Ten-year-old Esther Talbot took up her pen, dipped it in ink, and with near perfect penmanship wrote the word "Peace" atop expensive paper.
Most likely, this was how the girl from a prominent Stoughton family began her short poem in 1814, almost two years after the start of the War of 1812 and just months before Francis Scott Key penned "The Star Spangled Banner," according to Roger Hall. The local composer put her words to music after finding the poem more than two decades ago while searching the archives of the Stoughton Historical Society.
"She wasn't just talking about lilies in the field," Hall said.
She was writing an antiwar poem.
Come, gentle Peace, with smiling ray,
Beam on our land a cloudless day;
Beneath thy influence serene,
The olive wears immortal green.
The two-stanza poem never mentions the war, but "its call for calm is telling," Hall said.
"She really was sort of summarizing what a lot of people felt at the time," he said. "People just wanted the war to end."
With the fighting in Iraq raising skepticism among many Americans, Hall, who runs his music studio, Pinetree Productions, out of his home, is calling all of his music contacts in search of a singer or choir to perform the song, as well as another, "The Dark Night is Ending," written by poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). He hopes to find an audience for the classical music.
"Come, Gentle Peace" was first performed by a local choir in 1981, during the centennial for Stoughton Town Hall, but Hall believes the time is right to release his song that may express what many Americans are feeling.
"There are so few protest kinds of songs out there," Hall said. "It seems unpatriotic to write something against war."
American history, however, is rich with poets who expressed antiwar sentiment.
Walt Whitman's experiences as an orderly in a military field hospital during the Civil War transformed the tone of his poetry from ardent patriotism to vitriolic anger, said Mason Lowance, professor of English and 19th-century American literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
"The first stanza of 'Leaves of Grass' is very patriotic; the preface is extremely pro-American," he said. "Then the war comes seven or eight years later. He's up to his armpits, literally, in blood and gore, and he changes completely."
Antiwar poetry normally comes out of a specific event that touches the poet deeply, Lowance said.
Gail Mazur, a poet and author of "They Can't Take That Away From Me," a collection of poems, agreed.
The best antiwar poems tend to come from those who have experienced battle, she said.
The Vietnam War produced great poetry, including "Facing It," by veteran Yusef Komunyakaa, about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But finding a successful contemporary poem calling for peace or bemoaning the losses of war is difficult.
"I haven't seen it, partly because it's very hard to do it so well that you could see it published in places," said Mazur, who teaches poetry at Emerson College. "I think the more authentic your own experience, the more interesting it's going to be."
When Talbot wrote her poem, the war was fought on American soil, making the events more real, Hall said. "The war had been going on for a couple of years," he said.
"It was pretty bad there for a while. The British had sacked Washington, D.C., and there was concern the country could have been lost completely."
But for all the maturity she displayed in her poem, Talbot never rose to fame as a writer, Hall said. According to an 1892 obituary Hall found, Talbot became a teacher, married, and had two children before dying at age 89.
"She never failed to respond to an appeal for help from others in the time of sickness or bereavement, and the hours she spent by the bedside of the sick and dying would aggregate many days of her life," the obituary read.