Limp Bizkit lyrics. Beeper numbers. TV jingles. Carson Daly’s vital statistics. Such is the stuff that clutters the minds of American boys and girls. It wasn’t always this way.
Once upon a time, students had their heads crammed full with poetry by great old writers — the “Dead White Men” so reviled by today’s multiculturalists. Even in the 1980s when I was a kid, we copied classic poems down in marble composition notebooks and recited them aloud to parents whose parents had memorized the same famous couplets and stanzas when they were young:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree …
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee …
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe …
This is how educators wove the fabric of a common culture that connected generation to generation.
I thought about this sadly pale and fraying fabric as the nation observed Flag Day. On this holiday, many years ago, my classmates and I read the story of Barbara Frietchie. She was immortalized in a John Greenleaf Whittier poem as the fearless old lady who challenged Confederate troops in Frederick, Md., “when Lee marched over the mountain-wall.” (That’s Robert E., kids, not Bruce.)
It was the fall of 1862 and the Battle of Antietam was underway:
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;
In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.
Whittier recounts that when Confederate soldiers fired at her flag, Mrs. Frietchie leaned out her windowsill and defiantly waved the Stars and Stripes:
“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
Yes, it’s ridiculously sentimental. And most historians have cast doubt on the poem’s veracity. But with poetic license and patriotic inspiration, Whittier created a stirring little rhyme that bonded students, soldiers and statesmen alike.
The poem was once standard fare in American classrooms. Children around the world studied and recited it, too. During a visit to Mrs. Frietchie’s home with Franklin Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill wistfully recited the poem from memory. In Carmela Ciuraru’s “First Loves,” a lovely collection of poets’ essays on poems, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former poet laureate of the United States Richard Wilbur recalls reading “Barbara Frietchie” as a child and drawing on it for strength and solace as an infantryman during World War II.
“I carried in my musette bag, at one time or another, Tennyson, Hopkins, Poe,” Wilbur wrote. “I found also that I carried a slew of poems in my memory, and that they spoke out more powerfully now, giving shape and an utterable sense to the world.”
“Barbara Frietchie” and so many other treasured public poems disappeared from the schoolchild’s diet decades ago. The slew of rich rhymes that once filled young minds has been replaced with the literary equivalent of junk food. Go ask your neighborhood teenagers to recite you some verse that carries special meaning for them — that gives shape and utterable sense to their world. What will they draw from their memories? The ballads of the Backstreet Boys? The collected works of Eminem? Maybe a “classic” couplet from the “Thong Song” or the hackery of Jewel?
It’s times like these that call for Eliot (T.S., kids, not Missy). Teach this one to your teens, and pray for their generation’s empty souls:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass …