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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

“When Shall We Three Meet Again?”

By Helen Kendrick Johnson (1844–1917)

[Born in Hamilton, Madison Co., N. Y. Died in New York, N. Y., 1917. The Meaning of Song. The North American Review. 1884.]

THERE is a thrice familiar and yet half-forgotten song which illustrates in an odd way the power of association against that of language, if not of melody. It is “When Shall We Three Meet Again?” It is known that Samuel Webbe, a celebrated composer, born in London in 1740, wrote the music; but the words have been claimed for our country through two college traditions. One attributes them to a member of the first company of young men who devoted themselves to foreign missions, and so links them with the famous hay-stack of Williams College. Another speaks of them confidently as the work of an Indian, an early graduate of Dartmouth. In proof of the latter theory the following stanza is quoted:
  • “When around this youthful pine
  • Moss shall creep and ivy twine;
  • When these burnished locks are gray,
  • Thinned by many a toil-spent day;
  • May this long-loved bower remain,
  • Here may we three meet again.”
  • The apparent allusion to the old pine at Dartmouth, and the word “burnished,” so descriptive of an Indian’s hair, constitute an argument. An old resident of New Hampshire told me that his sister and he learned the song from hearing it sung in his mother’s house by an Indian graduate of the class of 1840. In an old English collection the lyric appears without the quoted stanza. It is there attributed to “a lady.” I judge it to be English, perhaps written by the wife of a missionary. It was so appropriately sung by the first foreign missionaries in this country that it might easily be attributed to one of them. That was about 1810, when Dartmouth College was still known as Moor’s Indian School. An Indian graduate, I conjecture, wrote for the graduating exercises, perhaps the tree-planting of his class, the stanza given above, which, although good for an Indian, is as much out of place in the lyric as a bit of wampum would be in a pearl necklace. I like to recall the beautiful original verses without the poor stanza:

  • “When shall we three meet again?
  • When shall we three meet again?
  • Oft shall glowing hope expire,
  • Oft shall wearied love retire,
  • Oft shall death and sorrow reign,
  • Ere we three shall meet again.
  • “Though in distant lands we sigh,
  • Parched beneath the burning sky;
  • Though the deep between us rolls,
  • Friendship shall unite our souls.
  • Still in fancy’s rich domain
  • Oft shall we three meet again.
  • “When the dreams of life are fled,
  • When its wasted lamp is dead;
  • When in cold oblivion’s shade
  • Beauty, wealth, and power are laid;
  • Where immortal spirits reign,
  • There shall we three meet again.”
  • If words could keep a song upon the lip, would not this one be often heard? If association were not as powerful as melody, would not the Indian stanza have been rejected?