Quotable Pennsylvania: The Poets

As I searched for quotes about Pennsylvania, I noticed many came from journalists, politicians, and historians. I suppose this makes sense; these are the types of people whose writings are more likely to survive and are easy to find today. But a pleasant surprise was finding several poems that said a lot about Pennsylvania too. Most of these poems are pretty glowing accounts of the state and its people, the writers were drawn to nature and its wonders in Pennsylvania. And who can blame them?!

Some of these poets are probably familiar to you. I thought it was really cool that Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about Pennsylvania!

I had really hoped that I would be able to find a good Pennsylvania poem written by a woman or a person of color. The state has been home to many notable poets like William Tecumseh Barks and Moor Mother. My dream was to find a poem about the state by Phillis Wheatley or someone like her. If you know any other poems that have great descriptions of Pennsylvania please share.

 I was most surprised to find the poem on Pennsylvania coal country by Jonathan Holden. A New Jersey native, Holden spent most of his career at the University of Kansas and was actually the poet laureate of Kansas in 2005. We’re lucky to have his take on Pennsylvania, you’ll see it differs a lot from these other poems!

Aloysia Thomas, “Late Afternoon, Maysville, Penna.” Oil on canvas, c. 1935-1939. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“Never in tenderer quiet lapsed the day
From Pennsylvania’s vales of spring away
Where, forest-walled, the scattered hamlets lay
Along wedded rivers. One long bar
Of purple cloud, on which the evening star
Shone like a jewel on a scimitar
Held the sky’s golden gateway. Through the deep
Hush of the woods a murmur seemed to creep,
The Schuylkill whispering in a voice of sleep”

-John Greenleaf Whittier, 1872
“The Pennsylvania Pilgrim”

“Beneath the temp’rate zone the country lies,
And heat and cold with grateful change supplies.
To fifteen hours extends the longest day,
When sol in cancer points his fervid ray:
Yet here the winter season is severe;
And summer’s heat is difficult to bear.
But western winds oft cool the scorching ray,
And southern breezes warn the winter’s day.
Yet oft, tho’ warm and fair the day begun,
Cold storms arise before the setting sun:
Nay, oft so quick the change, so great its pow’r,
As summer’s heat, and winter, in an hour!
So violent the wind, that oft the ground
With rooted trees is cover’d wide and round.”

-Thomas Makin, 1729
“A Description of Pennsylvania, Anno 1729”

Aaron Bohrod, “Pennsylvania Highway.” Lithograph on paper, 1942. Smithsonian American Art Museum

“sometimes you come on a whole
valley that’s one gray excavation.
Each valley saddens me.
Its like seeing someone you know
but can hardly recognize anymore,
scarred up, shaved, sick
from a long operation,
only the operation’s still going on,
and there are no doctors-
just dump trucks in the distance
raising dust.”

-Jonathan Holden, c. 1990
“Driving Through Coal Country in Pennsylvania” from “Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life”

“Still the pine-woods scent the noon; still the catbird sings his tune;
Still the autumn sets the maple-forest blazing;
Still the grape-wine through the dusk flings her soul-compelling musk;
Still the fire-flies in the corn make the night amazing!
The things that truly last when men and time have passed,
They are all in Pennsylvania this morning!”

-Rudyard Kipling, 1910
“Philadelphia” from “Rewards and Fairies”

“I have been in Pennsylvania,
In the Monongahela and the Hocking Valleys.

In the blue Susquehanna
On a Saturday morning
I saw the mounted constabulary go by,
I say boys playing marbles.
Spring and the hills laughed.

And in places
Along the Appalachian chain,
I saw steel arms handling coal and iron,
And I saw the white-cauliflower faces
Of miners’ wives waiting for men to come home
From the day’s work.

I made color studies in crimson and violet
Over the dust and domes of culm at sunset.”
-Carl Sandburg, 1922
“Pennsylvania” from “Smoke and Steel”

Unidentified, “Erie Railroad.” Oil on canvas, 19th century. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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