I have a hard time imagining our forefathers looking anything but classically posed and noble, so when I discovered that the Library of Congress has a collection of presidential poetry, I was intrigued. Poetry lends itself to vulnerable moments--love, angst, heartbreak--and offers us the chance to view our forefathers in a more raw and human light.
I was surprised to learn there was, in fact, an accomplished poet president. John Quincy Adams devoted himself to the art, saying: "Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I would have made myself a great poet." No less a critic than Emerson held Adams' poem The Wants of Man in high esteem. As for the rest of our past presidents, while they won't be winning any laurels, they have their moments.
To start, here's a love poem that a young George Washington wrote to a woman named Frances Alexa. He may have borrowed from Shakespeare's sonnet 130: My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.
From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day,
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you'l Find
Ah! woe's me that I should Love and conceal,
Long have I wish'd, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was't free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.
It's not a winter at Valley Forge disaster, but you can see Washington struggling to hold his poem together: he mangles syntax to fit the iambic pentameter, and has more than a few awkward lines. He also made things tough on himself by writing an acrostic. Does the final couplet foreshadow Washington's place in history and hint at his heroic ambitions, or did he just need to start a line with X? I'd guess a little of both. As for the poem's true success (and, I'm sure, the only thing that mattered to George) history doesn't record whether Frances was impressed.
Thomas Jefferson didn't write many poems, but he had a voracious appetite for them. He's known to have kept poetry scrapbooks, and he quoted the classics (particularly Homer, Virgil and Milton) often. The Library has a manuscript of one poem To Ellen, which Jefferson presumably wrote to his granddaughter.
Tis hope supports each noble flame,
'Tis hope inspires poetic lays,
Our heroes fight in hopes of fame,
And poets write in hopes of praise.
She sings sweet songs of future years,
And dries the tears of present sorrow,
Bids doubting mortals cease their fears,
And tells them of a bright to-morrow.
And when true love a visit pays,
The minstrel hope is always there,
To soothe young Cupid with her lays,
And keep the lover from despair.
Why fades the rose upon thy cheek;
Why droop the lilies in the vein?
Thy cause of sorrow, Ellen speak,
Why alter'd thus thy sprightly hue?
Each day, alas! with breaking heart,
I see they beauteous form decline;
Yet fear my anguish to impart,
Lest it should add a pang to thine.
This is the poem of an architect. With the exception of the strange pairing of "vein" and "hue" in the fourth stanza (which breaks the rhyme scheme) To Ellen is very well crafted. Jefferson introduces his theme in the first stanza, personifies it in the second and third, and pivots to the personal in the fourth and fifth. The lines are clean, clear, and with a few well-placed variations, stay true to the meter.
Where Jefferson's poetry is elegant and staid, Abraham Lincoln's is positively plucky. Lincoln had an affinity for light verse, writing this quickie as a young man:
Abraham Lincoln is my nameAnd with my pen I wrote the same I wrote in both hast and speed and left it here for fools to read
Gen. Lees invasion of the North written by himself--
In eighteen sixty three, with pomp, and mighty swell,
Me and Jeff's Confederacy, went
forth to sack Phil-del,
The Yankees the got arter us, and
giv us particular hell,
And we skedaddled back again,
And didn't sack Phil-del.
Jimmy Carter, the first American President to publish both a novel and a book of poetry, wrote a more muted, nostalgic take.
The More Things Change
In a musty attic box I found letters of my family in the War--
from places like Bull Run and Gettysburg
and places seldom mentioned in the books.
They said Jeb Stuart had praised some of them,
who served a cause and often gave their lives
not knowing how to tell the history they made, except a private's
point of view set down in a simple line or two:
"We have about a half enough to eat, green beef and flour,
but very little salt. Our company left Savannah heading north,
there was a hundred twenty-five of us, but since then
many of my friends have died so now they's only thirty-six left to fight.
I tell you, Mother, I am well but am not satisfied."
Aside from Carter, America's presidents haven't been very poetic of late. A poem thought to have been penned by George W. for Laura made the rounds on the net: "Roses are red/ Violets are blue/ Oh my, lump in the bed/ How I've missed you." That's sweet, I think. Anyway, it turned out it was just a rumor.
Maybe Barack Obama, who's stylish and capable poetry I covered last week, will change all that. Hillary? Hmm. Can a poem be focus-grouped?