Henriette Roland Holst poem for US workers


Portret van Henriette Roland Holst-van der Sch...

Portret van Henriette Roland Holst-van der Schalk, door M. de Klerk (1921). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Famous Dutch poetess, socialist, and environmentalist Henriette Roland Holst in 1907 published a poem about workers’ struggles in the USA.

She also wrote an extensive political analysis of the US workers’ movement and its mass actions, from the 1860s to 1914, from the Knights of Labor to the Industrial Workers of the World. See here. This was part of a book on mass action in general.

The theme of Henriette Roland Holst’s poem is the possibility that the workers in the USA may defeat capitalism, maybe before workers in Europe would succeed in that.

The poem is a sonnet without a title. As far as I know, it has never been translated into English. So, probably, it never reached the workers of the United States which it is about. Except maybe a minority of the small minority among them who can read Dutch.

This is my English translation from the Dutch original text of the poem, as published in Henriette Roland Holst’s poetry book, Opwaartsche Wegen (Ways Up), second edition, 1914, page 14:

America, who leans across the water
threat’ning the old proud masters of Europe,
our eyes, they fill themselves with dawning hope
for your so far fair face, o you, young Mother,

shining between sea mist as baptism baby behind veil.
Hear, growling is starting in the crater
of her deep eye; and through her flanks goes, seconds later
tempestuous breathing though her walk seems frail.

These old coasts wait for you to feed
us with your news: “my millions of wage-slaves
are rising up”. – Their scream oppressors keeps at bay.

Oh, that shoots like a star across the waves
brightly into our heart! We ask, take, like before, the lead
and free us, free us, USA.

The last two lines of the sonnet refer to the late eighteenth century, when the American revolution became an inspration for the French revolution and other change in Europe. So, tough luck for neo-conservatives and “liberal hawks” who may misread those lines in the poem as in any way related to their pet theme of “humanitarian imperialism“. There is a very big difference between capitalist imperialism on the one hand, and on the other hand, workers overthrowing capitalist imperialism, setting examples to each other across the world, as in Henriette Roland Holst’s poem.

Today, over a hundred years after the poem was written, it seems too optimistic in the short and middle long term.

Taking a more long-term view, maybe the plans this year of dock workers in the USA for a strike on May Day against the war in Iraq might be a start …

Here is the Dutch original text of the poem:

Amerika, die leunt over het water
dreigend de trotsche meesters van Euroop,
onze oogen gaan vol dagende hoop
naar uw schoon ver gelaat, o jonge Mater,

dat tussen zeedamp schittert als een doop-
kind tussen sluiers. Hoor, het gromt in den krater
van haar diep oog; en door haar flanken gaat er
onstuimige adem in zwoegenden loop.

Aan oude kusten wachten we op die tijding
van u: “mijn millioenen proletaren
staan op”. – Hun schreeuw dreunt in de luchten na.

O dat schiet als een ster over de baren
hel in ons hart! Neem weer, als eens, de leiding
en maak ons vrij, Amerika.

Engels to Florence Kelley Wischnewetsky in Zurich, on the US labour movement: here.

12 thoughts on “Henriette Roland Holst poem for US workers

  1. Hi Kitty, on behalf of the American workers, thanks for the poem. There’s a much less poetic thought making the rounds among American workers these days. The way it burst out of me was, “When the lid finally blows on this motherfucker, there’ll be blood on the fuckin’ walls.” I was angry about yet another horrific story about workplace abuse. The other side of it is that I don’t know whose blood will be on the walls. In the meantime, the lid is firmly in place. The longshoremen are threatening to strike against the war, but nobody is threatening to follow them. I haven’t heard anything. My union is so undemocratic that we no longer bother to have local meetings. We vote for the executive board, and the executive board makes the decisions. Their side of the story is that they used to have meetings and I was the only one who came to them. Anyhow, the American workers are pretty quiet lately. Keeping our heads down. But the poem and the tranlation were good.

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  2. Hi Jon, US Labor against the War are spreading the ILWU strike call, so someone may still follow the ILWU.
    Thanks for your nice comment on the Henriette Roland Holst poem, I may have another translation of her on this blog soon.

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  3. The following resolution, introduced by Bill Bachmann, was passed
    without opposition at the 19 March 2008 meeting of the New York Metro
    local of the American Postal Workers Union:

    RESOLUTION IN SUPPORT OF LABOR ACTIONS TO STOP THE WAR

    WHEREAS New York Metro has long opposed the U.S. war against and
    occupation of Iraq as unnecessary and unjust; and

    WHEREAS the Bush administration is threatening to expand the war to
    Iran and Syria; and

    WHEREAS the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is
    planning to shut down all Pacific Coast ports on 1 May 2008—
    International Workers Day, or Mayday—to protest the war; and

    WHEREAS National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) Branch 214 in
    San Francisco is requesting its members to observe a 2-minute period
    of silence in all stations on Mayday in solidarity with the ILWU;

    THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that New York Metro requests that all its
    members in all its stations observe a 2-minute period of silence at
    1AM, 9AM and 5PM on Mayday in solidarity with the actions of our
    brothers and sisters in the ILWU and NALC; and

    THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that New York Metro requests all its
    members to wear a button, ribbon, badge or some other symbol in
    protest of the war on Mayday.

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  4. Resolution in Support of ILWU May Day Action in West Coast Ports

    Whereas, the San Francisco Labor Council has a longstanding position calling for an immediate end to the US war and occupation in Iraq;

    Therefore be it Resolved that the San Francisco Labor Council supports the decision of the Longshore Caucus of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) to stop work for 8 hours on Thursday, May 1,
    2008 — International Workers Day — at all West Coast ports, to demand “an immediate end to the war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal of US troops from the Middle East.” The Council supports the decision of Branch 214 of the National Association of Letter Carriers to observe 2 minutes of silence in all carrier stations at 8:15 a.m. on May 1st, in solidarity with the ILWU action and to express their opposition to the war in Iraq; and

    Be it Further Resolved that the San Francisco Labor Council encourages other unions to follow ILWU’s call for a ‘No Peace-No Work Holiday’ or other labor actions on May Day, to express their opposition to the US wars and occupations in the Middle East; and

    Be it Finally Resolved that the San Francisco Labor Council send a letter of congratulations to ILWU President Bob McEllrath for his union’s bold initiative to use the occasion of International Workers Day to stop work to stop the war.

    Submitted by Dave Welsh, NALC 214 and adopted unanimously by the San Francisco Labor Council on March 24, 2008.

    Respectfully, Submitted by Dave Welsh, NALC 214 and adopted unanimously by the San Francisco Labor Council on March 24, 2008.

    Respectfully,

    Tim Paulson
    Executive Director

    OPEIU3 AFL-CIO 11

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