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When we think of the lush natural beauty of the Garden of Eden and the fruitful lands of the Greek gods, they seem like an unrealistic, idyllic dream or a fairytale. However, in her 12-page poem "On the Banks of the Ohio" (1823), the American poet Rebecca Lard (1772-1855) suggests that the beauty along the banks of the Ohio River is equally worthy of praise and admiration. The author explores the themes of America's natural beauty, patriotism, and identity in a poem that flows like the river itself.
"On the Banks of the Ohio" (1823) is a lengthy poem by Rebecca Hammond Lard (1772-1855). Rebecca Lard was born into a family of early American settlers in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Although she did not receive formal schooling, she became a teacher at 14 and was one of the only women in her community to pursue a career. She moved with her husband and children to several states, eventually settling in Montgomery Township, Indiana.
In 1823, the year of the poem's publication, Rebecca Hammond Lard moved to Vernon, Indiana, to become a schoolteacher, leaving her husband, who later filed for divorce. "On the Banks of the Ohio" was published as a booklet and in several magazines under Mrs. Lard.
"On the Banks of the Ohio" reflects Lard's interest in the Latin poet Virgil (70-19 BC), as well as the historical context of the decades following the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Virgil is one of the most famous poets from ancient Rome, who frequently wrote about the beauty of nature and referenced ancient mythology. Likewise, Rebecca Lard's poem is laden with rich natural imagery and references to Greek and Roman mythology.
Lard's poem also reflects early American history, as she wrote in the decades after the Revolutionary War when America expanded into Indigenous American territory and rapidly built up small towns and industries. The poem presents America as a place of burgeoning hope and opportunity. It is extremely patriotic but also one-sided. Lard took the common view of early settlers that Americans were entitled to the land of Indigenous Americans, who were mistreated and characterized as less than human.
Manifest Destiny is a term used for the 19th-century belief of many early American settlers who felt they were destined to expand westward across North America.
Much of the land surrounding the Ohio River that Lard writes about was obtained from Indigenous Americans in the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne.
The Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809), also known as the Ten O'Clock Line Treaty and the Twelve Mile Line Treaty, is a treaty that gained nearly 3 million acres of Indigenous American land for American settlers in Illinois and Indiana. Much of this land surrounded the Wabash River, which was important land for Indigenous American tribes. The governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), deceptively negotiated the treaty separately with several Native tribes, promising them protection and space on reservations in exchange for their land.
The poet introduces her subject matter, saying that she will not write about the perfect, idealized countryside or lands of the Greek gods. Rather, she writes about the Ohio River, which stretches west from Duquesne, Pennsylvania, to meet the Mississippi River. Lard asks the audience to "be present" while she tells of the beauty along river banks (9).
Lard describes how God created the hills and plains along the river, referring to this area as a "favour'd Land" and "beauteous region" (17, 19). She explains how Columbus discovered the land and later, "Britain's sons forsook their native land, / And sought for freedom on the western strand" (21-22).
The poet emphasizes the majestic nature and the versatility of the land along the stream, as it contains mountains, deserts, plains, and fields of flowers. Lard describes this land "like a new Eden opening in the wild" (39).
The poet describes the battles fought in the mounds of the land for ownership of the territory. She expresses sympathy for the first settlers who left their comfortable homes to farm by the unestablished Ohio River and were met with the violence of Indigenous Americans. Lard expresses patriotism in the colonists' victory in the American Indian Wars and characterizes the soldiers as "heroes" and "valorous patriots" (114, 115).
Note: Lard's poem frequently uses racist terms, describing Indigenous Americans as "savages."
The poet idealizes how General Anthony Wayne evicted Indigenous Americans from the Northwest Territory lands. She describes the peace over the land after Fort Wayne was erected, and the settlers could freely "explore / The fruitful soil on fair Ohio's shore" (131-132).
General Anthony Wayne
After the end of the Revolutionary War, the British ceded the Northwest Territory to America. However, British troops remained on the land and fortified Indigenous Americans living there, making it difficult for Americans to settle on the land. This conflict led to the Northwest Indian War, which lasted for ten years from 1785 to 1795. The final battle of the war was The Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, led by General Anthony Wayne (1745-1796), followed by the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795.
The poet describes how all sorts of men were called to the land along the river to spread the Christian gospel and bring much-needed hope. She expands on the imagery of the lush, bountiful land along the riverside, where small towns and farming villages have begun to crop up. The land is expansive and characterized by the joyousness of abundance and opportunity.
Lard carries the reader along the banks of different cities. She describes the scenery from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cincinnati, Ohio. The imagery shifts from natural to urban, as the poet describes the "Great manufacturing town," Pittsburgh (245). She praises the city as a place where "industry combines with art profound" (247).
The poet describes towns that are bustling centers for commerce and trade. She suggests that even these small towns reveal America as a promising place, as "Mansions shall rise, and gilded churches glow, / Their spires reflected from the waves below" (259-260).
Lard says that of all the cities along the banks, Cincinnati is "The brightest gem in all this western clime" (272). She compares the beauty and charm of Cincinnati to "Grecian Athens" (280). The poet also praises the towns of Vevey, Madison, and Laurensburgh, which lie along the river in Indiana.
While approaching the shores of Madison, the poet admires the scientific and artistic progress of the West. She writes, "Genius and science in her sons appear, / And mild religion finds a temple here: / Pursuits of science here inspire the youth, / T' respect mankind, love poetry and truth" (345 348). The poet holds great hopes for the future of the country's attainments, which already shine brightly in its early years.
The poet describes the sunbeams of light upon the Ohio River to illustrate the peace and freedom she hopes forever shine upon America. She sees America as a beacon of light that will be a model of liberty and sing praise to God through the Churches and the glowing natural beauty of the landscape.
Lard suggests that the intellectuals of society may not understand or listen to the beauty and truth of nature, but she advocates that they should. She writes simply as a testament to the power of the land and hopes that others will listen to the song of Ohio's waters as they have listened to the stories of Greek mythology.
The final section of the poem addresses the Philomatheans, the oldest literary society at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania.
The poem's central message is that America is worthy of attention and admiration. It is full of versatile natural beauty and resources, new industries, opportunity, and freedom. Rebecca Hammond Lard writes in an enthusiastic, exultant tone to reflect her excitement and hope for America's promising growth. The poet sees America as a future focal point of the world—a place that will excel in the sciences, arts, social progression, and industry.
How do you think Rebecca Hammond Lard presents the American Dream in her poem?
"On the Banks of the Ohio" is a long, 12-page poem written in consistent iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets.
Iambic pentameter is when a line of poetry contains ten syllables in an alternating pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. It is one of the most common meters used in English poetry, dating back to the 14th century.
Rhyming couplets are when two consecutive lines of poetry have ending words that rhyme.
In the following example from Lard's poem, the stressed syllables are underlined and rhyming couplets are bolded in different colors:
"Oft where Ohio's gliding waves descend,
How his banks open and the lawns extend!
Obliquely there the giant seems to stride:
Here spreads the plains, the blooming prospect wide."
The poet's use of iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets creates a consistency throughout the poem that mimics the strong, consistent current of the river. The poem is indented slightly to mark each of the 21 sections; however, there are no space divisions or numbers to delineate between them, further illustrating the continuous flow of the river.
The 21 sections of the poem are listed in an italicized paragraph before the start of the poem. The section titles can help gain a better understanding of Lard's progression of ideas through the poem:
Rebecca Hammond Lard's rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter evoke an homage to older, classic forms of poetry. This helps create an air of importance and emphasizes her point that America should be appreciated similarly to the lands idealized in ancient texts and poetry. The consistent rhythm and rhyme also lend a songlike manner to the reading, which reflects the poet's frequent suggestions that the river and her poem are like song singing praise of America.
Rebecca Hammond Lard uses numerous literary devices in her long poem. The most significant and prominent literary devices used throughout the poem are apostrophe, allusion, imagery, and personification.
Throughout the poem, Lard uses apostrophe and allusion to call upon figures and references from the past to help readers understand her beliefs in the importance of America.
Apostrophe is an address made to a personified object or someone who is not present.
An allusion is an unexplained reference to something from an outside context.
The opening lines of the poem set the stage for Lard's references to Greek and Roman mythology throughout:
"Not of Arcadian groves or nymphs I sing—
Nor Tempe's vale shall warble on the string;
Ye gentle Powers! attend the trembling Muse,
While she an unattempted theme pursues." (1-4)
The poet uses allusions to nymphs, the Vale of Tempe, and the Muses in Greek mythology to suggest the American landscape's bountiful beauty and how it inspires art and poetry.
Nymphs are female gods in the form of beautiful women associated with fertility and nature.
The Vale of Tempe is a beautiful valley in Thessaly, Greece, that ancient poets wrote about. It was said to be a place that the god Apollo and the Muses frequented.
The Muses are goddesses of ancient Greek mythology who were thought the inspire knowledge of the arts, sciences, and literature, including poetry, songs, and orally passed down stories.
Through allusion, Lard suggests that the banks of the Ohio River are equivalent to The Vale of Tempe in ancient Greece. She uses apostrophe in calling upon the Muses, whom she addresses at various points throughout the poem. The poet calls upon the Muses to witness the banks of the Ohio River, suggesting that they are an equally abundant source of poetic inspiration. Although Lard acknowledges that these American lands are not full of fantasy, mythology, and ideas of otherworldly grandeur as in Greek mythology, she imbues them with a similar sense of magnificence and intrigue.
The poet's call to the muses for inspiration and guidance at the beginning of the poem mimics the beginning of ancient epics such as The Odyssey.
"On the Banks of the Ohio" is built upon the imagery and personification of the lands and towns along the Ohio River.
Imagery is descriptive language that appeals to the senses.
Personification is when non-human things are given human characteristics.
The poet personifies the cities and lands of Ohio to lend a personable perspective to the imagery of the land:
"Round the smooth shore the gliding current bends,
Where op'ning wide the level lawn extends;
There blooms Ohio's boast in beauty's prime.
(The brightest gem in all this western clime.)
Of all the towns that on his banks are seen,
Great Cincinnati stands confessed the queen.
Seen from the passing boat she shines afar,
To weary wanderers hope's beaming star." (269-276)
The poet personifies the river as a man bending and bowing to introduce the city of Cincinnati. Cincinnati is personified as a queen who symbolizes hope and leadership and can shines from afar. Lard uses personification to build imagery layered with meaning. She suggests the beauty and majesty of the land can be compared to that of men and women. Just like people, nature moves, expresses, and evokes emotions.
The poem focuses on the themes of the beauty and bounty of America and American patriotism and identity.
The poem revolves around the imagery of the natural beauty of the versatile American landscape. The poet describes the river, mountains, deserts, farmlands, and vegetation that span the river banks to point to the multifaced beauty of the land. Lard frequently paints the lushness of the land to emphasize its bounty and how the land sustains people and fosters industry. America's versatile landscape is a picture of all the opportunities it presents and offers its people.
Rebecca Hammond Lard expresses great patriotism in depicting America as a beautiful land of freedom, opportunity, and promising progress. The poet implies that American identity is grounded in this visionary idea of creating a new land of liberty focused on forward movement and progress.
Lard sells the American Dream by expressing how she sees industries and the progress of farms and small towns cropping up along the shores of Ohio. She also presents her conviction that America is destined to be a land that leads the way in artistic, scientific, and intellectual progress. Ultimately, Lard's poem advocates that American identity is grounded in hope, faith, and confidence in the ability for achievement.
Rebecca Hammond Lard (1772-1855) wrote "On the Banks of the Ohio."
"On the Banks of the Ohio" is about the natural beauty and the development of civilization along the banks of the Ohio River.
The message of "On the Banks of the Ohio" is that America is a place worthy of attention and admiration. It is full of versatile natural beauty and resources, new industries, opportunity, and freedom. Rebecca Hammond Lard writes in an enthusiastic, exultant tone to reflect her excitement and hope in America's promising growth. The poet sees America as a future focal point of the world—a place that will excel in the sciences, arts, social progression, and industry.
The themes of "On the Banks of the Ohio" are the beauty and bounty of America, American patriotism, and American identity.
"On the Banks of the Ohio" was written in the years after America obtained the Northwest territory. The poem was published in 1823.
Who is the author of "On the Banks of the Ohio"?
Rebecca Hammond Lard
True or False: The author of the poem was a schoolteacher living in early 19th-century America.
Which title does the author of the poem hold?
The first poet of Indiana
Which of the following is not a prominent theme in the poem?
True or False: The poet would likely agree that Indigenous Americans were gravely mistreated during the period of expansion into the Northwest territories.
Who were the Muses in Greek mythology?
Goddesses who inspired the arts, sciences, and literature.
Which of the following states does the Ohio River not cross?
What year was the poem published?
True or False: The poet would characterize America as a land of liberty, opportunity, and progress.
What meter is the poem written in?
True or False: The poem is written entirely in rhyming couplets.
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