Thomas Jefferson’s Poetry
Most schoolgirls, street-people, attorneys, and Bachelors of Art are aware that Thomas Jefferson composed what is likely the most widely-known, oft-repeated sentence of our English language:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
And some will understand that by the principle expressed, much of the world enjoys an almost universal franchise … the world’s remainder shall follow along, I expect, so very summoning, so very reasonable is the truth.
Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a master of prose, of philosophical thought, of architecture, of statesmanship, of horticulture, of most every skill, task, challenge to which he applied himself. Most know that Thomas Jefferson was President of these United States, that he loved his wife, his family, that he honored his friends, that his correspondence in prose is voluminous … curious that so very many are eager to invent biographical details when so much truth is in record, where so little is in evidence.
Many know much of Thomas Jefferson that is not true, innuendo crowds-out veracity, leaving little attention space to know that Jefferson was attuned to verse, that he authored a scholarly essay upon the subject*, assembled commonplace poetry books**, those clippings from newspapers and miscellany that were a fashion well into the old 20th Century. Fewer know that Jefferson applied himself to the craft of composition in verse, with commendable success.
We cannot be certain of how many verses the great man might have composed, though we are rather certain of two, one for his daughter, the other for his granddaughter. The verse to his daughter was composed in 1826, near his end when committed to his deathbed. On July 2, two days before his death, Jefferson told his daughter, Martha Randolph, that he had composed a verse in her honor, that she should read it, when he was gone. Martha found the verse on a single sheet in a small box where her father told her it would be, and she read, “A death-bed Adieu. Th:J to MR.”
Life’s visions are vanished, it’s dreams are no more.
Dear friends of my bosom, why bathed in tears?
I go to my fathers; I welcome the shore,
which crowns all my hopes, or which buries my cares.
Then farewell my dear, my lov’d daughter, Adieu!
The last pang in life is in parting from you.
Two Seraphs await me, long shrouded in death;
I will bear them your love on my last parting breath.
The verse to his granddaughter, Ellen Coolidge, is unfinished, of uncertain date. A few scholars, to enhance personal reputation, debunk Jefferson authorship, though the verse is in a Jefferson hand, in that trailing of composition that belies copying, and no other author or source has been proposed. So here, in bunking, “To Ellen”:
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 where true love a visit pays,
The minstrel hope is allways 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 at the view?
Thy cause of sorrow, Ellen speak,
Why alter’d thus thy sprightly hue?
Each day, alas! with breaking heart,
I see they beautous form decline;
Yet fear my anguish to impart,
Lest it should add a pang to thine.
I will not be afraid whi
Perhaps you hear echoes of The Great Conversation, author to author, Homer to Virgil to Milton to Dryden to Pope to Jefferson, as I hear. Perhaps you know that Jefferson’s 1787 Great Books list is the earliest that has come to us, a list of recommendations to education, a list essentially the same as the Harvard Classics, a list despised by Progressives because it inculcates good, without concern for tones of flesh or DNA determined features.
Why bring these verses to your attention: for enjoyment, for emolument, the richness you gain in coming to possess Classive Civilization, honor in your nation’s history. Thomas Jefferson’s Poetry.
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*The 1786 “Thoughts on English Prosody”, an inquiry into meter which concluded that English poetry’s predominant characteristic is rather more accent than quantity (qualitative meter, stressed syllables, alike iambic pentameter, rather than the quantitative meter of Latin).
** From a youth of fifteen until a man of thirty, Jefferson assembled a commonplace book of favored prose and verse. Later, in 1801, Vice-President Jefferson began poetry scrapbooks, and when ready, encouraged his granddaughters to make scrapbooks of their own. Virginia Randolph Trist recounted, “whenever an opportunity occurred, he sent us books; and he never saw a little story or piece of poetry in a newspaper, suited to our ages and tastes, that he did not preserve and send it to us.”
…and, might want to add this note: James Watt, inventor in correspondence with Jefferson (regarding Jefferson’s copying press), is likely the contributor who sent to “The Bee, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer” the last two stanza of the “Ellen” verse, titled for publication “To Maria”, with this note: “It is requested as a favour that Dr. Anderson will insert the enclosed in his paper called the Bee, being the production of a genius not generally known.” Thomas Jefferson’s Poetry.
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Cover image, Jacob “Jefferson”.
Note: This poetry of Thomas Jefferson essay was recently published in the preeminent journal of classical poetry, The Society of Classical Poets.
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