by Ronald W. Kirk
The following poem “Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers” comes from a great volume of poetry for children, The Home Book of Verse for Young People. Thanks to my literary mentor Rosalie Slater of the Foundation for American Christian Education, this book formed the centerpiece of our poetry literature program for the elementary grades at the Master’s School, Camarillo, California. Our first year we began with five students in kindergarten and first grade. One was four years old, and is now my son-in-law and father to my grandchildren! We studied this poem first by way of memorization. We also thoroughly studied its meaning. For big, hard words, we recorded a vocabulary and mastered the text’s meaning. We worked hard for three weeks, but with joy. At Thanksgiving time, we held our first Master’s School Thanksgiving potluck in the home of John and Theresa Ford, where the school met. The children recited “Pilgrim Father’s,” all ten stanzas, for their parents with great gusto, and with no prompting. (By the way, the Master’s School eventually had to rent the Camarillo Community Center Hall to hold the 300 to 400 family members that gathered to celebrate our school Thanksgiving each year.)
For our history section on the Pilgrims. We discussed the imaginary scenario of a mean, tightfisted rich man whose farm prospered, and poor, sickly man who could not care for his crops. Should the neighbors force the rich man to give some of his food to the poor man? Then ensued a lively discussion, often moving toward forcing the mean man, out of a sense of outrage and his meanness and sensitivity to the poor man. The children, in the end, unanimously decided that to take from the rich man was stealing. Furthermore, the rest of the neighbors, more generous and Christianly, could take care of the poor man. And lastly, God would give the mean, rich man his comeuppance in due season. (Yes, there was a bit of leading questioning, but this was truly out of the mouths of babes. I will always remember this moment.)
At the end of the semester, I asked the students to choose their favorite poem from all those we studied, including the merely fun ones for a final recital. Two of five of the children—our first graders—chose to recite the most difficult and demanding, but the most meaningful, of the poems we studied—”Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers”!
The poem is below. I pray you will read it, let your mind’s eye envision it, and enjoy it as well as those little children (now moms and dads). Remember. There is no pause on lines ending without punctuation. Recite it with feeling, perhaps, at your Thanksgiving Day celebration!
LANDING OF THE PILGRIM FATHERS
By Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793-1835)
The breaking waves dashed high
On a stern and rock-bound coast,
And the woods against a stormy sky
Their giant branches tossed;
And the heavy night hung dark,
The hills and waters o’er,
When a band of exiles moored their bark
On the wild New England shore.
Not as the conqueror comes,
They, the true-hearted came;
Not with the roll of the stirring drums,
And the trumpet that sings of fame;
Not as the flying come,
In silence and in fear;
They shook the depths of the desert gloom
With their hymns of lofty cheer.
Amidst the storm they sang,
And the stars heard, and the sea;
And the sounding aisles of the dim woods rang
To the anthem of the free.
The ocean eagle soared
From his nest by the white wave’s foam;
And the rocking pines of the forest roared–
This was their welcome home.
There were men with hoary hair
Amidst the pilgrim band:
Why had they come to wither there,
Away from their childhood’s land?
There was woman’s fearless eye,
Lit by her deep love’s truth;
There was manhood’s brow, serenely high,
And the fiery heart of youth.
What sought they thus afar?
Bright jewels of the mine?
The wealth of seas, the spoils of war?
They sought a faith’s pure shrine!
Ay, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod;
They have left unstained what there they found —
Freedom to worship God.
From Burton Egbert Stevens, The Home Book of Verse for Young Folks (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston: 1976)