1] William Booth (1829-1912) founded the Salvation Army in London in 1865 to yoke Christians to social work. His missionary organization spread to the United States 15 years later. Lindsay writes about the making of this poem in Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1923): 21-22:
The poem called "General Booth Enters Heaven" was built in part upon certain adventures while singing these songs. When I was dead broke, and begging, in Atlanta, Georgia, and much confused as to my next move in this world, I slept for three nights in the Salvation Army quarters there. And when I passed through Newark, New Jersey, on another trip I slept in the Salvation Army quarters there. I could tell some fearful stories of similar experiences. I will say briefly, that I know the Salvation Army from the inside. Certainly, at that time, the Army was struggling with what General Booth called the submerged tenth of the population. And I was with the submerged.
In the spring of 1912 the news went around the world that the great founder of the Army had gone blind. Every Sunday newspaper had a full-page picture of the blind General. Later came the announcement of his death, with elaborate biographies. Later in these same newspapers, all over the world, came the story of his life as told by himself. So much has happened since, such rivers of blood have run under the bridges of the world, that this succession of newspaper features has been forgotten. Meanwhile the fanatical Salvation Army, that was like the Franciscans of the Strict Observance in the very earliest days of St. Francis, has emerged as a prosperous rival of the Y. M. C. A.
By General Booth's own story, quoted incessantly by the papers the year of his death, he went into the lowest depths of London, by malice aforethought and deliberate intention to rescue the most notoriously degraded, those given up by policeman, physician, preacher and charity worker. He reiterated in his autobiography that he wanted to find those so low there were none lower. He put them into uniform. He put them under military discipline. He put them in authority over one another. He chose their musical instruments, and their astonishing tunes. The world has forgotten what a scandal to respectable religion the resulting army was when it began. It was like the day St. Francis handed all his clothes to the priest, or the day he cut off the hair of St. Clara. In my poem I merely turned into rhyme as well as I could, word for word, General Booth's own account of his life, and the telegraph dispatches of his death after going blind. I set it to the tune that is not a tune, but a speech, a refrain used more frequently in the meetings of the Army on any public square to this day. Yet I encounter a great number of people who are sure they have never heard of the General, the army or the tune, or who ask me if I wrote the poem to "make sport."
7] Drabs: prostitutes.
Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department
of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.
Original text: Vachel Lindsay, General William Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems (London: Chatto and Windus, 1919): 1-4. PS 3523 I58G4 1919 Robarts Library. Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1923): 123-25.
First publication date: 1919
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1998.
Recent editing: 2:2002/4/4
Form note: mainly couplets
Other poems by Vachel Lindsay