Ina Coolbrith came to San Francisco at age 21 in the middle of the Civil War. On Christmas Eve 1863, she sat in her Russian Hill parlor as the rest of her family slept and the clock on the mantel kept time with her "midnight thought."
Ina was a Union girl, but that wasn't a given in California. One year earlier she had lived in Los Angeles where Union troops drilled in the streets to quell Confederate sympathizers. After she moved to San Francisco she showed allegiance to the Union by attending a festival organized by Thomas Starr King, the minister of the First Unitarian Church who was known as the orator who saved the nation.
Ina was reeling from a divorce she had obtained a year earlier after her husband tried to kill her with a six-shooter, but on this night her personal melancholia made way for a broader pathos. Here's the heart of her twenty-one stanza poem "Christmas Eve: 1863,” published in the Golden Era:
A thought of the gory trenches,
Dark-seaming our Country’s plain,
Where the forms of friend and foeman,
Rest—never to rise again!
Where the gold-tinted curls of boyhood,
Dark tresses of manhood’s prime,
And the silvery locks of the aged,
Commingle in dust and slime...
Each sabre that clashed in the carnage,
Each bullet that whizzed thro’ the air,
Hath sped to some desolate house-hold
A message of death and despair.
Yet we sing of the splendor of battle,
“The pomp and glory of war!”
Oh, God! Could those battle-fields open,
And show what their trophies are:
Could the thousands of maimed and mangled,
Of widowed and orphaned, be led
To the rivers, and hills and valleys,
That are drunk with the blood of their dead:
How quickly would rage melt to sorrow,
How silenced the cannon’s roar;
And the hands that are clenched in combat,
Be clasped in love, once more!
Fifty-two years later Ina Coolbrith was crowned California’s first poet laureate during the Panama Pacific International Exposition, an honor that made her the first state laureate in the nation.