Where Politics Meets Poetry
A Review of “These Are the Times that Try Men’s Souls” by John Armor
What a treat this book is to read! I’m a political philosophy buff who also loves poetry, and never before have I been able to satisfy both passions in a single volume.
“These Are the Times that Try Men’s Souls” is a collection of the essential passages from the works of Thomas Paine, as selected by editor John Armor. Paine is the man whose writings gave the residents of thirteen separate colonies a unified sense of identity as Americans, and inspired them to fight and win the Revolutionary War.
Armor organizes the passages into twelve “cantos” by subject, under headings including, for example, “On Tyranny,” “On the American Crisis,” and “On Science & Reason.” Thus you might move from an excerpt from Common Sense to one from The Rights of Man, and on to a letter to Samuel Adams. Some readers consider Paine’s books to be difficult to read, as you spend your time wading through lengthy passages searching for the nuggets of gold. Armor gathers all the nuggets into a single mother lode.
This would be a worthy contribution by itself, but Armor goes even further. The real genius of Armor’s book lies in its unique presentation of Paine’s text. Armor’s great insight is to recognize that underlying Paine’s prose, which looks ordinary enough on the page, is the rhythmic structure of blank verse. Armor explains that Paine was writing for an audience consisting largely of illiterates, who would hear his works read aloud, so he wrote with the technique of a poet. According to Armor, “Paine recognized the power of poetry. He understood that it is not a matter of rhyme, but is a matter of style and rhythm. He was right; words written in ‘heroic measure’ are more memorable and communicate better, not just then but for all time.”
Rather than using standard sentence and paragraph structure, Armor lays out the copy as if it were verse, so each page looks like it comes from Shakespeare or Homer rather than a political science text. As a result, each passage retains the clarity of good prose, but gains the immediacy and poignancy of poetry, and often its power. Here’s an example taken from “Common Sense,” which was published in 1776. Try reading it out loud:
We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us,
To form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth.
We have it in our power to begin the world over again.
A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened
Since the days of Noah until now.
The birthday of a new world is at hand,
And a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains,
Are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.
With powerful words like these, is it any wonder Thomas Paine was able to inspire Americans to form the United States and take their place among the nations of the earth?
One last point: in mining for his golden nuggets, Armor goes beyond the passages familiar to a political philosophy student, in my case “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis,” to pull worthy material from Paine’s other books and papers. Here’s a brief excerpt from “The Age of Reason” about one of my favorite Americans that put a smile on my face:
Those who knew Benjamin Franklin
Will recollect that his mind was ever young;
His temper ever serene. Science, that never
Grows grey, was always his mistress.
He was never without an object;
For when we cease to have an object, we become
Like an invalid in a hospital, waiting for death.
This book would serve well as a high school or college textbook.
Thomas Paine was a master wordsmith, and John Armor gives him a fresh new look by presenting his finest work to its best advantage. You can order it on Amazon.com. Enjoy the read!
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