On Freedom’s Ground
On Freedom’s Ground
Richard Wilbur 1986
Richard Wilbur originally created “On Freedom’s Ground” as the libretto of a cantata, which was specifically written for the yearlong celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. It premiered on October 28, 1986, at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, exactly one hundred years after the day on which the statue was first dedicated. After William Schuman, the composer, was unable to find a poem, which he felt would adequately convey the statue’s importance, he asked Wilbur to create an original work for the occasion. At first, Wilbur was reluctant. In a New York Times article, he explained his hesitation: “Great God! What a wealth of clichés are suggested by this theme. How hard it will be to be the least fresh, the least worthy of the subject.” Eventually, however, he accepted the challenge. The poem was later included in his 1988 Pulitzer Prize–winning volume, New and Collected Poems.
The poem is divided into five separate sections, each covering a different aspect of the struggle for liberty in the United States. The first describes the land before the arrival of the settlers from Europe. The next focuses on the American Revolution and the friendship between the United States and France during this time. The third section begins with the soldier’s sacrifice. It continues, however, by noting how this country has frequently denied that sacrifice when those hard won freedoms were withheld from certain groups. However, the section concludes with hope, stating that the willingness to acknowledge wrongdoing can lead to change. The fourth section celebrates the different immigrants through their music and dance. Finally, Wilbur categorizes the people of the United States as “immigrants still,” bravely voyaging into the future.
Richard Wilbur was born on March 1, 1921, in New York, and spent the first two years of his life in New York City, a period he described as spent on a “fire escape overlooking the Hudson River.” His family then moved to a pre-revolutionary war stone house on a farm in North Caldwell, New Jersey. Although it was not far from the city, Wilbur and his brother were fairly isolated from other children and spent much of their time amusing themselves by exploring the nearby woods and fields as well as the farm itself. Wilbur credits those years with developing his interest in the natural world, an interest that later became central to his poetry.
Wilbur attended Amherst College, where he was chairman (editor) of the student newspaper. While in college, he spent two summers hitching rides in cars and freight trains around the country, eventually visiting forty-six of the forty-eight states. It was also during this period that he first became interested in the serious study of poetry, finding himself drawn to writers such as Robert Frost and Marianne Moore. In 1942 Wilbur graduated from Amherst, married Charlotte Ward, and enlisted in the army. He served as a cryptographer in both Italy and Germany. During the war he began to write poetry as “one way of putting the world to rights a little bit.”
After Wilbur returned home from the war, he entered Harvard on the G.I. Bill. While he was there, he ran into André du Bouchet, a fellow Amherst student who, as poetry editor for Foreground magazine, was looking for “new talent” for the publishing house of Reynal and Hitchcock. After Wilbur’s wife informed du Bouchet about the wartime poems that Wilbur had sent her, du Bouchet asked to read them. In an interview in The Amherst Literary Magazine, the following quote appears in “Richard Wilbur: An Interview” in the book Conversations with Richard Wilbur according to source materials. How does The Amherst Literary Magazine come into play here? Wilbur described du Bouchet’s reaction: “With a marvelous display of Gallic fervor, [he]
wrapped his arms around me, kissed me on both cheeks, and declared me a poet.” Wilbur’s first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, was published in 1947, the same year that he received his master of arts degree. Following the publication of his book, Wilbur spent three years as a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.
Throughout the course of his career, Wilbur produced a wide range of works in addition to poetry. During the 1950s, he began working on translations. The musical Candide, a collaborative work with Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman, opened on Broadway in 1957. The first of Wilbur’s books for children, Loudmouse, was published in 1963. He was active as a critic and editor throughout his career. His talent has been acknowledged with numerous awards through the decades. In 1957, his third volume of poetry, Things of this World, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; in 1988 New and Collected Poems, which includes “On Freedom’s Ground,” earned him a second Pulitzer. In 1987 he was appointed the second Poet Laureate of the United States. Wilbur remains a prolific writer and had two new books—a collection of poems and a children’s book—published in 2000.
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“On Freedom’s Ground: A Cantata” was written for the rededication of the Statue of Liberty. It was commissioned as one segment of a yearlong national celebration. Therefore, the speaker in the poem, which was originally the libretto accompanying the music, uses the plural “we,” assuming the role of the voice of the American people. The first two words of line one, “back then,” serve as the title for the first section of the poem, which describes the land, in particular, the New York Bay harbor, before the European settlers arrived. Wilbur uses alliteration, the repetition of the b in back and before, not only to help establish the rhythm of the poem, but also to highlight meaning, since both words refer to the past. Each of the sections is written in a different style. Part I, which contains fourteen lines, is a variation of the sonnet form. The first two stanzas are six lines each: the first and third, second and fourth, fifth and sixth lines in each rhyme. The final rhyming couplet sums up the poem’s meaning.
Wilbur uses both alliteration and a type of half-rhyme as “calm” is paired with “came” from line one and “bay” reinforces the sounds in “back” and “before.” The line includes a contrast in meaning as well, as the “calm bay” is juxtaposed with the “savage oceanside.”
- A 1985 PBS Home Video, The Statue of Liberty, part of a film series by Ken Burns, uses diaries, news accounts, film clips, and a variety of other sources to tell the story of the statue from construction to the present day.
- Candide, the musical adaptation of Moliere’s play, which combined the talents of Wilbur, Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman, is available in the original 1956 cast recording from Sony and the 1997 Broadway revival from BMG/RCA.
- Richard Wilbur is one of many poets who can be heard reading their own works at http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/poetry/antholog/aaindx.htm (January, 2001); this is an excellent source for an introduction to contemporary poetry.
The Statue of Liberty was built on Bedloe’s Island, originally named for its seventeenth-century owner, Isaac Bedloe. When the sculptor of the statue, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi saw the island, he immediately selected it as the ideal spot for his monument, describing it as “an admirable spot . . . just opposite the Narrows, which are, so to speak, the gateway to America.” In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower officially changed the island’s name to Liberty Island. Wilbur has been criticized because this line, as well as the rest of this section, ignores any mention of the native American names or values.
The speaker uses various images to show that nature itself is not free. The waves become “subjects” or “vassals” of the wind. The latter term, in particular, is used to describe European peasants who were tied to the land as property of a feudal lord. This carries a reminder that the ancestors of the early settlers were not themselves free. Even the wind which directs the waves is “harnessed.” The final line of the stanza concludes that nature has a pattern that it must follow. The use of a regular rhythm throughout the section reinforces the sense of pattern which the stanza presents.
The second stanza begins by reemphasizing the theme that all nature follows a preordained path. The geography of the land determines that the mighty Hudson River flow south to the sea, in the process creating the upper and lower parts of the New York Bay.
Wilbur introduces two of nature’s springtime rituals here. The “peeper” refers to tree frogs of the northeastern United States. They are often called spring peepers since their shrill calls announce the spring. Shad are Atlantic Coast saltwater fish, which, like the salmon, swim up the rivers to lay eggs. The shad-run refers to this annual springtime journey to spawn.
Traditionally, birds are portrayed as free creatures in song, poetry, and cliché. However, the image in this stanza pictures them trapped by their need for food. Again, Wilbur selects a term of human bondage, one that resonates with a powerful emotional connotation in the United States. The word “slaves” also foreshadows the third section of the poem, which lists freedom’s failures.
The final couplet proclaims that freedom is not one of nature’s guarantees. Instead, it has risen out of humankind’s idealism and desire.
Part II, titled “Our “Risen States,” is written in quatrains, stanzas of four lines each, where the first and fourth and the second and third lines rhyme. The first stanza introduces one of the political theories underlying the colonists’ rebellion against England: the right of the governed to have a voice in the government. The speaker describes this as “an English thought.” While the rights and duties of the individual were often debated in Greek philosophy and the Romans developed a political system with voting powers for free men, the idea of modern governmental rights is often traced to King John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. He was forced to guarantee specific liberties, including several which listed that the governed had to consent to be taxed and to do military service. These rights applied only to the nobility at first; later they were extended to the majority of men. In 1689 England adopted a Bill of Rights, which served as a model for the rights built into colonial governments. When George III violated these, the revolutionary war began.
The army established by the Second Continental Congress to battle the British troops was known as the Continental army. One of its first great victories was at Saratoga. This demonstrated to the world that the revolution could succeed, and convinced the French government to openly supply aid to Washington’s army. Valley Forge is another symbolic war site. It was the location of Washington’s camp, several miles outside of Philadelphia. Because of the brutal conditions during the winter of 1777–1778, thousands died. It became a symbol of the perseverance and heroism of the troops.
The Battle of Yorktown ended the British hopes of retaining the colonies. This stanza pays tribute to the contributions of the French troops and leaders to that victory.
This stanza, containing the title for the second part, firmly connects the spirit of liberty in the two countries by noting that the French people, “heartened” by the defeat of the mighty British army, rose up and overthrew the government of Louis XVII in 1789. The words “prison doors” refer to the storming of the Bastille, a prison in Paris that frequently held political prisoners, on July 14, 1789. Today, July 14 is a national holiday throughout France, that nation’s independence day.
The final stanza again provides a conclusion to the section as the speaker declares that the two countries present a united front in proclaiming to the world their love of liberty. To emphasize the unity, the word is repeated in French: “liberté.” This spirit inspired Bartholdi to create the Statue of Liberty as a permanent monument to the friendship between the two nations.
Part III, the longest section in the poem, is the most complex, both in style and subject matter. Wilbur uses blank verse, which has meter but no established rhyme scheme at the end of the line. It is divided into three sections: a commemoration of the soldiers who died fighting for freedom, a mournful apology for the nation’s denial of freedom to some, and a pledge for the future. Each of the three begins with a stressed verb in the command form highlighting the dominant emotion.
Line 35 requests that the reader or listener mourn for the dead soldiers. The following three lines envision possible circumstances of death during battle. Note that while the subject is clearly the dead of the American Revolution, the descriptions vividly evoke pictures of World War I with the horrors of trench warfare, and the Normandy beachheads and Pacific naval battles of World War II.
These lines ponder the last memories of the dead. The use of repetition, rhyme, and alliteration helps to reinforce the mournful tone. While line 39 asks its question simply and directly, line 40 creates additional poignancy with its echo of the previous phrase. “Think of before” is rhymed with “the blink of time before,” hinting at the fragility of life; the repetition of “before they forgot us” tells of the permanence of death.
Wilbur makes very effective use of the list here, speculating on possible memories of the dying men. The final two words in line 45 note, however, that this is all only speculation. The quiet drama is reinforced by Wilbur’s verse technique. The lines are very similar in their structure, each beginning with “the” so that the emphasis on the line falls on the second word These words— “drone,” “bend,” “sound”—repeat the n and d, while “mouth” from line 45 is matched with “sound” in an example of assonance.
The speaker points out that what these men had in common is the fact that they died in the pursuit of freedom. They have many different backgrounds, occupations, dreams. Since they died asserting that human beings have the right to choose the circumstances of their own lives, no speaker should assume the right to assign final thoughts to their last moments.
What is ultimately important is that both their lives and deaths created a future for the United States and its citizens.
The second segment of Part III opens with the verb “grieve.” The speaker then accuses the country of making the deaths of these men worthless by failing to honor the freedoms for which they sacrificed everything.
Wilbur again uses a list, this time cataloguing a series of injustices: to native Americans, to slaves, to immigrants, to workers, to women. Following this sad roster, the speaker poses the question, “What can we salvage?”
These two lines provide a partial answer. The nation must admit its sins, not hide them. The speaker emphasizes the honor and potential for healing that becomes possible when the truth is told.
These lines open the third section of Part III, where “praise” is the dominant verb. The speaker continues his answer to the question in line 57 as he notes that considerable change has occurred in the United States. The laws that oppressed or neglected the rights of some in the past have been acknowledged and at least in part changed. Freedom has been extended so the society more closely reflects the ideal.
The building of the statue is used as a metaphor to describe the merging of immigrants from many lands into one nation. The details of the construction—brought here in many pieces, welded together—also refer to the people of the land. The iron core further develops the metaphor, emphasizing a solid underpinning of values, while the torch emphasizes the nation’s role as a beacon of hope and freedom.
These lines specifically refer to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. The reference to the nation’s “most oppressed” includes both the inhumanity of slavery and the subsequent denial of full citizenship to African Americans in the many years that followed slavery’s eradication. Wilbur, speaking of the longing of both present and past generations for freedom and tolerance, incorporates King’s voice into the poem. Line 73 concludes with the famous line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “free at last.”
Unlike the rest of Part III, these lines are rhymed; they are also set apart. The first two continue Reverend King’s speech; the final two again celebrate the union of France and the United States. This time, however, all citizens wear the “common crown.”
With its emphasis on dance, this section celebrates the different types of folksong and popular music in the United States. It is composed in four quatrains. As in many folksongs, the second and fourth lines rhyme. The final line in the first three stanzas provides a type of refrain, each six syllables long, beginning with “whatever.” This is characteristic of folksong and therefore rhythmically apt for this tribute to folk music.
Wilbur lists dances representing different cultures and nationalities in these stanzas. He concludes his roster with an American dance, named for a revolutionary war naval hero. The dance symbolizes the nation’s unity since it is a circle dance where all participants join hands.
Line 78 uses the words “our lady” to describe the Statue of Liberty, providing a religious connotation to the celebrations.
Part V is divided into two sections. The first uses the same rhyme scheme as Part II, but the length of the lines and the meter varies. It begins by connecting the present with the past. The bay and tides still exist, but are now surrounded by buildings and graced by the statue. Once again, “our lady” is used to convey the redemptive quality of the statue who promises freedom to the immigrants who pass under her protection.
In the first section of the poem, the speaker emphasized that the river and birds were “slaves” to the laws of nature. Now his perception has been altered so that they seem “ransomed.” Even nature has become a part of the celebration of freedom. Wilbur uses personification to illustrate this as the birds weave a crown for Lady Liberty. In a simile, the waves are compared to the hearts of immigrants who have come seeking her blessing. The continual use of “our lady” stresses that these immigrants have found a type of salvation.
The last five lines shift the poem’s mood from celebration to reflection. Lines 110 and 111 warn that there are still injustices that must be corrected. The title of the section, which is taken from line 112, presents a metaphor for the United States and its citizens. It is more than a country of immigrants who have reached a final destination after a journey across land or seas. Collectively, the country is embarked on a journey through time, still seeking a land where everyone will be truly free. The final two lines hold out the promise that this dream is attainable; the journey can have a wondrous conclusion, but only if the country remains true to its dreams.
One of Wilbur’s main themes, named specifically in the poem’s title, is the idea of the United States as a home for freedom. However, as an abstract concept, freedom is open to a multiplicity of interpretations. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, it is a general term meaning an absence of restraint. The dictionary goes on to say that it is frequently equated with liberty, a word that refers to those rights defined and guaranteed by law. In addition, freedom is associated with political independence, with freedom from oppression, with the guarantee of civil rights. During the course of the poem, Wilbur includes most of these aspects in the poem’s overall representation of freedom.
In the final couplet of the first section, the speaker directs the reader to speculate about the origin and meaning of this word. Interestingly, in this section Wilbur creates a partial definition of freedom by developing a vivid portrayal of its absence. He describes nature, both animate and inanimate, as ruled by a firm set of immutable laws. Only a cataclysmic event, such as an earthquake, can alter the course of a river. Even then, the river will simply follow a new set of laws. The shad always return to the same river to spawn each year. The laws of nature are far less variable than the laws of man.
Wilbur begins the second section of the poem with an initial definition of freedom, equating it with liberty. The speaker describes freedom as a thought, one that the colonists inherited from England. When the barons rebelled in 1215, demanding that King John grant them certain freedoms and forcing him to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede, the seed of English freedom was created. That seed was later nurtured when England adopted a Bill of Rights for its citizens. One of these basic rights demanded that a just government can only rule with the consent of the governed. When this guarantee was denied to the colonists, George Washington and the Continental army challenged the might of the British Empire.
The third section of the poem expands the definition of freedom by illuminating its role in the lives of individuals throughout the history of the United States. Wilbur personalizes the soldiers’ dreams in his speculations about their final thoughts. The variety of these dreams symbolizes freedom: the right to choose, the right to be different, the right to challenge the forces of nature. Human lives need not be determined by external forces, whether it be the laws of nature or the restrictions of an unjust government. An individual may fight and die for freedom. Unlike the shad who are compelled to return to the same spot, humans can cross the ocean to seek a new life “On Freedom’s Ground.” Wilbur concludes this section with a line from another dreamer who was seeking the meaning of American freedom. The closing line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful “I Have a Dream” speech adds the voices of those who had long been denied freedom towards the praise of liberty. The final two sections stress the role of the immigrant in this country, those who arrived looking for a new and better life, one centered around freedom.
The Betrayal of Freedom
One of the most powerful themes of the poem is expressed in Part III where Wilbur encourages the reader to examine freedom by witnessing examples of its betrayal, not by individuals, but by governments and their representatives. For many years, both in England and the United States, the contract between the authorities who governed the land and the individuals who inhabited that land was not extended to everyone. The speaker lists those excluded groups, reminding the reader of the nation’s sins, sins that both betray liberty and mock those who fought for it. While this section is brief, the details are clear. The tribes were robbed of their land and the treaties made with them repeatedly broken. Women were denied the vote until 1920. Wilbur describes the sale of slaves as “the image of God on the auction block,” a phrase that draws attention to both the immorality of slavery and the irony of a country presumably founded by those who sought freedom collaborating in the sale of human beings.
Topics for Further Study
- Find out who else, in addition to Richard Wilbur, has been Poet Laureate of the United States. Write a report on one of these other poets.
- The Internet has many resources on the people who have traveled through Ellis Island. Choose one particular group of immigrants and report on its immigration patterns.
- Select a monument or geographical feature that you feel symbolizes the United States. Explain your reasons in a poem, a song, or an essay.
- Wilbur quotes the phrase “free at last” from a speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave during the 1963 March on Washington. There has been a long tradition of protest marches to the nation’s capital. Investigate this practice.
The Redemptive Quality of Liberty
Part IV, “Come Dance,” opens with the line, “Now in our lady’s honor.” While the lady under discussion is, of course, the Statue of Liberty, Wilbur uses a phrase that holds a religious connotation for many readers, since several Christian denominations refer to Jesus’ mother, Mary, as “our lady.” The same phrase reappears in the final section of the poem. Lines 106 and 107 describe the seagulls “weaving . . . wreaths . . . about our lady’s brow.” This image reinforces the religious connotation since traditional religious pictures frequently show Mary wearing such a garland. Thus, in the final sections of the poem, the secular statue assumes a spiritual aspect. Liberty becomes a blessed commodity, and the statue repesents a type of salvation for those who seek her protection.
A major factor that influenced Wilbur’s form and structure in “On Freedom’s Ground” is the fact that it is the libretto for a cantata. Like a symphony, a cantata is divided into sections, each of which has a different mood and a different tempo or rhythm. Schuman, the composer, and Wilbur, the lyricist, collaborated fully on the joint endeavor from its inception. Thus, since the music of the first part is dramatic and stately, Wilbur chose the sonnet, an elegant poetic form with a regular rhythm, to match the composer’s tone. The theme, too, of nature following its inexorable pattern over the years is deliberate and measured like the music. The style and subject of the second section is again fitted to the music, a march. The meter in the section is iambic, having a strong beat where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one. This meter seems to imitate the beat of a drummer. Each first and third line contains six syllables, while the second and fourth contain eight. In the third, musically slower segment, Wilbur adapts the four-stress pattern of the Anglo-Saxon dirge. Blank verse is often thought to add a dignified tone to a work, a tone that fits this somber section. Schuman’s music in Part IV utilizes themes from traditional dances in America, and Wilbur’s words follow suit. The last section provides a dramatic conclusion in words and music.
Since the earliest stages of his career, Wilbur has had a reputation as a writer of carefully structured and intricately rhymed poetry. Many examples are present in “On Freedom’s Ground.” Wilbur uses alliteration to build his rhythm throughout the work, from “bay” and “back” in the first two lines to “bound,” “beckons,” “where,” “we,” “wind,” and “with” in the last two lines. Several lines employ a variety of types of internal rhyme. Notice how most of the words in line 49 are, in some way, connected. “Say” and “they” rhyme. “That” and the first syllable in “mattered” reinforce each other. “Alive” and “after,” “that” and “they” use alliteration. In addition, Wilbur uses elaborate imagery to build complex comparisons, such as the one between the building of the Statue of Liberty and the building of the country.
The Statue of Liberty is an amazing tribute designed to celebrate the friendship between two nations, France and the United States. It commemorates the influence that each country had on the other’s search for basic freedoms. Without the financial, military, and naval support of the French nation, the thirteen British colonies would have had little chance of winning their independence from England. Ironically for the French monarchy, the successful rebellion in the United States paved the way for the French Revolution.
This relationship between the two countries had many of its roots in the troubled association between France and England. This began as early as 1066 when William, the Duke of Normandy, which is a province in the north of France today, invaded England. The next major source of conflict came during the twelfth century, when England’s Henry II, thanks to his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, assumed control of a large section of land in western France, which ran from the northern coast to the Pyrenees. In fact, he actually controlled more of present-day French territory than the French king. The subsequent series of battles over this disputed territory became known as the Hundred Years War. Although the English dominated the struggles at first, eventually the French forces rallied under the leadership of Joan of Arc and drove the English from French soil, with the exception of a small area around Calais.
The growth of powerful nation states in Europe during the Renaissance also helped to inflame national hostilities as the two states challenged each other. Throughout English history, challengers to the throne frequently launched their rebellions from French soil, often receiving both money and assistance from the French king.
As exploration and colonization developed in North America, the two nations entered a new area of conflict. Britain had established colonies along the coastal areas of the present-day United States, while French explorers and voyageurs had ventured across the territory that is now eastern Canada, eventually traveling through the Great Lakes down the Mississippi. Once again, France and England became involved in a conflict over territory in the first war with battlefields set on two widely separate continents. Eventually France was defeated on both fronts. As a result of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, they were forced to turn over all of their lands in Canada and east of the Mississippi to Britain.
The French were understandably bitter about their defeats. This helped them to sympathize with the colonists’ challenge to the authority of George III. They contributed troops and financial support to the fledgling country. The two soldiers whom Wilbur mentions, the Marquis de Lafayette and Count Jean Baptiste Rochambeau, were instrumental in the defeat of the British at Yorktown. Rochambeau led a troop of six thousand soldiers
Compare & Contrast
- 1986: The United States approves the first tests of genetically altered food.
Today: Many genetically altered foods are currently available in supermarkets throughout the United States; consumer advocates are upset, however, because no labeling is required to inform consumers if foods have been altered.
1986: Chinese students begin demonstrating for democratic freedoms.
- 1989: In massive demonstrations in China’s Tiananmen Square, students bring in a thirty-three-foot styrofoam replica of the Statue of Liberty, which is later crushed by government tanks.
Today: In the United States Senate and House of Representatives, debate over Chinese-American trade relations introduces the Chinese government’s attacks on democracy.
sent by King Louis XVII to help Washington. After the surrender of General Cornwallis and his troops, the revolution was effectively won. A few years later, the French overthrew their monarchy.
Because of this mutual support, many Frenchmen felt a proud kinship with the United States. The inspiration for the Statue of Liberty grew out of this emotion. At a dinner party in France in 1865, Edouard Lefebvre de Laboulaye, a leader of the French Republican forces, called France and the United States “two sisters,” wishing that some sort of monument could be devised to commemorate their friendship permanently. This idea fascinated Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, a young sculptor in the group, who dreamed of creating such a tribute. Although Bartholdi became involved with other projects and served as an officer in the Franco-Prussian War, neither he nor Laboulaye forgot this idea. After six years the two dreamers decided that Bartholdi should sail to America to see if there would be any interest in such a project. As soon as he arrived in New York harbor, Bartholdi was convinced that Bedloe’s Island would be the ideal location. He met with politicians as well as private citizens, showing them sketches and a miniature model of his statue. Although Bartholdi’s plans received much enthusiastic comment, there were no promises of financial support from any source. In order to raise money, a Franco-American Union was formed in 1874, and an agreement was reached wherein the United States would erect the pedestal, while France would build the statue itself. Fund-raising in France was successful, and by the spring of 1885, the statue was ready for transportation to the United States. Unfortunately, little had been done in the United States. Politicians were reluctant to commit government funds to the project. Finally, Joseph Pulitzer, a newspaper editor, began a campaign to raise money from the working individual. His campaign was successful, and on October 28, 1886, the statue was unveiled.
The day was declared a holiday in New York City. French flags lined the streets. A parade of twenty thousand marched in celebration of liberty. When it passed down Wall Street, where the workers had not been allowed to take the day off, office boys leaned out the windows, spiraling down the ticker tape from the stock machines in order to participate in the occasion—and the famous New York City ticker-tape parade was born. Ships of all kinds crowded New York harbor. At a prearranged signal, Bartholdi, who was alone in the statue’s head, dropped the French tri-color veil that covered the statue.
In the years that followed, the statue was hailed as a symbol of America and of freedom. In 1903, Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” which welcomed immigrants to this country, was attached to the base. During World War I, Lady Liberty and her torch were used in fund-raising efforts to sell war bonds. Years later, as her hundredth anniversary approached, it became obvious that some repairs were needed. In 1981 another international alliance, the French-American Committee for the Restoration of the Statue of Liberty, was formed. Lee Iacocca chaired a committee specifically formed to raise funds for the statue’s restoration in preparation for its centennial. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan rededicated the restored statue as 1.5 billion people around the world watched.
“On Freedom’s Ground,” like much of Wilbur’s work, has received mixed reviews fom the critical establishment. Throughout his career, he has received widespread praise for his technical skill and wordplay. In a review of Wilbur’s second book of poetry, however, Randall Jarrell accused him of complacency, of being a bit too satisfied with his elegance, poetic wit, and charm. That criticism has regularly been applied to Wilbur’s work since. In his review of New and Collected Poems, William Logan sums up that critical perspective: “The complaints against his work are a litany of old virtue: its sweetness, and its polish, and its cordiality, and its complacence—you’d think he were a peaceable kingdom all to himself, a lamb that has devoured all the lions in sight.”
Logan goes on to add that many of Wilbur’s poems give ammunition to these critics. He feels that in many ways “On Freedom’s Ground” is such a poem. Logan particularly finds fault with Part IV, saying that it is an example of the “trivialization” of Wilbur’s poetic instincts. Another poet and reviewer, Sam Hazo, echoes Logan’s criticism. He, too, feels that Part IV is rather obvious, describing it as verse rather than poetry.
Other critics, however, believe that Wilbur has succeeded admirably with difficult material. Anthony Hecht, in “Master of Metaphor,” finds that Wilbur has been very skillful in allowing both readers and listeners to follow his argument while avoiding being too sentimental or unquestioningly patriotic. Rodney Edgecombe, in one of the most detailed analyses of the poem, praises Wilbur’s understanding of the special characteristics necessary for poetry to be composed for musical accompaniment. In a section-by-section critique, he points out Wilbur’s homage to other poets. On the whole, Edgecombe finds the poem “remarkable for its justice and humanity,” with the failure to acknowledge the aboriginal inhabitants of the country as its only false note.
Bruce Michelson also provides a detailed, positive analysis. He notes the echoes of Robert Frost’s style and language in the first part of the poem. Stressing the simple, musical quality of Part II, he compares it to a “revised Concord Hymn,” noting, however, that the “rhetorical engines intermittently race and drop to an idle.” Like many critics, he most admires the third section, where the elegiac overtones contain some of Wilbur’s best use of the four-stress alliterative lines from Old English poetry. He does, however, criticize both the poem’s conclusion and its ultimate predictability of subject.
Mahony is an English instructor at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Michigan. In the following essay, she discusses the effect that its role as a public performance had on the critical reception of “On Freedom’s Ground.”
Richard Wilbur has often been accused of complacency. In his review of Wilbur’s second book, Ceremony and Other Poems, the poet Randall Jarrell complained, “I don’t blame his readers if they say to him in encouragingly impatient voices: ‘Come on, take a chance!’” However, Wilbur has taken chances throughout his career by remaining faithful to his own poetic vision. His elegantly rhymed and carefully metrical poems have been both highly regarded and slantingly dismissed as throwbacks to the past. His optimistic stance has sometimes been deemed inappropriate for a world rife with confusion. Yet Wilbur has never pandered to popular or professorial criticism. Such decisions seem the opposite of complacency. “On Freedom’s Ground” provides an example of Wilbur’s poetic daring.
When Wilbur agreed to accept the task of composing a libretto for the rededication of the Statue of Liberty, he was aware of the snares that lay in wait. First of all, the subject matter was, to a certain extent, predetermined. There was also the danger of falling into triteness or cliché. In his article “Master of Metaphor,” Anthony Hecht sums up these hazards: “The task was rife with potential pitfalls. There were the twin perils of jingoism and chauvinistic sentimentality on the one hand, and the symmetrical or compensatory danger of leaning over backward to avoid anything that looked suspiciously like affirmation.”
Another element that was bound to figure in the poem’s reception was its unique origin as part of a national celebration to honor the Statue of Liberty. Some of the negative response to the poem has, in part, evolved out of that origin. In the last half of the twentieth century, patriotism and poetry have been uneasy allies, and many critics have greeted such alliances with mistrust. In fact, the poetry of protest has been far more fashionable than poetry in praise of country. In the aftermath of the civil rights struggle, Vietnam, Watergate, and the self-absorbed materialism of the 1980s, it has been easier to attack than affirm a national identity.
In addition, there was the factor that however moving and restrained “On Freedom’s Ground” proved, it was at least initially attached to a series of television spectaculars, many of which seemed to pander to some of the least sophisticated elements of the national psyche. In Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, Bruce Michelson notes that the cantata was “part of the big show in New York, the multimillion-dollar Reagan–Iacocca–Sinatra main event, which would brim with Las Vegas glitz and corporate vulgarity.” Many of the events surrounding the occasion celebrated overwhelming ostentation. On Liberty weekend, television networks broadcast the national extravaganza. There were thousands of musicians and tap dancers. Quantities of costumed ethnic dancers representing the immigrants Wilbur graciously portrayed spiraled their way along in elaborate celebration. In one of the more unique features of the event, over a hundred Elvises serenaded freedom and the cameras in all their rhinestone-studded glory.
While such elements are tangential to the text and theme of the poem, they nonetheless have exerted some influence on its critical reaction. And since the poem was composed for a public performance honoring a national icon, it has received a level of scrutiny not always attached to a single poem in a collection. The fact that Wilbur chose to present the work as the complete libretto in New and Collected Poems rather than as a series of separate poems, which he had considered, once again demonstrates his willingness to take chances.
Finally, the fact that the poem’s speaker adopts a role as the voice of the people of the United States has also raised certain critical eyebrows. Some critics have used the poem as a forum to question the wisdom of a poet, or any individual, acting as a voice of the nation. William Logan maintains that “On Freedom’s Ground” “reminds us how poets suffer when they speak not for themselves but for
“In the last half of the twentieth century, patriotism and poetry have been uneasy allies, and many critics have greeted such alliances with mistrust. In fact, the poetry of protest has been far more fashionable than poetry in praise of country.”
a country. Taste is the enemy of patriotic sentiment—we would not have to appoint a poet laureate otherwise.” In a humorous review of Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems, Hugh Kenner questions the wisdom of even having a poet laureate, a role he calls “Poet Laureatcy,” a pun perhaps on poet lunacy. (Although Wilbur was not laureate when he composed “On Freedom’s Ground,” he was appointed to the role one year later.) Kenner describes the thankless role as a “grim task,” noting that the English Poet Laureate Ted Hughes had been driven to compose fifteen stanzas celebrating the marriage of Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson. Although he finds “On Freedom’s Ground” less unsettling than Hughes’s wedding commemorative, Kenner is wryly skeptical of the entire concept; his initial criticism is not of Wilbur’s writing, but of the task he has accepted. “Wilbur confronting august Ms. Liberty was as little himself as Hughes rapt by broad-beamed Fergie.” His review ends by stating that Wilbur will not disgrace the role (although Kenner implies that the role is enough of a disgrace in itself), and condescendingly adding that Wilbur is “just the man to be taking decorous notice” of whoever occupies the White House. While criticisms like these specifically center around Wilbur’s role as a public poet, they reiterate the long established criticism that has labeled him too hopeful, too agreeable, too quick to reject the idea that despair is the natural voice of the poet.
Because this type of critical reaction may be expected, few poets have taken part in national public events since Robert Frost read “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of John Fitzgerald
What Do I Read Next?
- Wilbur’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, New and Collected Poems, gathers together some of the best poems from each of his books.
- Simone Davis’s “Checking in the Mirror: Liberty Weekend’s Patriotic Spectacle,” from the Summer 1996 Journal of American Culture, provides a revealing and entertaining description of the extravaganza surrounding the rededication of the Statue of Liberty.
- Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” which is often compared to “On Freedom’s Ground,” may be found in his 1962 collection, In the Clearing.
- The Fall 1992–Winter 1993 issue of the journal Renascence is devoted to the poetry of Richard Wilbur.
- Wilbur’s prizewinning translations of The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, The School for Wives, and The Learned Ladies, published in 1982 under the title Moliere: Four Comedies, have been credited with introducing new readers and audiences to the wit and irony of French comedy.
- Days of the French Revolution (1999) by Christopher Hibbert provides an interesting narrative account of the French people’s quest for liberty.
- The Ellis Island–Statue of Liberty Foundation has published a guidebook, Ellis Island and the Peopling of America, which introduces the immigrant experience through personal histories, interviews, census reports, maps, and photographs.
Kennedy. Wilbur was aware of the difficulties that he faced. However, he was willing to undertake the challenge. Wilbur himself is content with his view of the world. He once described himself as a “poet-citizen rather than an alienated artist.” In comparing American and Soviet poetry, he pointed out that a kind of political awareness permeates the Soviet experience, and thus is integrated into its art. He adds that American poetry has for the most part focused on “private experience” such as love, nature, sex, religion. Wilbur distinguishes between poetry with a nationalistic view and poetry whose sole purpose is propaganda. “Poetry does best by politics when it acknowledges complexity, tells the whole truth, and authenticates the political by treating it not in isolation but in conjunction with all else that the poet knows of life.” These goals are clear in “On Freedom’s Ground.”
The view of freedom that Wilbur presents is not simplistic. As the poem develops, it becomes clear that liberty is defined by both individuals and governments. The variety of subject and tone in each of the five sections presents this fact in all its complexity. Each section reveals a slightly different aspect. One is a government that establishes a Constitution and Bill of Rights to guarantee freedom to its citizens. A second is the role of the soldier fighting for a fledging nation. Another perspective comes from the immigrant who has journeyed across distances in pursuit of this freedom. Still another voice insists that the faults of the country be revealed so that they can be changed. A final view pulls all these disparate elements together, on a journey to a future where the full potential of freedom may be found. Wilbur combines the reality of the nation’s flaws with the expression of hope for a brighter future.
Wilbur’s presentation of history for this public occasion, indeed, allows the reader or listener to experience many of the complexities of American history and the American landscape. The beauty of his imagery in the first and fifth sections allows the reader to reevaluate the richness of the land, with its changes over the centuries. The introduction of the role that France has played in United States history serves as a reminder that the French people were inspired to emulate the ideals on which the nation was established. Part III of the poem, in particular, creates a haunting view of the cost and failure of freedom. However, in spite of these virtues, the poem is, at times, uneven, constrained by the circumstances of its creation. It is hard not to agree with Bruce Michelson’s evaluation. After noting the positive qualities of the poem, he concluded that “as an official, commemorative work on the Lincoln Center scale, this cantata must telegraph its gestures, must pretty much do what one expects it to do, and in the prescribed order. We open with an Aaron Copeland wilderness, fight the Revolution, mourn the dead and mourn our forgetting, discover or contrive excuses to dance and be happy, celebrate ethnic diversity, and ultimately declare that the American adventure is still begin-ning—a computer programmed to generate Fourth of July speeches might work in the same pathways.” However, given the constraints under which Wilbur labored, it is a noble effort.
Source: Mary Mahony, Critical Essay on “On Freedom’s Ground,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Mowery has written many analytical essays for the Gale Group. In the following essay, he examines the celebratory aspects of Wilbur’s poem “On Freedom’s Ground.”
Poetry serves several functions depending on the intent of the author. Sometimes poems are meant to inform, sometimes amuse, sometimes puzzle the reader. Sometimes poems are meant to be statements of national pride or to galvanize support for a political figure or a war, or sometimes they address a domestic crisis. “On Freedom’s Ground” by Richard Wilbur, which is included in his collection of works, New and Collected Poems (1988), is a poem that celebrates the political history of the United States in conjunction with the one-hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. What makes this poem even more special is the collaboration with the American composer William Schuman, who set these lines to music as a five-part cantata for baritone soloist, chorus, and orchestra.
Rodney Edgecombe remarks that not all poets who write lyrics to be set to music “have a proper grasp of music and the demands it places on the word.” The eighteenth-century English poet and writer William Shenstone once remarked that “a certain flimsiness of poetry” is necessary to allow the music to carry some of the meaning of the piece. Wilbur approached his task paying careful attention to the needs of the composer’s melodies, but he has not sacrificed the quality of his poetry. His results are a beautiful set of poems that are equally beautiful as texts for Schuman’s cantata.
This work consists of five shorter poems, varying in form and style, each of which celebrates a different facet of the history of life in the United States. Part I, in a sonnet form, begins before there were any European settlers in North America; Part II, using tight rhythmic quatrains of alternately three and four feet per line, concerns the revolutionary war; Part III, the most rhapsodic section, discusses personal sacrifices made over the centuries; Part IV, in dance-like quatrains where the first and third lines use the feminine ending, is a celebration of folk ways; and Part V, employing
“His recognition of the merits of the United States and of its flaws keeps this work in tune with the kind of country it is: one that continually strives to be better than it has been so all its people may ‘wear the common crown of liberté.’”
rhapsodic quatrains, returns to the opening notion that there is an America to be settled and the people to do it will be immigrants.
Each of these five parts may stand alone as an individual poem, with its own set of images and symbols. The first, since it concentrates on the ancient history of the country, uses images of raw nature in action. The accumulation of these images shows symbolically the manner in which the new nation will be formed. It was out of an unruly and sometimes savage past that the United States was established. In this part Wilbur hints at some of the unsavory aspects in U.S. history. The sea birds are “slaves” of their own hunger, and the waves are “vassals” and “subjects” of the wind and tide. These hint at the history of servitude in early colonial days and the slaves of plantation owners in the early days of the nation. The image of the river that “had no choice” but to run its course is symbolic of the progress toward freedom for the people that also “had no choice.” In its timeless journey through the landscape, the river carved out “this basin” just as the United States in time will carve out its role in nurturing freedom for all people (a notion that is more fully presented in Part II).
These forces were the result of choiceless urges and motivations. There were the natural cycles of the seasons with their associated life and death struggles. The cycles were buoyed by the hopefulness of “every springtime” that “tuned the peeper’s voice,” the new song of a returning bird announcing the potential of a new year, symbolic representations of the new nation coming to terms with its role in the world of the nineteenth century.
The first part closes with a rhetorical question that moves it into Part II: “Where was the thought of freedom then?” Wilbur answers that it originated “within the minds of men” who were coming ashore from Europe.
There is an important, and unfortunate, omission in this pre-history of North America: the Native Americans who lived here for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. Wilbur seems to be saying that these peoples had no concept of freedom nor an ability to name islands. Edgecombe notes that Wilbur’s claim that “the thought of liberty” came ashore with the Europeans is a “false note” in an otherwise remarkable poem. The Native American tribes only get a brief mention in Part III, as “the tribes [were] pushed west and the treaties broken.” These events were sanctioned by the policy of Manifest Destiny, which stated that the European-Americans had the right to displace the so-called savages from their ancestral lands.
“Our Risen States,” the title of the second poem in this cantata, is a celebration of the political conflicts that controlled the history of the last half of the eighteenth century, especially the American Revolution. This second section says that everything derived from “an English thought,” which is the Magna Carta, the first document to outline personal freedom for all people. Wilbur notes that the colonists took that English thought and used it against them as the political basis for the American Revolution. These new awakenings in North America were then adopted by the French in their revolution several years later.
In this poem, Wilbur uses several well-known names and places to hint at the American revolutionary war. This process of synecdoche, a literary technique where a part represents the whole, is a clever usage because it allows the poet to cover a great deal of historical ground, sometimes in a single word. For example, the words “Valley Forge” capture the images of harsh weather conditions, an almost hopeless military situation, the resolute nature of the Colonial army and the indefatigable and hardy soldiers.
The last word of Part II, the French word liberté, suggests the participation of the French in the struggle against the British. It symbolically ties the names of the French generals together with the important American names. It also reassociates the American Revolution with the beginnings of the French Revolution.
The third poem in this cantata, “Like a Great Statue,” is the most somber of them all. In this three-sectioned poem Wilbur celebrates and reflects on the nature of sacrifices made in the name of the country. What is better still, “Say that they mattered, alive and after.” He wonders in a litany of disparate images what these men might have thought important in their final moments of life.
The second section opens with confessions of “the ways in which we betrayed them,” who lay in their graves. In the name of Country, those of European stock mistreated the Native Americans, who were victims rather than participants in shaping the emerging society, the slave “on the auction block,” who was denied freedom, and “liberty’s daughters,” who were disenfranchised because of sex. At the end of the second section of Part III Wilbur ruminates on the notion that such Americans can “be proud at least that we know we were wrong.” At first this may seem like an excuse for past excesses. But it goes on to say, in the next section, that such Americans have the power to change the bad behavior into more appropriate behavior. Wilbur says Americans have the opportunity to become “what we said we were going to be” and to allow everyone to “live a life that could be chosen.” The poet says that it is important that all people have the opportunity to speak freely and to choose whatever life they want.
At the close of this part, Wilbur solidifies the ever-present urges of all people to rise up from oppression when he reminds the reader that it is the “invincible hope to be free at last” that drives each person towards freedom. It ends with a reference to the well-known “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King Jr.
The most important image in this part of the cantata is the construction of the statue itself. This is a symbolic representation of the construction of the country, as each new plate of “hammered copper” is put into place. Similarly, the fabric of the United States is molded by the collective hammering of new immigrants bringing new ideas. The anchor rods and the “core of iron” represent the foundations of the government, its constitution and laws. The many peoples who make up the country “more and more have been shaped into one” through the tempering processes of wars, forming and reforming laws, and by joining together as in the dances of Part IV.
Part IV, “Come Dance,” is the liveliest part of the cantata. It is a delightful four-stanza poem that uses a dance-like rhythmic pattern and an abcb rhyme scheme. Even in a non-musical reading, it lilts with the rhythms of the dances mentioned within. Each of these dances represents a different ethnic group and symbolizes the diversity of the people of the United States, the polka from Germany, the tarantella from Italy, the Highland fling from Scotland, the Lindy hop from the United States.
The symbolism of the last stanza encourages all to “take the other’s hand” and in a harmonious coming together create the nation in the manner of a dance. The image of the circle comes from the last dance, the John Paul Jones, a type of dance that involves concentric circles. All of the folk dances mentioned are those for multiple participants, often eight or more, requiring all members of the dance to work together and to contribute to the dance to make a single event out of many people’s efforts. In these dances, the more cooperative each participant becomes, the more freely the dance is performed. Ironically then, out of a highly organized dance comes freedom.
The last part takes the reader (or the listener at a musical performance) into the present (1986), and it asks everyone to celebrate their present condition as “Immigrants Still.” Wilbur looks at the river again and sees the birds, still flying “ransomed” and “free,” but now over barges and ships.
The cantata ends with a hopeful observation that if Americans as a country hold their course steady, the wind will be with them. Then they will succeed in meeting the promise of their beginnings. From the rough beginnings of the unpopulated continent to the highly mechanized society of the modern world, Wilbur says that Americans can be proud of their progress. They have made errors in the past but with vigilance they are capable of rectifying those errors and living in the future without making similar ones.
The image of the statue girdled by the free-flying gulls combines the two concepts of the natural world and the world of human beings. In this final image not just the gulls are free but one’s eyes are free to watch them weave about the statue creating “wreaths of flight.” With their special construction of images and patterns freely drawn in the air about the statue, the gulls are no longer slaves to hunger.
Wilbur once said a poem is not a vehicle for communicating a message but it is an object with “its own life” and “individual identity.” Wilbur wrote this five-part poem as a celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. His celebration is filled with national pride and national images. His recognition of the merits of the United States and of its flaws keeps this work in tune with the kind of country it is: one that continually strives to be better than it has been so all its people may “wear the common crown of liberté.” In this recognition, he follows a different poetic philosophy than that outlined above inasmuch as the cantata communicates a very strong and important message.
Source: Carl Mowery, Critical Essay on “On Freedom’s Ground,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Butts, William, “An Interview with Richard Wilbur,” in Conversations with Richard Wilbur, edited by William Butts, University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
“A Conversation with Richard Wilbur,” in Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, Winter 1995, pp. 55–72.
Edgecombe, Rodney S., A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur, University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Frank, Robert, and Stephen Mitchell, “Richard Wilbur: An Interview,” in Conversations with Richard Wilbur, edited by William Butts, University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Grey, Paul, “A Testament to Civility,” in Time, May 9, 1988, p. 84.
Hazo, Samuel, “One Definite Mozart,” in Renascence, Fall 1992–Winter 1993, pp. 81–96.
Hecht, Anthony, “Master of Metaphor,” in The New Republic, Vol. 3, No. 826, May 16, 1988, pp. 23–32.
Jarrell, Randall, “A View of Three Poets,” in Richard Wilbur’s Creation, edited by Wendy Salinger, University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Kenner, Hugh, “Whatever Spins Around,” in National Review, September 2, 1988, pp. 48–49.
Logan, William, “Richard Wilbur’s Civil Tongue,” in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 21, No. 1–2, pp. 90–110.
McKnight, Paul, and Gary Houston, “An Interview with Richard Wilbur,” in Conversations with Richard Wilbur, edited by William Butts, University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Michelson, Bruce, Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
Robertson, Nan, “A Musical Collaboration in Homage to America,” in The New York Times, January 2, 1986, p. C16.
Statue of Liberty—History: The Two Sisters,http://www.americanparknetwork.com/parkinfo/sl/history/liberty.html (2000).
Bixler, Frances, Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991.
This annotated bibliography includes descriptions of articles, reviews, and passages in books, as well as full-length studies. In addition, Bixler provides a valuable summary of the criticism.
Butts, William, ed., Conversations with Richard Wilbur, University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
The interviews in this collection, which span the years from 1962 to 1988, give insights into Wilbur’s personal and poetic life as he discusses his own work along with the state of poetry in the contemporary world. These interviews reveal Wilbur’s wit, charm, and humanity.
Harris, Peter, “Forty Years of Richard Wilbur: The Loving Work of an Equilibrist,” in Virginia Quarterly, Summer 1990, pp. 412–25.
Harris shows Wilbur’s growth as a poet, tracing major themes and analyzing his use of language and traditional poetic forms.
Hill, Donald L., Richard Wilbur, Twayne, 1967.
This is a good summary of theme and style in Wilbur’s poetry.
Salinger, Wendy, ed., Richard Wilbur’s Creation, University of Michigan Press, 1983.
This is an excellent collection of essays that presents the critical response to each of Wilbur’s collections of poetry.