from Monticello in Mind: Fifty Contemporary Poems on Jefferson, edited by
Lisa Russ Spaar
As the classically trained Thomas Jefferson would have known, the word poet derives from the Greek poetes ("maker"), from poein ("to make, create, compose"). Jefferson was himself a consummate and complicated maker—a compulsive builder and tearer-down and refashioner of houses; a fluent forger of declarations, laws, statutes, nations; the founder of two institutions of higher education, West Point and the University of Virginia; an amateur and innovator in realms as various as gardening and vaccination, viticulture and surveying, beekeeping and Biblical scholarship, architecture and muslins. The author of one incomplete autobiography, Jefferson was also a conjurer of selves—a creator of truths and a creator of fictions. Perhaps because of a habit formed after a fire burned to the ground his childhood home, he became an obsessive copier, list maker, collector, and record keeper—an eloquent, prolific writer of public addresses, papers, ledgers, accountings, and thousands of letters.
Although Jefferson wrote, in an 1813 letter to the grammarian John Waldo, that "mine has been a life of business," he was for most of his life a catholic and ardent reader of poetry. His tastes ranged from what he called the "ductile and copious language" of Homer and Virgil (whom he regarded as "the rapture of every age and nation") to the sentimental and patriotic verses published in the newspapers and poetry anthologies of his day. He was the subject of many poems in his lifetime, some praising him but others taking bold potshots at his politics and his personal life, including his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. While a student of the law at William and Mary, he kept a commonplace book in which he copied out aphorisms, epigrams, and passages of verse (much of it betraying his difficulties with women). Years later, he composed an essay titled "Thoughts on English Prosody" (1786), in which, among other assertions, he declared that "the accent shall never be displaced from the syllable ... [in] English verse," that "no two persons will accent the same passage alike," and that in blank verse the poet, "unfettered by rhyme, is at liberty to prune his diction of those tautologies, those feeble nothings necessary to introtude [sic] the rhyming word."
Poetry and literature also formed an important medium for Jefferson's closest relationships. He often clipped and sent poems written by others to his family members and friends. For instance, in 1808 he sent his granddaughter Cornelia a stanza he encountered as an adolescent from Thomas White's Little Book for Little Children. It's not hard to imagine Jefferson seeing himself in both the witness and the vision depicted in this bit of verse:
I've seen the sea all in a blaze of fire
I've seen a house high as the moon and higher
I've seen the sun at twelve o'clock at night
I've seen the man who saw this wondrous sight.
Years earlier, when Jefferson's wife Martha was dying in September of 1782, she and Jefferson copied out, as verse, these lines from Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy: first, in Martha's hand, "Time wastes too fast; every letter / I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours / of it are flying over our heads like clouds of a windy day never to return"; and then in Jefferson's, "and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which / follows it, are preludes to the eternal separation which we are shortly to make!" Jefferson was to keep this paper, wrapped with a lock of Martha's hair, for the remainder of his life.
Only one surviving poem can be attributed with certainty to the pen of Jefferson himself, an "adieu" to his daughter Martha, composed just before his death:
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.
But as Kevin J. Hayes points out in The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (2008), transcriptions from Jefferson's Garden Book ledger themselves "read almost like modern verse," as in this page of entries from the spring of 1766:
Purple hyacinth begins to bloom.
Narcissus and Puckoon open.
Puckoon flowers fallen.
a bluish colored, funnel-formed flower in lowgrounds in bloom
purple flag blooms. Hyacinth and Narcissus are gone.
Wild honeysuckle in our woods open.—also the Dwarf flag & Violets
blue flower in low grounds vanished.
The purple flag, Dwarf flag, Violet & wild Honeysuckle still in bloom.
In the last decade of his life, Jefferson conceived of and laid the cornerstone for the University of Virginia, where students were able to study a traditional curriculum of law, medicine, and divinity, but also a panoply of other disciplines that included modern and ancient languages, rhetoric, belles lettres, and the fine arts. Rather than surrounding a church or chapel, which was typical at the time, the Grounds of the University were to have as their locus the Rotunda, designed by Jefferson on the model of the Pantheon in Rome and meant to house a library, a "circular room for ... books" in Jefferson's words, that would be largely supplied, initially, from his personal collection. The Rotunda was not completed until after Jefferson's death, but it is clear that Jefferson meant to place books and writing, including poetry, rather than religion, at the center of his "academical village." According to Andrew K. Smith, in an account of Jefferson's funeral written some fifty years after the event (15 October 1875), among those early University of Virginia students gathered at the Monticello grave site to pay respects to the University's deceased founder was the poet Edgar Allan Poe, "a high-minded and honorable young man, though easily persuaded to his wrong."
Jefferson, during his presidency, subscribed to at least two anthologies of verse and also assembled and occasionally lightly annotated a remarkable scrapbook of poems that he encountered, primarily as a prodigious reader of newspapers. Jonathan Gross, in his introduction to Thomas Jefferson's Scrapbooks: Poems of Nation, Family, and Romantic Love Collected by America's Third President (2006), says that poetry, his own and others', was a critical way in which Jefferson "cornmunicat[ed] with those he loved." In particular, the poems Jefferson collected for his own and his granddaughters' scrapbooks while president, Grossman says, "form a portrait of his age and offer, by contrast, a portrait of our own. If a verse seems sentimental and cloying, trivial or charming, it illustrates how our attitudes toward nation, family, and poetry itself have changed: the poems read us."
Monticello in Mind, an anthology of poems by fifty contemporary poets representing a wide range of cultural and aesthetic perspectives and all engaging in some way with Thomas Jefferson, is offered in this spirit. How do twentieth- and twenty-first-century poets "read" Thomas Jefferson—in his time and in ours? How does Jefferson appear to interpret us in these poems even as we attempt to translate, illuminate, talk back to, and puzzle over him—his legacy, his genius, his achievements, his polarizing complexities, his hypocrisies and paradoxes, his hubris and failures, his vision of the American experiment? How, by extension, might poetry's innate stereoscopy reveal anew—with Jefferson as lens or point of resistance—our nation in the late middle age of its democracy, in our moment? What might such a project reveal about us, personally and as a culture? About poetry itself?
Jefferson was, after all, perhaps foremost among his many gifts, a writer. He had a knack and a love for what Michael Knox Beran, in Jefferson's Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind (2007), calls the "broidery of words." He was so valued for his skill as a writer that his fellow Founding Fathers chose him to draft the document evincing the new nation's hopes and "self-evident" truths. Jefferson's real poetry, in fact, may reside in his memorable drafts of legislation and his speeches—even the Declaration of Independence was written to be read aloud—and it is on the strength of those writings that Beran calls Jefferson our "second-best political poet," naming Lincoln as the first. Jefferson's last physical gestures, on his deathbed, were of writing in the air. Of course what Jefferson did put into writing during his lifetime is as troublesome to some as it is prophetic, and what he chose not to record, in the course of his public and personal life, is as powerful as what he articulated. The poets in this book move into those declarations and into that silence, offering new and immediate voice to both.
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About the Author
Lisa Russ Spaar, Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose and the editor of All That Mighty Heart: London Poems (Virginia).
Monticello in Mind: Fifty Contemporary Poems on Jefferson
University of Virginia Press