Of scorching flames and searing sparks I sing, brought to the tiny village in the cold, dark night by fate in an infelicitous attack. The orange fire and evil men burst upon the unsuspecting Dutchmen as a crafty eagle swoops down from the heavens and carries away a bewildered field-mouse- before he realizes he is about to die he is already dead. Who, you may wonder, was this devious enemy that preyed upon a slumbering village in the night? How did such men come to the tiny town of Schenectady, and what was their purpose? I have often pondered this myself. Tell me, Muse, what was the reason? Was it some unacknowledged offence that drove the men to destroy? Or rather was it retribution, whose wrath and fury obliterate all reason? Let us hear the tale and engrave it upon our hearts, though who has the words to tell the night’s disaster, the deaths? The village paid the penalty of blood. Bewail our loss we may not but rather acknowledge our sins. For when the measure of our iniquities is full, as it will be shown, we are cut down and almost exterminated.
There was a peaceful village they called Schenectady- a colony of newcomers from Holland- a city far from the land of the Frenchmen who would destroy them. Traders they were, and clever ones. Amiable to the Indians and affable with the English, these Dutchmen lived in careless peace and prosperity. Lackadaisical abundance never lasts long, and thus it was to be with the fate of the Dutch traders. Their success was not to endure, no, they were to be crushed and mutilated by the jealousy of the French, Algonquin, and Sault. The fates had so decreed. These foreigners would endure frenzied winds and a treacherous journey to reach their target, while all the while the town lay in comfortable openness and disarray, blithely unaware of the bevy of madness steadily approaching its gates from the north.
With Montreal scarce out of the sight, the enemy turned the ice under their feet into powder with their brazen boots. All around them the Wind howled as a banshee when she sees her own formerly fair face in the reflective glass, and yet still they trekked unflinchingly across the terrain. The wrestling Winds and the raging storms are not restrained. If there is anyone able to subdue the madness, they do not oblige. As they march, the men’s bodies are swayed but their souls are steadfast. Neither roaring gust nor turbulent tempest will turn them from their course. Their minds are set, and will not be turned.
Their hearts were as ice as they considered the task before them. They gave no thought to the women and children that would surely suffer. Indeed, any remnant of compassion they might once have harbored had been turned to ice as thick as that that covered Lake Champlain as they crossed it. Oh, God, if only the layer had proceeded to melt and the men swept under the surface of the sea. How many Dutchmen then would have been spared! Alas, it was not to be, for Lake Champlain remained immutable as stone as the enemy staunchly stepped across.
Black night hangs in the air, and around the dying embers Lemoine and D’Aillebout converse. Lieutenants they were, dispatched to carry out the wicked deed by the King himself and his seedy henchman Count Frontenac. The Sault and Algonquin leaders join them, and they talk into the night. The plan is solidified. They will not attack the capital. Who knows what sort of protection surrounds it? Nay, it is far more feasible to set our sights on Schenectady, they decide. And so the fate of the Dutchmen is sealed. Still, they are horribly unaware of the impending danger that will consume them. A few steps away from where the leaders talk, the limbs of a Frenchman fall slack with chill. During the day, his eyes are steely, his mouth hard. But in the all enveloping forgiveness of the night, he rolls over and sighs. “Une telle attention qu'ils accordent à la mort,” he whispers, and lifts his eyes to stars. “Pourquoi ont-ils lui donner autant d'efforts?” Alas, if only his heart would remain so! But as the sharp light eclipses the swirling blackness, his stoic stance resumes, and there is no trace of humanity in his blank countenance. After their brief respite in the shadowy grove of Fort Edward, the men muster their strength and march on.
Meanwhile the Dutchmen make use of the clear morning light. Just as in the early summer toil under the sun occupies the bees when they stockpile honey or raise their young to maturity, the work of the fervent traders blazes on, and the city bustles with earnest labor. Upright Adam Vrooman leads his family in their morning tasks before departing from them with a kiss on the cheek to attend the town meeting. His daughter Christina hugs him tight before settling the baby on her hip and helping her mother polish the raftered rooms to perfection. The house sparkles with Holland cleanliness, and its inhabitants are content with their lot. The day is February 8, 1694, and although the Vrooman’s do not know it, a party of enraged and unfeeling men is steadily approaching their peaceful settlement. Their footsteps come closer with every tick of the clock. Nevertheless, careless laughter resounds throughout the house, and across the village the mood is genial.
As dusk draws near, the enemy halts outside the city gates. In one last council, they deliberate. After satisfying themselves that the stockade is unlocked, they huddle around the outskirts of Alplaus. Restless in the bitter cold, and with the Wind still howling ominously, the men are hard pressed to wait to attack. At last, when the darkness is safely around, they quietly open the stockade. Furtively they disperse, three or four men in front of each house. The candles have been blown out, the little ones are snug in bed, and there is no sound or sight across the whole village. The lurking soldiers can scarce be seen in the dark. They appear as mere shadows, and O God, would that they were.
In painful silence they await the cry that will spur them to destroy. Inside the little houses, the Dutch people are soundly asleep, and they are oblivious to the death that looms so near. The doom of the innocent is approaching, and there is no one of them aware. Indeed, even now, their fate is certain. The black statues surrounding will soon spring to life, and bring an end to the silent night.
At last with a blood curdling cry, the signal for attack resounds. All at once, as though they had rehearsed it for years, the enemy strikes. The houses are quickly given up to flames, and as its inhabitants stumble bleary eyed into the cold, they are immediately shot and their scalps added to the belts of the fierce Indians. From house to house the story is the same, like unsuspecting field mice the Dutchmen hardly have a chance to realize their enemy, and before they know it, the lie dead on the blood soaked snow. The whirling Wind masks their cries as loved ones are torn from their arms and thrown mercilessly into the flames. Not one is able to stop this madness, not one has put up a fight. Cruelly, the Frenchmen continue their massacre, and are shown no resistance. The victory is as certain as the budding of the tulips in May. It is expected, awaited, and received without surprise.
Amidst the victims being silently executed there is a commotion outside the home of upright Adam Vrooman. Standing outside his burning house he attempted to distract the executors so that his wife and children would have time to escape. Struggling, he stretched his hands towards the looming soldier’s weapon, his hand over the muzzle of the gun with the intent of wresting it from the enemy’s grip. The mouth of the Frenchman twisted with sick amusement as he pulled the trigger, sending a flying bullet through the hero’s hand. Upright Adam recoiled and fell to the ground in agony. Smirking with the smoking rifle still hot in his hand, the wicked man aimed as though to shoot again and end his life, but a steady hand on his arm caused him to look up. Lemoine’s eyes were on Adam’s body. “Leave him alone,” he said quietly. “His life and property are to be spared. I admire, however reluctantly, the spirit of this man. As for his family…they concern me not.” He disappeared into the blackness and the other soldier turned without mercy to the shaking girl with the baby on her hip before him. She cowered and tried to turn away but the evildoer caught her arm and asked with feigned concern, “My dear, is the child too heavy for you?” Quaking Christina without thinking agreed, and he pried the babe from her grip and dashed it against the sill of the house. Christina’s scream was stifled by the roaring Wind and the gunshot that snuffed out her life as quickly as a single breath rids the candle of the flame. O God, with such wrath you have condemned us! Surely this is the extent of your anger! Surely there can be no fuller demonstration of your upset- For what was poured upon the sleeping city that night was most terrible to see. As foes moved among the flames, the entire city fell into fire and ash.
The burning continued for two fervid hours into the night, and those Dutch who were not killed by the flames soon succumbed to the clutches of the bitter cold. Now I must tell of a man whose bravery was second to none; indeed, he showed a spirit worthy of the Dutch name, and that man was Simon Schermerhorn. Out of the rubble and ash he mounted his horse and escaped through the north gate. Wounded, he nevertheless pressed on to the Capital. In the hour of darkness and peril this man rode with cries of defiance, not of fear. All heard his message, and Albany was spared. The watchful wind still howled as morning dawned, and the unforgiving sun shed its light on the grim scene. For who can hide from the sun? If you know any one able to do so, send him to me. Amid the ruins and smoldering rubble the French rounded up their prisoners and prepared to make the journey back to their native country. Steely as ever, Lemoine and D’Aillebout sent their choice prisoners across the Mohawk to the Sanders mansion, home of John Glen. “In return for your kindness to our French prisoners when they were held captive by the savages,” said Lemoine, “You may pick out from among these captives your relatives.” Quick witted John Glen carefully considered this, and just as the five loaves were turned to five thousand that day in Galilee, the number of Glen’s blood relations increased hastily. The good man could not save everyone, and later that day, 27 Dutchmen departed with the enemy, never to be seen again.
The desolation they left behind looked helplessly at their backs as they turned, dissatisfied, towards Montreal. Although the houses were smoldering and the victims sprawled on the streets, it was not enough for the wicked French. “What have we accomplished,” Lemoine asked himself on the trek homeward, “other than to prove that we Frenchmen can endure long and painful sorties?” Just as Aeneas left unhappy Dido without fathom of the destruction he had inflicted, the enemy turned its back on the smoking village, not understanding the extent of their calling.
Commentary and Close ReadingEdit
Vergil’s Aeneid is a sweeping epic with many themes. These include the primacy of fate, suffering of wanderers, and the glory of Rome. The portrait of Aeneas is another major aspect of the poem. Within these themes, motifs such as prophecy, prediction, and vengeance inform the broader interpretation. Symbols such as flames, gates, and the weather also play a role in developing the story. In my poem, I endeavor to apply these Vergilian techniques in order to suggest a more complex vision of the massacre of Schenectady that occurred on February 8, 1694. In the early lines of my poem, I wrote: “Bewail our loss we may not but rather acknowledge our sins. For when the measure of our iniquities is full, as it will be shown, we are cut down and almost exterminated.” Just as Vergil turns from the narrative to wonder, “Tantane animis caelestibus irae?” in Book One, or through Panthus expresses a certain acceptance of the fate of Troy with “It has come-the final day and Troy’s inevitable time. We Trojans were; Troy has been; gone is the giant glory of the Teucrians.”, I expressed both that I am an omniscient narrator and that the fate of Schenectady is sealed.
In part two of my poem I describe Schenectady in much the same manner as Vergil does Carthage in lines 1.19-50. Vergil’s illustration of Carthage as asperrima belli is similar to Schenectady’s reputation as clever traders in my poem. These tidbits of detail serve to provide the reader with characterizations in which to place the cities. As Vergil proceeds with his description, he also establishes his role as all-knowing. He is aware of the ending fate will direct, and this aspect is also incorporated into my poem with the line: “Their success was not to endure, no, they were to be crushed and mutilated by the jealousy of the French, Algonquin, and Sault. The fates had so decreed.” In both the Aeneid and my poem, the omniscience of the narrator is established within the first few lines, and this effectively develops the ominous tone of the story, and draws the reader in. Although by this point, readers know what’s going to happen, the suspense is heightened with lines like these.
The winds Eurus and Zephyrus, along with their god Aeolus, are portrayed as major obstacles in Book One of the Aeneid. Throughout the book, Aeneas and his men are constantly buffeted by the winds. Although they are controlled by Aeolus, the winds seem to take on lives of their own in the Aeneid. We hear that the winds hurry through the beach, hammers full against the sails, and that they rage in indignation when King Aeolus tames them. Line 1.55 reads: “Illi indignantes magno cum murmere montis circum claustra fremunt.” In the same way that the winds are given personalities in the Aeneid, I portray them as raging and mad in part three of my poem. In both poems, the winds are an additional adversary. Not only must Aeneas overcome the men who threaten his calling, but even nature is turned against him. Of course, there are gods commanding every storm in the Aeneid, whereas in my poem, the weather is fierce and not wielded by anyone. In my poem, the wind works against both the enemy and the village. The same wind that made the journey difficult for the French, Algonquin, and Sault also brought about the death of the villagers who escaped from the siege to hide in the woods and died of cold. In the Aeneid, the Winds have no allegiance but they do have a master, whereas in my poem they are uncontrolled and oppressive to all.
In Book Two of the Aeneid, Aeneas tells of the fall of Troy. In lines 75-80, he remarks: “Had the outcome not been fated by the gods, and had our minds not wandered off, Laocoon would then have made our sword points foul the Argive den; and, Troy, you would be standing yet and you, high fort of Priam, you would still survive.” Even now after the fact, Aeneas still expresses a “would that only this had happened!” sentiment that again illustrates the decisive end fate decreed. In part four of my poem I lament: “Oh, God, if only the layer had proceeded to melt and the men swept under the surface of the sea. How many Dutchmen then would have been spared! Alas, it was not to be, for Lake Champlain remained immutable as stone as the enemy staunchly stepped across.” In both scenes, the reader is given a momentary glimpse of what could have been before being brought back into the unfortunate reality of the actual conclusion.
In part five of my poem, we are given a glimpse of the compassionate side of a usually fierce Frenchman. As he lies on his back in the cold night, he becomes disgusted with the obsessive plotting of Lemoine and Diocletian’Aillebout. Like Mezentius in Book X of the Aeneid, this unnamed man realizes his role in the bloody scheme and feels guilty. In lines 854-856 Mezentius said: ““I should have given my guilty life up, suffering every death. I live still. Not yet have I taken leave of men and daylight. But I will.” Of course, Mezentius is driven to this statement by his grief, but the sentiment is the same. Both characters are meant to evoke our sympathy. The Frenchman has much potential. He could have rebelled. Similarly to Turnus, the Frenchman is initially roused to war but then left to his own devices becomes an unwilling combatant. However, fate decrees that his humanity be suppressed, and it disappears as soon as the dawn comes.
The simile in the opening of part six of my poem recalls Aeneid 1.611-618, where Vergil compares the Carthaginians to bees. Vergil often borrowed or alluded to other poets in his similes. One example is Aeneid 9.578-581, where the death of Euryalus is compared to poppies severed by a plow. This is almost directly taken from Catullus’ Poem 11. Vergil’s audience would have been familiar with Catullus’ poetry much like the readers of my poem have a thorough familiarity with the Aeneid and will appreciate the allusion.
In part six of my poem, we are introduced to Adam Vrooman, the hero of the night. Adam’s situation is similar in some ways to that of Aeneas. I wouldn’t equate him with Aeneas but certainly there are several similarities in their situations. First, I have assigned him the epithet “upright”. This automatically jumps out as an obvious nod to the hero of Vergil’s epic, pious Aeneas. In the Aeneid, Vergil uses epithets to explicitly remind us of a character’s fate. Another example is “unhappy Dido” or “luckless Dido”. In my poem, Adam Vrooman is marked as “upright” because of his actions on the night of February 8. Epithets in both the Aeneid and my poem show the reader what’s about to happen before it happens and also confirm the omniscience of the poet to the reader. Even before the narrator launches into a description of the events in which the labeled one behaves in accordance with his epithet, we know he will behave so because we have been introduced to him as “upright Adam”. We know he has no choice but to behave in a valiant manner, otherwise, the poet would not have assigned him the given epithet.
Parts seven, eight, and nine include several Vergilian similes, the presence of the independent wind, and a description of the soldiers as shadows. In a Virgilian aside, the poet laments: “would that they were!” Throughout the Aeneid Vergil creates an astute perspective and understanding of human suffering. By focusing on the Vrooman family in my poem I attempted to do the same. I specifically included scenes I felt drew the readers’ sympathy and portrayed the humanity of all the villagers through this one family. Vergil does the same thing with Juturna’s words upon the death of her brother Turnus in Book Twelve. In lines 870-874 her grief echoes the feelings of all the Rutulians: “Despairing, then she fell upon her cheeks with nails, upon her breast with clenched hands. ‘Turnus, how can your sister help you now? What action is still open to me, soldierly though I have been?...Now I withdraw, now leave this war.” Vergil ends the Aeneid with the death of Turnus. In similar fashion, my poem ends with a picture of the smoldering village. Throughout my poem, Vergil’s techniques of employing simile, applying epithets, lamenting asides, and honing in on scenes that show his character’s humanity are invoked.