January 26, 1860. William Lloyd Garrison’s journal The Liberator published it on February 3. Radical abolitionist James Redpath reprinted it shortly thereafter in Echoes of Harper’s Ferry (Boston: Thayer & Eldridge, 1860) 348. When Child re-published the poem in The Freedmen's Book (1869), a reader for ex-slaves, she titled the poem "John Brown and the Colored Child."
“The Hero’s Heart” is one of the most pacific of Brown poems. It emphasizes a soul at peace as he meets death and de-emphasizes Brown as a militant abolitionist-in-arms. The tropes of a “tender heart,’ a “kind old man,” a departing kiss, a golden light, and hovering angels with harps locate this poem within the classic territory of sentimentalist narratives and their death scenes. A good soul leaves the earth to go to a reward in better places, so a death scene is a passage and not an end. Witnesses to the scene are both human and immaterial, waiting to send off and to welcome a soul with divine love. The poem gives greatest focus to the composure and state of grace with which Brown meets his death. Child employs the popular myth of Brown giving a final kiss to a black child, perpetuated in many poems and works of art, to provide political and human purpose to his death. Her poem concludes with the suggestion (line 22) that this child bears the incarnate spirit of Christ and thus the scene becomes an apotheosis, with heaven already present to receive Brown. For further on how different versions of the ‘kiss for the colored child’ story originated, see Merrill Peterson, John Brown: The Legend Revisited (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2004) 44-46.
1860 - "Freedom, Dedicated to the Martyr Brown," J.T. Powers
This poem may be the work of James T. Powers (1825-1888), a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts with a minor reputation as a writer. Its tones are those of classic militant abolitionist poetry, with sharp declarative phrases and many exclamation points. Powers envisions Brown surrounded by divine glory and calling on humanity to rise against slavery. The poem concludes with a cry to “hear the battle-shout!” (line 41), predicting war with the Northern states.
1861 - "John Brown," Phoebe Cary
This 32-line John Brown poem by Phoebe Cary (1824-1871) was originally published in the New York Independent in 1861. Cary re-published the poem in Poems of Faith, Hope and Love (New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1868) 83-84 and succeeding collections of her work. The poem invokes Brown as a power that his executioners sought to silence but could not. Death, Cary suggests, only aided the power of his message and enabled Brown to become a prophet of liberty.
1862 - "John Brown," Louis Ratisbonne
Louis Gustave Fortune Ratisbonne (1827-1900) was a French author and translator. This French-language John Brown poem appeared in 1862 in the Revue Germanique et Française. The poem was written after viewing a Victor Hugo drawing of Brown’s execution. One of Hugo’s early biographers notes “There is, in his house at Guernsey, a picture grisly and horrible, executed by himself, showing a poor human body, the body of John Brown, the negro liberationist, ‘hanged by the neck’ till it seems reduced by time and the weather’s indignities to mere shreds and tatters of what was once a man.” Frank T. Marzials, Life of Victor Hugo (London: Walter Scott, 1888) 21-22. Victor Hugo had written public appeals in favor of sparing John Brown’s life and in his praise compared Brown to Christ. In his poem Ratisbonne imagines this Hugo image of Brown as a hanging bell-clock clapper, one that is to toll shortly for justice and liberty.
- Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format (French)
- Microsoft Word format (French)
- Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format (English)
- Microsoft Word format (English)
1863 - "Transfiguration," John James Piatt
John James Piatt (1835-1917) was a US poet, federal office-holder, consul, and husband of writer Sarah Piatt. This Brown sonnet was published in Piatt’s Landmarks and Other Poems (New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1872) 96-97. The poem’s sub-title indicates it was composed in the District of Columbia on the fourth anniversary of Brown’s execution. Piatt organizes the poem around Brown’s mythical embrace and kiss of a black child immediately prior to his execution, comparing this act to that of Saint Christopher carrying a child. As the legendary saint discovered that the child was Christ, so too Brown held Christ in his arms. The poem concludes with a suggestion that those seeking the profundity of immaterial spirit will find it in this Christian vision of Brown holding the Christ-child.
1865 - "Avenged!," Orpheus C. Kerr (Robert Henry Newall)
Robert Henry Newell (1836-1901) was an American humorist and journalist who adopted the pen-name of Orpheus C. Kerr. The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers (New York: Blakeman & Mason, 1862) was his best-known work. Quite popular during the Civil War years, afterwards Newall left his native New York City and faded into obscurity in New Jersey. “Avenged!” is more sober than most of Newell’s other work. Using heroic stanzas, the ballad describes an allegorial old soldier who has defended his country with honor from its founding. Yet the offensive presence of slavery brings him to action: “The Soldier old, at his sentry-post…Beheld the shame of the land he loved, / And the old old love in his bosom moved.” (lines 36-39) When the old soldier’s prophecies are ignored, he transforms into “the voice of John Brown.” (43) This patriotic soul inhabited Brown and directed his attack on the institution of slavery. Brown’s divine mission at Harpers Ferry, according to Newall, represented a sacrifice that “From their slavish sleep a Million woke!” (84) Brown message spread to “the freeborn soul of the chainless North” (96) and raised a host that gathered to suppress rebellion and overthrow slavery. The old soldier / John Brown sleep at peace because “a people’s Will and a people’s Might, / Shall right the Wrong and proclaim the Right.” (107-108)
1882 - "Sonnet XXIV," Amos Bronson Alcott
A. Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), influential educator and social activist, in 1882 published his last book, Sonnets and Canzonets. He included this poem, originally published in December 1859, in the book's ‘Sonnets of Character’ sequence, many of which addressed leading antislavery figures and friends from Transcendentalist circles. The poem progresses beyond the frequent representation of Brown as a saint. It suggests that Brown’s “master-stroke” (line 8) against slavery was in the end responsible for a “peaceful prosperity” (9) that prevailed. According to Alcott, Brown sits in heaven as the martyred messiah of the slaves.
1887 - "John Brown: A Paradox," Louise Imogen Guiney
Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) was a notable Catholic intellectual and poet during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The daughter of a Civil War hero, she published several volumes of poetry and prose, and achieved significant recognition in Boston’s Irish community. She emigrated to England in 1905. For further biography, see Michele J. Legott, “Louise Imogen Guiney,” 136-147 in Peter Quartermain (ed.), American Poets, 1890-1945 (3rd series, Part 1:A-M) (Detroit, MI: Gale, 1987).
Guiney’s poem reflects an indecisive opinion of John Brown, one that was common in northern states during the post-Civil War generation. She converts this indecision to a dualistic paradox where Brown carries “both halos” (line 12) of fanaticism and martyrdom. Guiney argues that his thought was just but his deeds evil (21-22), a contradiction that seeks to neuter Brown even while praising him as a national hero where “children’s lips chanted our lost John Brown” (17).
1889 - "Labourers' Election Song," Gerald Massey
Gerald Massey (1828-1907), English poet and radical Christian theologian, had his political sympathies shaped by childhood poverty and beginning textile mill-work at age eight. His poetry frequently advocated for workers and initially he was associated with the Chartist movement. Massey gave repeated lecture tours in the United States and his poetic production included antislavery poems (e.g. “Nebraska: Or the Slavery-Abolitionist to his Bride”). For further, see Michael Sanders, “Constellating Chartist Poetry: Gerald Massey, Walter Benjamin, and the Uses of Messianism,” Victorian Poetry 45 (2007) 4:360-389, and Charles Arthur Hawley, “Gerald Massey in America,” Church History 8 (December 1939) 4:356-370. The present poem, “Labourers’ Election Song,” to be sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” appeared in Massey’s My Lyrical Life: Poems Old and New (Boston: Colby & Rich, 1889) 422-423. The poem, in which Massey calls on British workers to join together at the ballot-box to support their common interests, represents an international example where “John Brown’s Body” was converted to militant political purpose.
1895 - "John Brown," James Whitcomb Riley
James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) was one of the most popular poets in the United States during his lifetime. For further on Riley, see Elizabeth Van Allen, James Whitcomb Riley: A Life (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999). While Riley’s Midwestern regionalist and populist verse usually was not overtly political, Angela Sorby has pointed out that although “he trafficked in nostalgia, his work was haunted and energized by the very goblins of racial and class anxiety that it sought to escape.” Sorby, “Performing Class: James Whitcomb Riley’s Poetry of Distinction,” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 60 (1999) 2:197-222, at 222. In this John Brown poem, Riley represents Brown – who called for violent revolt against slavery – as a self-abnegating saint. “His love did feed / The loveless; and his gentle hands did lead / The blind…” (lines 4-6) As a man who “served the lowliest” (9), he went to his death in their service. Even as he draws on a populist tradition that appreciated John Brown, Riley’s short poem de-natures Brown’s radicalism in order to make him more palatable.
1910 - "John Brown," Edward Sherwood Creamer
Edward Sherwood Creamer (1843- ?) was a little-known New York poet and dramatist. His works include Adirondack Readings (1893), The Orphean Tragedy (1901), and An Epic of Heaven and Other Poems (1910). Preoccupied with ideas of romantic heroism, Creamer wrote various poems on antislavery figures – Whittier, Emerson – as moral heroes. This poem treats John Brown as a natural-born hero, one taught by Nature the work of heroism. Brown, according to Creamer, belonged to a class of heroes whose passage through the world was difficult but who shatter inalterably the world into which they were born.
1910 - "God's Angry Man," Charles Monroe Sheldon
Charles Sheldon (1857-1946) was a Congregationalist minister, an advocate of the Social Gospel, and author of the best-selling 1896 novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? The poem, published in 1910, describes Brown as a Moses-type figure, an image first employed in the initial days after the Harpers Ferry raid. However, it is not Moses as a leader from out of slavery on which this poem focuses, rather the younger angry Moses who slew the Egyptian slavemaster. The fourth and fifth stanzas appreciate Brown’s anger as part of a tradition of anger over social injustice. Then the poem shifts towards an understanding of Brown as a soul that could not restrain itself in the face of such injustice against slaves, irrespective of personal cost. Sheldon, who in his career was concerned over spiritual education, concludes with the observation “And pity those soft youth this nation rears! / Who never strike a blow for human need!” (37-38) Thus John Brown serves as a model for moral inspiration and action.
1911 - "John Brown," Addison Woodard Stubbs
Addison W. Stubbs (1854-1933) was a school teacher, school superintendent, journalist and businessman in Kansas City. From a Quaker missionary family background, he was raised partly among the Kaw tribe and was sometimes employed as an interpreter. The Indian Princess, Me-nung-gah, and Other Poems (1912) is his only published volume. The occasion on which he delivered this poem was the 1911 dedication ceremony for a marble statue of John Brown at the Western University in Kansas City. Founded in 1865 and disestablished in 1943, Western University was the first historically-black college established west of the Mississippi. The poem, although unexceptional in sentiments and expression, testifies to the honors that were accorded Brown in the early twentieth-century.
1922 - "To John Brown," Georgia Douglas Johnson
Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966) was an African American poet, playwright, and political figure in the District of Columbia. Johnson ran a literary salon – the Saturday Nighters – that attracted major figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Yet Margaret Walker observed that Johnson had been forgotten despite her artistic and financial success as a writer. Phanuel Egejuru & Robert Elliot Fox, “An Interview with Margaret Walker,” Callaloo 6 (May 1979) 29-35, at 34. Johnson was intensely active in social and political causes, work that her writing reflected. Her verse and plays refer extensively to abolitionist figures. This sonnet dedicated to John Brown invokes the voices of “dusky millions” (line 6) chanting his praise as “Martyr of the Freed.” (7) Like nearly all other African American writers, Johnson recognized in Brown a hero who was ready to confront tyranny in the most direct terms.
These podcasts provide critical interpretation of John Brown poetry.
Joe Lockard - John Brown and Public Poetry (9:55)
Joe Lockard - John Brown: Pre-Execution Poetry (18:06)
Joe Lockard - John Brown: Post-Execution Poetry (22:20)
Fine, Gary Alan, "John Brown's Body: Elites, Heroic Embodiment, and the Legitimation of Political Violence," Social Problems 46 (May 1999) 2: 225-249.
Keeney, William, “Hero, Martyr, Madman: Representations of John Brown in the Poetry of the John Brown Year, 1859-60, 141-161 in Peggy A. Russo & Paul Finkelman [eds.], Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005).
Ljungquist, Kent, "'Meteor of the War': Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman Respond to John Brown," American Literature 61 (Dec. 1989) 4: 674-680.
Lockard, Joe, "'Earth Feels the Time of Prophet-Song': John Brown and Public Poetry," 69-87 in Andrew Taylor & Eldrid Herrington [eds.], The Afterlife of John Brown (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
Nudelman, Franny, "'The Blood of Millions,' John Brown's Body, Public Violence and Political Community," American Literary History 13 (Winter 2001) 4: 639-670.
Randall, Annie, "A Censorship of Forgetting: Origins and Origin Myths of 'Battle Hymn of the Republic,'" 5-24 in Randall, Music, Power, and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2005).
Stauffer, John & Zoe Trodd, "Meteor of War: The John Brown Cycle," 121-144 in Taylor & Herrington, The Afterlife of John Brown.
Trodd, Zoe, “Writ in Blood: John Brown’s Charter of Humanity, the Tribunal of History, and the Thick Link of American Political Protest,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 1 (2006) 1: 1-29.