The Unknown Soldier

By Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966
I was a minuteman at Concord Bridge,
I was a frigate-gunner on Lake Erie,
I was a mortarman at Stony Ridge,
I fought at San Juan Hill and Château Thierry,
I braved Corregidor and the Arctic Sea:
The index finger brings democracy.
 
These States bred freedom in and in my bone—
Old as the new testament of Plymouth Bay.
When the Founding Fathers laid the Cornerstone
And rued the thirteen clocks that would not say
The hour on the hour, I nerved myself with them
Under the noose in the hand of the tyrant’s whim.
 
I’ve seen the alien ships of destiny
Plow the sea mountains between the hemispheres.
I’ve seen the Gulf Stream of our history
Littered with derelicts of corsair careers.
I’ve heard the watchman cry, “The bars! The bars!”
When midnight held the funeral of stars.
 
I saw horizontal States grow vertical,
From Plymouth Harbor to the Golden Gate,
Till wedged against skyscapes empyreal
Their glories elbowed the decrees of fate.
These States bred freedom in and in my bone:
I hymn their virtues and their sins atone.
 
The tares and wheat grow in the self-same field,
The rose and thorn companion on the bush,
The gold and gravel cuddle in the yield,
The oil and grit and dirt together gush.
The Gordian knot to be or not to be
Snares not the free.
 
My faith props the tomorrows, for I know
The roots of liberty, tough-fibered, feed
On the blood of tyrants and martyrs; the judas blow
Tortures the branches till they twist and bleed;
And yet no Caesar, vitamined on loot,
Can liberty uproot!
 
I am the Unknown Soldier: I open doors
To the Rights of Man, letters incarnadine.
These shrines of freedom are mine as well as yours;
These ashes of freemen yours as well as mine.
My troubled ghost shall haunt These States, nor cease
Till the global war becomes a global peace.

Melvin Tolson, "The Unknown Soldier" from Harlem Gallery and Other Poems by Melvin B. Tolson (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1999)

Source: "Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems by Melvin B. Tolson (University Press of Virginia, 1999)

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Poet Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Subjects Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict, Mythology & Folklore, Heroes & Patriotism

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

 Melvin B. Tolson

Biography

Known for his complex, challenging poetry, Melvin B. Tolson earned little critical attention throughout most of his life, but he eventually won a place among America's leading black poets. He was, in the opinion of Allen Tate, author of the preface to Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, the first black poet to assimilate "completely the full poetic language of his time and, by implication, the language of the . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict, Mythology & Folklore, Heroes & Patriotism

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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