Boston Hymn

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson composed ‘Boston Hymn’ in late 1862, just before the emancipation proclamation. Through this poem, Emerson warns Americans of their wrongs and gives them a chance to repent of all crimes against freedom.


Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nationality: American

Ralph Waldo Emerson is now remembered as one of the most important transcendental writers.

Some of his best-known works are "Nature" and "Self-Reliance."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most prominent writers to represent transcendentalism to this day, wrote ‘Boston Hymn’ as a calling to the American people. Emerson uses God as a speaker in this poem. He speaks with the voice of authority, from the viewpoint of one who rules the universe. The effect of this particular voice is that it gives the poem an authoritative sound which very much parallels the tone in the books of the Old Testament. Emerson uses this tone tactfully, as he calls the American people to all that is right and just in his eyes. He also personifies Freedom and calls him the angel that God has sent to the American people to warn them of their wrongs and give them a chance to repent of all crimes against freedom.

Boston Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Boston Hymn Analysis

Stanza One

The word of the Lord by night
To the watching Pilgrims came,
As they sat by the seaside,
And filled their hearts with flame

In this stanza, the speaker begins with clearly biblical language. By using the phrase “the word of the Lord,” Emerson causes the average reader to take these words seriously. It also gives the speaker a voice of authority. With the first line, it seems as though this is going to be a poem taken directly from the Old Testament, but the second line reveals that this is the word of the Lord to the Pilgrims, not to the Israelites. The speaker suggests that as the American Pilgrims sat by the seaside, the word of the Lord came to them and “filled their hearts with flame.”

The similarity of tone between the Old Testament and ‘Boston Hymn’ implies that the Pilgrims are the new Israelites. It gives the reader the idea that the Pilgrims are people set apart for God’s purposes. Thus, it also implies God’s protection over the Pilgrims.

Stanza Two

God said, I am tired of kings,
I suffer them no more;
Up to my ear the morning brings
The outrage of the poor

At this point in the ‘Boston Hymn,’ the speaker shifts to God himself. He then asserts, as though from God’s point of view, that he is “tired of kings” and that he will be done with them. Then he explains why. He says that each morning, he hears the outrage of the poor. This is a direct parallel to James 5:4, which says, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”

This is the speaker’s first hint at the injustice of slavery. Although he has indeed set apart the Pilgrims as God’s people, he will eventually point out the wrongdoings of the American people, and this is the first instance in which he touches on the idea of slavery. Without a thorough knowledge of the Bible, many would pass over this line and assume that the rebuke is meant only for those kings and queens of other countries who live in luxury while others starve.

However, a closer reading reveals that the speaker is likely condemning both America and as well as other countries. When the speaker says that the “outrage of the poor” has reached “up to [His] ear,” it is clear that he intends to parallel the verse in James chapter 5. Thus, anyone familiar with the American situation at the time ‘Boston Hymn’ was publicly read would likewise know that the rebuke in this stanza extended to America.

Emerson composed ‘Boston Hymn’ in late 1862, just before the emancipation proclamation. This poem was publicly read in 1863, the very same year that African American slaves were declared free. Thus, given the time and place of this particular poem, it is clear that the “outrage of the poor” was that of the slaves. Just as the verse in James says that “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord,” so the cries of the African American slaves reached the ears of the Lord. And with this stanza, the speaker declares that God has had enough with kings and queens, nobility, and slavery.

Therefore, with just two stanzas, Emerson effectively sets up the Pilgrims as God’s chosen people and yet rebukes them for holding and owning slaves, using the Bible to support his claims.

Stanza Three

Think ye I made this ball
A field of havoc and war,
Where tyrants great and tyrants small
Might harry the weak and poor?

In this stanza, the author continues to use the voice of God as his speaker. He asks a question. Essentially, he asks the people of the world, “Do you think that I made this world so that you could wreak havoc on it with war? Did I give you this world so that tyrants great and small could rule and terrorize the weak and the poor?” This, clearly a rhetorical question, causes the reader to see the world from God’s point of view.

Anyone who believes in a God who created the earth would see from this stanza that God is mortified at what humans have done with the world that He gave to them. He didn’t make it for them to destroy it with their wars and their hatred and oppression of the poor. The author clearly knows that the Bible speaks of the poor time and time again, calling for justice and warning the rich not to oppress them. Yet, this command has been broken in nearly every society, and the rich have lived in luxury while the poor suffer. This stanza allows the readers to see that from God’s point of view.

Stanza Four

My angel- his name is Freedom,
Choose him to be your king;
He shall cut pathways east and west
And fend you with his wing.

In this stanza of ‘Boston Hymn,’ the speaker introduces an angel. This angel is, in fact, Freedom personified. The speaker calls the American people to elect Freedom as a king. Thus, there is no flawed human being on the throne. Instead, on the metaphorical American throne sits Freedom, God’s own angel sent to America to rebuke them of their misdeeds, and set himself on the throne to rule the American people with justice. The speaker promises the American people that if they choose Freedom as their king, that he will protect them “with his wing.”

Stanza Five

Lo! I uncover the land
Which I hit of old time in the West,
As the sculptor uncovers the statue
When he has wrought his best

This stanza goes back in time and talks about when the land in the West was first revealed to the people of the east, and the Pilgrims settled there. He suggests that the discovery of the western lands was because God chose to reveal it to them. He also suggests that it was the last land to be known because it was God’s best work, and He wanted to show it to them at last.

Stanza Six

I show Columbia, of the rocks
Which dip their foot in the seas
And soar to the air-borne flocks
Of clouds and the boreal fleece

With this stanza of ‘Boston Hymn,’ the speaker identifies with the reader’s feelings of the land of the west. He particularly points out Columbia and describes her beauty. He personifies her as he describes the land as “dip[ping] their foot in the seas.” This description of the beauty of the land serves to help the readers feel pride in their own land. The fact that he picks out Columbia reveals that he wishes to include all the lands of the west in his desire for them to be ruled by Freedom.

Stanza Seven

I will divide my goods;
Call in the wretch and slave
None shall rule but the humble
And none but Toil shall have

This beautiful stanza states emphatically that those who work should have what they work for. This corresponds with stanza two in stating that all who work, especially the slaves who have toiled year after year, should have wealth and the wages they have worked for. He says that no one should have wealth if he does not toil. This is also biblical language and is clearly noted in defense of the slaves and as a rebuke to former slave owners everywhere.

2 Thessalonians 3:10 states, “ For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” Thus, this is a rebuke of all slave owners who lived lives of luxury without work. They had all of the best that the land had to offer but did none of the work themselves. This stanza is clearly a call for justice on behalf of those who work and a rebuke to those who do not. Under the rule of Freedom, all who work will be paid, and all who do not will suffer.

Stanza Eight

I will have never a noble,
No lineage counted great;
Fishers and choppers and ploughmen
Shall constitute a state

With this stanza of ‘Boston Hymn,’ the speaker (still God) declares that America will be different from other lands where Kings and Queens rule. He declares that there will be no noble bloodlines, for people will not be wealthy based upon their ancestors. Instead, the “fishers and choppers and ploughmen” will be the ones with money because they have worked for it, and they will make up the state.

Stanza Nine

Go, cut down trees in the forest
And trim the straightest boughs;
Cut down trees in the forest
And build me a wooden house

Since Emerson still uses the very voice of God as his speaker, it is clear that this is yet another parallel to the Old Testament. While God asked the Israelites to build him a temple made of gold and other fine stones, here, God is asking the Pilgrims to build him home from the trees of the forest. This is simply suggesting that God is calling the American people to a simpler life. Rather than building empires on the backs of slaves, he calls them to go themselves into the forest and to build homes of wood.

Stanza Ten

Call the people together,
The young men and the sires
The digger in the harvest field,
Hireling and him that hires

This is simply a call for all American people to come together with one purpose. The speaker calls for the young and old, the workers and those who hired them, to come together for one purpose.

Stanza Eleven

And here in a pine state-house
They shall choose men to rule
In every needful faculty,
In church and state and school

This stanza of ‘Boston Hymn’ has a strong biblical tone and parallels the book of Judges, where God called the Israelite people to place certain rulers over certain numbers of people so that it may be dealt with when conflict arose justly. This calls all American people to elect those who are in charge of churches, states, and schools. This is democracy. The speaker calls for the people to choose who will rule them. But it is important to remember that the speaker has already placed Freedom, the angel, on the throne of America. No person is to be king; however, many people are to rule over certain organizations of society.

At this point, it is important to note that the Old Testament states that God did not ever intend for Israel to have a king. He meant to be their king himself and to have his priests rule over the people to a certain degree. It was not until the Israelites declared that they would have a king that God placed a king over them (1 Samuel Chapter 8).

Thus, this stanza can be seen as the new Israel. The Pilgrims are the new Israelites, and they will do what God had originally intended. They would not name a king. Rather, Freedom, an angel sent from God himself, would be King of America, and certain people would be elected to rule under him. This is clearly the author’s idea of true Freedom, and using the voice of God and parallels between the Pilgrims and the Israelites allows the readers to see themselves as God’s people.

Stanza Twelve

Lo; now! If these poor men
Can govern the land and sea
And make just laws below the sun,
As planets faithful be

This stanza simply states that poor men can rule a land as effectively, if not better than, the nobility of other countries.

Stanza Thirteen

And ye shall succor men;
‘T is nobleness to serve;
Help them who cannot help again:
Beware from right to swerve

This stanza contains yet another biblical reference as it declares that it is “nobleness to serve.” In Matthew 28, the author states that the Son of Man (Jesus) did not come to be served but to serve. Thus, the highest nobility (God himself) sought to serve others rather than seeking others to serve Him. The speaker of ‘Boston Hymn’ is calling the American people the very same thing. He has already called all people to work for their money, and now he tells them that it is noble of them to serve. This is a very different idea from what many Americans and early Pilgrims were used to.

In England, especially, a gentleman was one who had inherited so much money that he did not have to work, and that was considered nobility. In many ways, that mindset and way of life transferred to the west. Particularly in the South, plantation owners were valued for their wealth and ownership of enough slaves to do all of their work for them. The speaker in ‘Boston Hymn’ seeks to break the idea of nobility that has penetrated society for generation upon generation.

In order to do this, he brings the reader right back to the Bible times and reveals that true nobility serves, and thus he calls for the Americans to take pride not in their bloodlines but in their work. He warns them not to swerve away from the conviction that it is honorable to work and to work hard enough to help those who cannot help themselves.

Stanza Fourteen

I break your bonds and masterships
And I unchain the slave:
Free be his heart and hand henceforth
As wind and wandering wave

At this point, the speaker finally states his meaning clearly. While he has been referring to the slaves and the masters inadvertently until this point, so he decides to make his meaning very clear. As God speaks, he says, “I unchain the slave.” This reveals the author’s notion that God himself freed the slaves. He then declares that the slave should be as free as “wind and wandering wave.”

Stanza Fifteen

I cause from every creature
His proper good to flow:
As much as he is and doeth,
So much he shall bestow.

In this stanza of ‘Boston Hymn,’ the speaker (God) claims that all good that can be found in every creature on earth comes from him. This corresponds with some of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s major beliefs. The ideas of transcendentalism that he purported suggested that God was everywhere and in everything. Many of the lines of ‘Boston Hymn’ contradicts these ideas and suggest that Emerson was writing these lines to a people who believed in the God of the Bible and played off of that to earn their agreement in his call for Freedom and equality.

Nonetheless, some of Emerson’s true spiritual beliefs still come through. This stanza particularly contains the transcendentalist belief that God is part and parcel of the good that is everywhere in the world, whether found in human beings, plants, or animals. This stanza suggests that all the good in the world comes directly from God.

Stanza Sixteen

But, laying hands on another
To coin his labor and sweat,
He goes in pawn to his victim
For eternal years in debt

This stanza of ‘Boston Hymn’ reveals that Emerson knew his audience well. He was calling to all people, the North and the South, to come together under the rule of Freedom. As per his knowledge, the South had lost desperately, and that they needed to feel a part of this beautiful country. He also knew that many former slave owners had used the Bible to justify their ownership of slaves. After all, the Bible does, in fact, say, “slaves obey your masters” (Ephesians 6:5).

Thus, Emerson uses the voice of God to clarify, by explaining that the only biblical reason for owning a slave was when a person owed so much money to another that he had to work it off with seven years of slavery (Proverbs 22:7). Thus, the speaker effectively rebukes slave owners of their ownership of slaves and uses a biblical reference to counter their arguments for their rights to own slaves.

Stanza Seventeen

To-day unbind the captive,
So only are ye unbound;
Lift up a people from the dust,
Trump of their rescue, sound!

Still assuming the voice of God, the speaker calls for freedom. He calls the American people to “unbind the captive” and to “lift up a people from the dust.” Then, yet another biblical reference is used when the speaker calls to sound the “trump of their rescue.” The Christians have long held to the belief that God will eventually come to their rescue and that they would be taken from the world, relieved of persecution, and saved by their God at the sound of the trumpet. The speaker parallels this very idea to the release of the African American slaves.

Stanza Eighteen

Pay ransom to the owner
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is the owner,
And ever was. Pay him.

As the American Civil War raged on, the South held on to their idea of their right to their own way of life. Many believed that if the North wished to free the slave, the slave owners should be paid for them. After all, they bought the slaves with their own money. With the first line of this stanza, it seems as though the speaker is calling for payment to be made to the slave owners for the freedom of each of his slaves.

However, when the third line, it becomes clear that the speaker means just the opposite. He calls for the slaves to be paid money for all their years of work. After all, the plantations should really be owned by them because they are the ones who worked, planted, and harvested. The speaker claims that the plantations have always belonged to the slaves and calls for payment to be made to them.

Stanza Nineteen

O North! Give him beauty for rags,
And honor, O South! For his shame;
Nevada! Coin thy golden crags
With Freedom’s image and name

Here, the speaker calls all people to come together under the name of Freedom. Emerson, knowing his audience, the shame of the South, and the faults of the North, gives them all a chance to come together. He calls the North to give of their riches to bring the people of slavery up out of the dust. Then he calls to the South to exchange their shame for the honor by renouncing their ways. Then, he calls for Nevada (known for its silver and gold) to engrave “Freedom’s image and name” onto their coins.

Stanza Twenty

Up! And the dusky race
That sat in darkness long,
Be swift their feet as antelopes,
And as behemoth strong

In the previous stanza, the speaker called out to the North and to the South to come together under the name of Freedom. Here, he calls to the former slaves to rise up out of the darkness and to be “swift” and “strong” in making a life for themselves with their newfound freedom.

Stanza Twenty-One

Come, East and West and North
By races, as snowflakes,
And carry my purpose forth,
Which neither halts nor shakes

At this point in ‘Boston Hymn,’ the speaker (still assuming the voice of God) calls for all people from the west to come together by races “as snowflakes.” Just as no snowflake is the same as another, the speaker suggests that each and every human being is unique but calls them to come together anyway. He asks them to “carry [his] purpose forth.” Since the speaker, as God, claims that He sent His angel, Freedom, it is safe to assume that this purpose is also freedom.

Thus, God is calling all people of the west, all races and types of people, to come together to carry out one purpose: freedom. He then claims that this purpose is one that “neither halts nor shakes.” Thus, the speaker claims that He will not stop until Freedom has been established as King of America.

Stanza Twenty-Two

My will fulfilled shall be
For, in daylight or in dark
My thunderbolt has eyes to see
His way home to the mark.

In this stanza of ‘Boston Hymn,’ the speaker (God) declares that his will shall be fulfilled whether in day or night, because his “thunderbolt,” another name for the angel, Freedom, has “eyes to see his way home to the mark.” The speaker states that Freedom will be King, no matter how long it takes with this last line. With these lines, the writer reveals the belief that it is God’s will for Freedom to reign and that Freedom will reign, no matter the cost.

Works Cited:

  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Masterpieces of American Literature: With Biographical Sketches. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891. Print.
  • The Holy Bible: English Standard Version: The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008. Print.
Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.

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