The Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Soldier
By Melvin B. Tolson

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.


About the author

Known for his complex, visionary poetry, Melvin B. Tolson was one of America’s leading Black poets. He wrote within the modernist tradition and his work was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. Tolson was born in 1898 in Moberly, Missouri. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1924 and a master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in 1940. In 1947, Liberia appointed him as poet laureate. He is the author of numerous works, including the poetry collections Harlem Gallery: Book One, The Curator (1965), Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), and Rendezvous with America (1944), and the plays Black Boy (1963) and Black No More (1952).

Tolson had a vibrant teaching career. In Marshall, Texas, he taught English and speech at Wiley College, where he lead an award-winning debate team. From 1947 to 1965, he was a professor of English, speech, and drama at Langston University, a historically black college in Langston, Oklahoma.

Tolson’s skillful delineation of character, his ability to turn discussions of aesthetics into social commentary, his breadth of vision, and his deftness with language garnered critical acclaim.

He died in 1966, in Dallas, Texas.

(Excerpted from


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