Final Project for Arts and Humanities 2

Evil’s Fruit

The works I have chosen are The French Revolution by Washington Allston and Bitter Fruit by Abel Meeropol.  I have chosen to compare two poems that address the concept of the fruit of wickedness and are inspired by historical events that were contemporary to the poets.

Washington Allston (1779-1843), was an American Romantic painter and author who graduated from Harvard, and studied abroad while attending the Royal Academy in London.  He visited the great museums of Paris, France, during the years 1803 and 1804, and Italy from 1804-1808, before returning to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Europe and America were still reeling from horrors of the French Revolution that took place between the years 1787 and 1799.  America, though initially somewhat supportive of the revolution, was sickened by, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “those enormities which demoralized the nations of the world, and destroyed, and is yet to destroy, millions and millions of its inhabitants.”  At least 17,000 French citizens were executed by the guillotine, including children.  Many more were executed without trial–huddled into ships that were purposely sunk, burned alive, etc.–their deaths undocumented.  The sonnet compares the violence of the French Revolution to the fruits of the mythical Tree of Evil from the Garden of Eden.  As a young, sensitive artist, the accounts of brutality would have made a lasting impression on Allston.  Writing this poem, probably while still in Europe, would have been a cathartic experience for him.

The French Revolution

The Earth has had her visitation. Like to this 

She hath not known, save when the mounting waters 

Made of her orb one universal ocean. 

For now the Tree that grew in Paradise, 

The deadly Tree that first gave Evil motion, 

And sent its poison through Earth’s sons and daughters, 

Had struck again its root in every land; 

And now its fruit was ripe,—about to fall,— 

And now a mighty Kingdom raised the hand, 

To pluck and eat. Then from his throne stepped forth 

The King of Hell, and stood upon the Earth: 

But not, as once, upon the Earth to crawl. 

A Nation’s congregated form he took, 

Till, drunk with sin and blood, Earth to her centre shook.

Allston compares the causes of the French Revolution (bitter resentment, class envy) to a poison seeping from the Tree of Evil–an allusion to the biblical story of creation in the book of Genesis.  “Earth’s sons and daughters” harvested and ate of the forbidden fruit, which poisoned them with resentment, leading to the wanton slaughter of innocent and guilty alike.

The poem climaxes with the line: Till, drunk with sin and blood, Earth to her centre shook.  Washington Allston conjures up an image of Satan possessing the people of France and setting them drunk upon violence.  What started as a reasonable rebellion against an unfair class system deteriorated overnight into a blood bath from which no one was safe.  This poem was published in 1850, half a century after the fact, by which time the world had had ample time to reflect upon such a dark and twisted time in history.

Abel Meeropol was a Jewish American teacher, composer, and lyricist who was born in New York, New York in 1903 and died in Longmeadow, Massachusetts in 1986.  He published some of his works under the pen name “Lewis Allen”.  He wrote the poem Bitter Fruit in New York, USA, in 1937, a few days after viewing Lawrence Beitler’s haunting photograph of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two young black men who were lynched on August 7, 1930.  In the photo you can see their beaten and bloodied corpses hanging from a tree, surrounded by a mob that included women and children.  Lynchings and many other injustices toward African Americans were all too common during the decades of the early 20th century, especially in the deep South, but were not yet of national concern.  Abel Meeropol was deeply disturbed by Beitler’s photograph, and wrote the poem Bitter Fruit as a way to process what he had seen.

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

The “strange fruit” is not only the poor abused bodies that are hanging, but also the gleeful, unabashed malice so evident in the eyes of those in the lynch mob.  It is the fruit of generation after generation that “needed” someone to rule over, so they would not feel so bad about the things they could not control.  The “need” to be better than others results in some strange, ugly fruit indeed.  The irony in this song’s imagery is so masterful.

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root


It seems that the lyricist is addressing the fact that the root of much of the South’s “success” comes from the blood and toil of the slaves at the very earliest time in U.S. history.  Exploitation and abuse leads to more exploitation and abuse.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Gallant south?  Obviously, there is a paradox.  Mixed in with the picturesque landscapes and magnolia trees is a repugnant stench.

Like Washington Allston, Meeropol compared the acts of violence and hatred to fruit from a tree.  Unlike Allston, Meeropol does not personify the evil or attribute it to Satan.  He focuses more on the fruit, which is the pitiful corpses of the young men, and much less on the cause.  He alludes to it slightly in the line “blood on the leaves and blood at the root”.  He could be hinting to the fact that much of the South’s success was due to the blood, sweat and tears of the slaves.  He uses powerful imagery, rather than directly stating what the problem is.  The imagery sickens the reader, making him or her want to rise up and do something to fix the problem of racial injustice.  Allston’s poem is more reflective, looking back sadly on a situation that has come and gone, and can no longer be fixed.

 

 

Works Cited:

Allston, Washington. “The French Revolution.” Lectures on Art, and Poems (1850). N.p.: n.p., 1850. N. pag. Print.

“Washington Allston.” – Poetry & Biography of the Famous Poet. All Their Poems! N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Aug. 2014.

“Washington Allston”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 7 Aug. 2014

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “French Revolution.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

Crittenden, Catherine C. “French Revolution.” Thomas Jeffersons Monticello Blog RSS. N.p., 14 July 2010. Web. 6 Aug. 2014.

Meeropol, Abel. Bitter Fruit. 1937. Poem. New York, NY.

Beitler, Lawrence. Souvenir Portrait of the Lynching of Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp. 1930. Indiana Historical Society, Marion, Indiana, USA.

Janovitz, Bill. “Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday | Listen, Appearances, Song Review | AllMusic.” AllMusic. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 July 2014.

Phillips, Caryl. “Blood at the Root.” www.theguardian.com. N.p., 17 Aug. 2007. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

Blair, Elizabeth. “The Strange Story Of The Man Behind ‘Strange Fruit'” NPR. NPR, 5 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

Simkin, John. “Strange Fruit.” Spartacus Educational. N.p., Sept. 1997. Web. 7 Aug. 2014.

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