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Concord Hymn

Concord Hymn

Ever wondered about the contexts behind Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem "Concord Hymn" (1847)?

By 1775, tensions had long been mounting between Great Britain and its American colonies. Attempted negotiations between the Continental Congress and the Crown had broken down, and war seemed inevitable. In New England, farmers had already been training as militia, deeming themselves “Minutemen” for their ability to be ready for a fight within a minute. Meanwhile, the British were scouting out arms depots and looking for towns they could easily capture. Concord, with its proximity to Boston and a large cache of arms, and its position among hills from which it could easily be defended, made it their first target.

Concord Hymn, Redcoat Soldiers, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The British soldiers were known as Redcoats.

In mid-April, six companies of British soldiers started the march from Boston to Concord. Passing through the town of Lexington early in the morning of April 19th, they encountered a small band of militiamen and attacked them. Eight militia were killed and nine wounded, while the British didn’t suffer a single casualty. They continued on to nearby Concord.

Concord was ready for them; this time, the militia outnumbered them 3 to 1. The Americans confronted the British at the North Bridge leading into town. After an officer and three men were killed, the British retreated from the north bridge. They waited for reinforcements to no avail while the guerilla soldiers surrounding them grew more numerous. They retreated to Boston in defeat. War had now broken out, and there was no going back.1

The Meaning of "Concord Hymn"

Over fifty years later, in 1837, citizens of the town of Concord decided to erect a battle monument marking where the spot where the American Revolutionary War began. The North Bridge had been located practically in the backyard of William Emerson (1701-1782). His grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), had fairly recently returned to his ancestral hometown from Boston. He was asked to write a poem commemorating the monument, and “Concord Hymn” was the result. At the monument’s dedication, copies of the hymn were distributed, and it was sung to the tune of the psalm Old Hundred by a choir.2

Concord Hymn, Boston Statehouse, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Ralph Waldo Emerson grew up in Boston, Massachusetts and later moved to Concord.

“Concord Hymn” is a poem and a song that explains the purpose of this monument. As it is a hymn, or song of praise, it imparts a spiritual significance to the events at Concord, where a battle for liberty and prosperity that would ultimately give rise to the United States began.

"Concord Hymn" Paraphrase

"Concord Hymn" is a short poem in four stanzas. Below are the original stanzas, each followed by a short summary in prose form.

Stanza I

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.

As the poem opens, a group of farmers turned soldiers have taken up their positions on the small and simple North Bridge. They were the first American Revolution soldiers gathered at the bridge in Concord on April 19th, 1775. With the American Revolutionary flag fluttering in the breeze, they fired the shot that would result in the first British casualties and start the war, an event of global and historical importance.

Stanza II

The foe long since in silence slept;

Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;

And time the ruined bridge has swept

Down the dark streams which seaward creeps.

The speaker of the poem, written over 50 years after the end of hostilities between England and America, notes that neither country has fought for a long time. The north bridge mentioned in the first stanza has fallen into ruin, pieces floating down the river and into the Atlantic Ocean, which is its outlet.

Stanza III

On this green bank, by this soft stream,

We set today a votive stone,

That memory may their deed redeem

When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

The speaker now announces the occasion of the poem and the reason why the audience is gathered outside by the former location of the bridge: to build a monument where these "embattled farmers" fired the first shots of the Revolution. This will ensure that the event will be forever remembered, by our children as it was by our grandparents.

Stanza IV

Spirit, that made those heroes dare

To die, and leave their children free,

Bid time and nature gently spare

The shaft we raise to them and thee.

The speaker praises the sacrifice that the soldiers in the war made, and their willingness to die in the cause of founding a free country for future generations to live in. He hopes the monument will preserve not only the event itself but also this spirit of sacrifice in the name of a larger ideal.

"Concord Hymn" Themes

The three key themes in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn" are War, Courage and Memory.

War

As “Concord Hymn” was written for the dedication of a Revolutionary War monument, one of its major themes is, of course, war. While the poem opens with some description of the beginning of the battle, it does not focus on the events of the battle itself, nor is it a poem that glorifies war. Instead, it focuses on the importance of the cause that the war was fought for: freedom.

Courage

“Concord Hymn” underscores the courage of the Revolutionary soldiers. As the first stanza notes, they were really just "embattled farmers" or normal people. Despite this, they were possessed of a "spirit" that made them truly heroic and willing to die so that future generations might have a better life as free citizens of their own country.

Memory

One purpose of a monument is, of course, to preserve the memory of a person or event. “Concord Hymn” underscores the necessity of building such a monument by noting how the bridge where this historical event occurred was completely neglected, “ruined” by time, and fell into the river where it was swept towards the ocean (Stanza II). If the battle itself—and the spirit that motivated it—are not to be entirely lost to history, then a reminder of its physical location seems necessary. Preserving this event and its importance in the memories of future generations is the purpose of both the battle monument and “Concord Hymn” itself.

Concord Hymn, Concord Monument and North Bridge, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Concord Monument stands in front of Concord's North Bridge.

"Concord Hymn" Poem Analysis

“Concord Hymn” is a poem that invests an event and a place with a transcendental historical significance. It shows the battle of Concord as being not just the beginning of a war, but the beginning of a spiritual movement toward human freedom. In this sense, the poem is an early example of Transcendentalism, an intellectual movement that Emerson himself would go on to spearhead.

Transcendentalism was an early nineteenth-century intellectual movement that emphasized the importance of both the natural world and of individual expression and choice.

One way the poem accomplishes this spiritual transcendence is through its relation to the hymn. The poem is meant to be sung to a well-known Church psalm, the Old Hundred, which would immediately invest it with religious overtones for its listeners. It also makes the poem significantly easier to memorize, a key feature of its stated goal to immortalize the events and values of the Revolution.

Hymn meter, also known as common meter, was a metrical format that would allow any poem to be sung to a preexisting church hymn. Its stress pattern is typically iambic, meaning each line begins with an unstressed syllable. This is followed by a stressed syllable, and this two-syllable unstressed/stressed pattern is repeated.

Hymn meter is usually written in either tetrameter (four iambic feet, or eight syllables, per line) or alternating tetrameter and trimeter (three iambic feet, or six syllables). These are further organized into quatrains, stanzas with four lines each. Each quatrain has an end rhyme pattern ABAB. The annotated first stanza of “Concord Hymn” below shows these features. Syllables are divided by a vertical line, stressed syllables are highlighted in red, and the rhyme scheme is indicated on the right-hand margin:

By | the | rude | bridge | that | arched | the | flood, A

Their | flag | to | Ap| ril’s | breeze | un | furled, B

Here | once | the em | ba | ttled | far | mers | stood, A

And | fired | the | shot | heard | round | the | world. B

Hymn meter would significantly impact American poetry in the 19th century, most notably in many of Emily Dickinson's (1830-1886) poems.

“Concord Hymn” is also noteworthy for its figurative language, particularly the first stanza's imagery, symbolism, and hyperbole. The “embattled farmers” with “flag…unfurled” next to a “rude bridge” symbolize the American struggle, in which ordinary people stood up to a world empire. The poem’s most famous line, describing the initiation of the Battle of Concord as “the shot heard round the world,” describes the world-historical significance of this event as it was incorporated into the mythology of the still newly developing nation.

Described by Oliver Wendell Holmes as a “perfect little poem,” “Concord Hymn” would be enormously influential for generations.2 Its gentle patriotism, brevity, and easy memorability made it a staple in secondary school classrooms.

Concord Hymn - Key takeaways

  • Written in 1837 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Concord Hymn" was sung by a choir at the dedication ceremony for a monument marking The Battle of Concord, widely considered the first battle of the American Revolution.
  • The poem's most famous line describes the first volley fired at The Battle of Concord as "the shot heard round the world," underscoring the historical significance of the event.
  • "Concord Hymn" underscores that the American soldiers at Concord were simple farmers fighting, drawn into the war in service of a larger ideal.
  • To make sure that we and future generations remember that ideal and the sacrifices people made for it, we need monuments and poems like "Concord Hymn."

References

1. G.C. Daughan. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World. 2018.

2. R.W. Emerson and Albert J. Von Frank (editor). Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Major Poetry. 2015.

Frequently Asked Questions about Concord Hymn

"Concord Hymn" is a short poem and song that stresses the importance of remembering the ideals of the American Revolution and the people who fought for them.

"Concord Hymn" is about the first battle of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord in 1775, and how it is incumbent on Americans to remember it.

Emerson refers to the first shot at the Battle of Concord as "the shot heard round the world." This is, of course, hyperbole, an exaggeration meant to emphasize the global and historical importance of the Revolution. The shot was likely not audible outside of Concord.

"Concord Hymn" reminds us that ordinary people put their lives on the line in order to create a better country for their children and future generations. It inspires us by showing us that the freedom we enjoy was given to us by these heroic individuals, many of whom died in the process.

"Concord Hymn" is a poem, but also a song set to the music of a church psalm called Old Hundred.

Final Concord Hymn Quiz

Question

In the poem, American soldiers are mainly depicted as

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Normal people

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Lines 1-4 incorporate all of the following except

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tactile imagery

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Line 5 contains which of the following?

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Alliteration

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The effect of first-person plural pronouns ("We set...our sires...our sons) in lines 10-12 is to

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Emphasize the personal relevance of the poem's message to the reader

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Lines 5-6 ("The foe long since...silent sleeps") suggests that the British and Americans

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Have not fought each other for a long period of time

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The last two lines ("Bid time and nature...to them and thee") suggest that the monument

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May keep the spirit of the revolution alive

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Question

The poem makes use of which of the following? 


I. Rhyming couplets

II. Iambic tetrameter

III. Quatrains

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Answer

II. and III. only 

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In the poem, the speaker is most concerned with expressing the

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Importance of remembering the spirit of the Revolution

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When was "Concord Hymn" written?

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1837

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Who wrote "Concord Hymn"?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Why was "Concord Hymn" written?

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Answer

For the dedication of a battle monument

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What is the significance of the Battle of Concord?

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Answer

It was the first battle of the American Revolutionary War.

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What was "the shot heard round the world"?

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Answer

The beginning of the American Revolution

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What form is "Concord Hymn" written in?

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Answer

Hymn meter

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Question

What are the advantages of writing in hymn meter?


I. Religious overtones

II. Easy memorization

III. Fits preexisting songs

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Answer

I., II., and III.

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