“Ambition” by John Neal

by theliterarymaiden

Here’s a poem, “Ambition,” penned by 19th-century author, poet, and all-around charismatic American ruffian John Neal. You will find two versions of the poem. The first one appears in an 1842 volume of poetry, whereas the second one is an earlier version dating to 1817. In both versions I find the last sentence of the last stanza to be of particular interest, as I think the different lines uniquely shape the conclusion of the poem. To me, the earlier version clarifies what he’s attempting to illustrate in the later version. You will find other noticeable differences throughout, especially in stanza two. 

Ambition
By John Neal
From The Poets and Poetry of America, 1842, ed. Rufus W. Griswold

I loved to hear the war-horn cry,
And panted at the drum’s deep roll;
And held my breath, when—flaming high—
I saw our starry banners fly,
As challenging the haughty sky;
They went like battle o’er my soul:
For I was so ambitious then,
I burn’d to be a slave—of men.

I stood and saw the morning light,
A standard swaying far and free;
And loved it like the conquering flight
Of angels floating wide and bright,
Above the stars, above the fight
Where nations warr’d for liberty:
And though I heard the battle-cry
Of trumpets in the hollow sky.

I sail’d upon the dark-blue deep,
And shouted to the eagle soaring;
And hung me from a rocking steep,
When all but spirits were asleep;
And, O, my very soul would leap
To hear the gallant waters roaring;
For every sound and shape of strife
To me was but the breath of life.

But I am strangely alter’d now,—
I love no more the bugle’s voice—
The rushing wave—the plunging prow—
The mountain, with his clouded brow—
The thunder, when his blue skies bow,
And all the sons of God rejoice,—
I love to dream of tears and sighs,
And shadowy hair, and half-shut eyes.

Song
N.
From The Portico, Volume 3, pp. 252-253

I’ve loved to hear the war-horns cry,
And panted at the drums deep roll,
And held my breath, when flaming high,
I saw our starry banners fly,
As challenging the haughty sky.
They talk’d of battle to my soul;
For I was so advent’rous then
I burn’d to be—the slave of men.

I’ve look’d upon the morning light,
Flushing its standard far and free,
And seen it struggle with the night,
And loved it—for it told of fight,
And every flash that triumph’d bright,
Seem’d glance of glorious Liberty.
For I was fanciful and wild
As youthful Freedoms freest child.

I’ve sail’d upon the dark blue deep,
I’ve shouted to the eaglet soaring,
And hung me from a rocking steep,
When all but my spirits were asleep;
And oh! my very soul would leap
To hear its gallant waters roaring.
For every sound that told of life,
To me, was but the breath of strife.

But I am strangely alter’d now,
I love no more the bugles voice—
The rushing wave—the plunging prow—
The mountains tempest clouded brow—
The daring—the exulting flow
Of all that made me once rejoice.
I’ve learn’d to talk of tears and sights—
And locks of gold—and dying eyes.