Thrash away, you ’ll hev to rattle
On them kittle drums o’ yourn,
’Taint a knowin’ kind o’ cattle
Thet is ketched with mouldy corn;
Put in stiff, you fifer feller,
Let folks see how spry you be,
Guess you ’ll toot till you are yeller
’Fore you git ahold o’ me!
Ez fer war, I call it murder,–
There you hev it plain an’ flat;
I don’t want to go no furder
Than my Testyment fer that;
God hez sed so plump an’ fairly,
It ’s ez long ez it is broad,
An’ you ’ve gut to git up airly
Ef you want to take in God.
’Taint your eppyletts an’ feathers
Make the thing a grain more right;
Taint afollerin’ your bell—wethers
Will excuse ye in His sight;
Ef you take a sword an’ dror it,
An’ go stick a feller thru,
Guv’ment aint to answer for it,
God ’ll send the bill to you.
Tell ye jest the eend I’ve come to
Arter cipherin’ plaguy smart,
An’ it makes a handy sum, tu,
Any gump could larn by heart;
Laborin’ man an’ laborin’ woman
Hev one glory an’ one shame,
Ev’y thin’ thet ’s done inhuman
Injers all on ’em the same.
A few verses from a longer poem by James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), American poet, editor and, later, diplomat. He achieved celebrity status in his own country, and was one of the first American poets to make any impact in Britain; he was already well-known here when he arrived to take up the post of US Minister to England (ambassador) in 1880, a post he served in for five years.
Born in Massachusetts Lowell qualified as a lawyer. His wife Maria, a committed abolitionist won him wholeheartedly over to the campaign against slavery.
The “dialect poem” above was part of The Biglow Papers, a collection of writings by Hosea Biglow and Birdofredum Sawin, both fictional characters from rural Massachusetts. The papers were originally sent to a Boston newspaper as letters; Lowell did it anonymously because he wanted “slavery to think it has as many enemies as possible.”
The historical background to the poem is quite recondite; in it Lowell is satirising those who support America’s war with Mexico (1846-48). He and many abolitionists saw the Southern expansion of the USA at Mexico’s expense as a pretext for extending the number of states in which slavery was legal. By this time Lowell was already predicting that the slavery issue would bring about civil war. Lowell wrote the poem after seeing a recruiting sergeant, all “epaulettes and feathers”, accompanied by drummer and fifer, strutting around Boston trying to raise volunteers just before the war broke out.
What makes it more interesting nowadays, perhaps, is the pacifist sentiments in the poem, which are pretty much identical to the Christian pacifism more familiar from conscientious objectors in the world wars several decades later.
When the American Civil War did break out, Lowell was no longer so certain of his pacifism, saying that perhaps the bloodshed just might be worthwhile if it brought slavery to an end. During the war, he published more Biglow papers, extolling the solid Christian common sense and decency of the Yankee over the grasping immoral Confederacy. They were hugely popular; it was said that his poetry was worth an army corps to the Union.