Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Song of the Communist, 1850 poem by Edward Abiel Washburn

In this unfortunately forgotten "Song of the Communist," Episcopal clergyman Edward Abiel Washburn (1819-1881) satirized French communists as deluded believers in "a magic state Elysian" to be effected by the abolition of law, marriage, and property. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is the false "Prophet" of these happy activists who vainly await a new age of "Social bliss." 

Transcribed below, Rev. Washburn's "Song of the Communist" appeared over his initials "E.A.W." in the New York Literary World for May 18, 1850. Reprinted from the Literary World in the New York Albion of July 20, 1850.
The Literary World - May 18, 1850

Original Poetry.  


PASS the flask, thou pleasant fellow,
    Brimming from the choicest vat,
Kept for us, till ripe and mellow,
    By some dead aristocrat:
Hail we here the newborn season
    Of the grey and wrinkled earth,
Hail the day of fullblown reason,
    Day of freedom, wine, and mirth.

Chiliads of slavish ages
    Ended are, a worthless host,
Iron lords and bearded sages
    Given up at last the ghost;
Kings have wielded heavy sceptres,
    And the luckless urchin, man,
Has been thwacked by his preceptors
    Since the school of time began.

Ah! what hapless, cringing masses
    Bowed the neck in years of old,
Bending still, like foolish asses
    Laden with their masters' gold :
Dreamy Platos built before us
    Airy schemes of social laws,
But the world has laughed in chorus
    At their weak, ideal saws.

Prophet of the new creation,
    Proudhon with the fiery tongue,
Stand and pour the revelation
    Such as seer has never sung.
Let the thoughts thy spirit speaking
    Have volcanic utterance;
Now unveil the glory breaking
    On regenerated France.

What is law but contradiction
    Of the sacred rights of man?
What is marriage but a fiction
    Hallowed by the churchly ban?
What is property, O neighbor,
   But the most unblushing stealth?
Who made me to live by labor,
   Thee to pocket nature's wealth?

Look, where history commences,
    Lord and ladyship were not:
Eden was not lined with fences,
    Adam was a sansculotte;
Marriage yoked not drudging woman,
    At the word of tithe-fed priests;
Acorns and all else were common,
    Man was free as other beasts.

See, again, upon our vision,
    Those primeval scenes arise,
Bursts a magic state Elysian,
    Paris is a Paradise!
See phalansteries unfolding
    All of social good and fair;
Princes meek, their napkins holding,
    Wait behind the people's chair.

Debtors dwell in bankers' houses,
    Unbelief dons gown and stole,
Ouvriers, in unwashed blouses,
    With gay ladies cheek by jowl;
Madame Sand is chief appointed,
    Sue will grace the woolsack well,
And for Church, the Lord's anointed
    Shall be good Abbé Chatel!

Happy age! and happy Paris!
    Speed the cycle of thy fate,
Social bliss no longer tarries,
    Proudhon speaks the word "Create."
Be the puny Godhead banished,
    Who has ruled us hitherto,
The old-world régime is vanished,
    Proudhon has made all things new.

Newburyport, Mass.
E. A. W.

After his death in 1881, E. A. Washburn was remembered as "a true poet" in the memorial sermon delivered by Thomas March Clark:

He was also a true poet, as the few verses from his pen which have been allowed to see the light sufficiently prove, while others remain behind, which we trust will not always be lost to the world. There was in his mind a singular union of the dry light of metaphysics with the moist, warm atmosphere of feeling, and while he sometimes talked like an old Grecian sage, at other times he would tune his harp to some sweet hymn of his own, or some rare translation of an ancient Latin lyric, so compact and beautiful as to make one doubt whether he could be anything more than a poet. When he sat down to write, you might say with Robert Burns:

"Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon."

It may seem still more extraordinary to some persons that such a man should have been able to write the most exquisite humorous verses, although, indeed, the element of humor in some form belongs to almost all great men, and no one can have a well-rounded and complete intellect without it. If John Calvin had been capable of humor, it would have been a great relief to him, and to the world after him. No compend of Dr. Washburn's writings would be complete if it did not contain some specimens of his lighter verses, which are now for the most part in private hands. I think that no one ever charged him with frivolity; on the contrary, he was regarded as somewhat stern and imperious, and as a man who was desperately in earnest; and yet he could unbend and become as a child, and even seem to enjoy frivolity in others. But for this, with all the woes that he had to bear, he might have been taken from us even earlier than he was.

-- Sermon in Memorial of Rev. E. A. Washburn, D. D.

While "Song of the Communist" exemplifies Rev. Washburn's gift for writing "the most exquisite humorous verses," the 1850 send-up of Proudhon and his comically deluded disciples does not appear in the posthumous collection of Washburn's verse, Voices from a Busy Life (New York, 1883). Digitized versions of the 1883 volume are accessible via the Internet Archive:
and the Library of Congress
New York Herald - September 7, 1879
via Genealogy Bank

E. A. Washburn long recognized the appeal of utopian schemes for reforming society. At the 1879 meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in Basel, Switzerland

"Rev. Dr. Washburn, of New York, spoke at some length on the nature and dangers of Socialism. He regarded Christianity as the only source of relief for socialistic vagaries and disorders."   

-- New York Herald, September 7, 1879.

As reported in The Methodist Quarterly Review, volume 62 (April 1880) on page 273, Washburn offered practical alternatives to the destructive embrace of Socialism:

"Dr. E. A. Washburn, of New York, discussed the delicate subject of Socialism, and gave, as a solution of the dangers which threaten society at the present time, these three grounds of hope: free discussion of the present dangers by Christian men, sound home training and education in the schools, and a wise co-operation of all possible methods for relieving the working classes of the evils which oppose them."

As printed in the Literary World, the subscribed initials "E. A. W." in connection with "Newburyport" sufficiently identify Edward Abiel Washburn (then rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New­bu­ry­port, Mas­sa­chu­setts) as author of "Song of the Communist." Belatedly I checked the Index to Volume 6, and found "E. A. Washburne" twice credited under the heading POETRY, for "Song of the Communist" on May 18 and Thorwaldsen's Mercury on February 9, 1850. Re-titled "Thorwaldsen's Christ," the earlier poem was first collected in the 1859 volume Gifts of Genius: A Miscellany of Prose and Poetry; and later in Voices from a Busy Life. Nevertheless, it is gratifying to find positive confirmation of Washburn's authorship, as well as fascinating context, in the Duyckinck Family Papers at NYPL. "Song of the Communist" is specifically referenced in the following letter from E. A. Washburn to editor Evert A. Duyckinck, written at Newburyport in September 1850:

Dear Sir

I had the pleasure some months ago of reading a note from you to my friend, Mr. Gideon Nye in which you spoke very highly of some lines sent by me-- the Song of the Communist, -- and expressed a wish for further acquaintance. Let me thank you for the courtesy, and say in reply that I shall be very happy to contribute my poor scraps of prose and verse for your columns. I send you today a sonnet on Wordsworth, & some lines on Keats.

If published, I will thank you to place both together as written. The verses on Wordsworth may have somewhat more of interest since the poet's recent death.

I am 

Very truly Yours,

E. A. Washburn


Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Washburn, Edward Abiel (1819-1881)" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1851 - 1855. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/35f62d20-efb0-0133-2df0-00505686a51c

E. A. Washburn, 1850 letter to Evert A. Duyckinck
via NYPL Digital Collections

More uncollected poems by Edward Abiel Washburn

Bios of E. A. Washburn in

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Melvilliana: Melville on Justinian and Juvenal, remembered in MN

Without naming Melville or identifying any source, one Minnesota writer quoted from a newspaper account of Melville's 1857-8 lecture on Statues in Rome and attributed Melville's words to "one of our finest minds."

Melvilliana: Melville on Justinian and Juvenal, remembered in Minnesota...: Herman Melville was born 202 years ago on August 1, 1819, a Sunday just like today.  Here's a surprising find with a suitably philosophical...