So, it’s been quite an exciting week, no?
Our new President may be African American to you, but he’s Hawaiian to me! Added to that particular point of pride is that, this time, Virginia stepped up to the plate. All hail the Commonwealth!
Today, I’m celebrating with a poetic serving from my favorite Virginian, Thomas Jefferson. I mean no disrespect to the other seven Presidents from Virginia — Washington, Madison, Monroe, Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, and Wilson. It’s just that in addition to all his other talents, Jefferson was a devoted foodie :).
While reading about his gastronomic adventures recently, I discovered he was also an ardent scrapbooker. Who knew? While in office between 1801-1809, he apparently cut and pasted poems from newspapers and periodicals, arranged them thematically, then sent the books as gifts to his granddaughters.
This is just as endearing as his practice of writing down favorite recipes while he traveled in Europe!
The poems in Thomas Jefferson’s Scrapbooks, edited by Jonathan Gross (Steerforth Press, 2006), are arranged in three broad categories: Nation, Family, and Romantic Love. Though not composed by Jefferson (he wrote very little poetry himself), they offer great historical context and insight into the idiosyncratic nature of his interests. Since the majority are sentimental love poems, they also reveal aspects of his personality not examined in traditional biographies, illuminating his inner emotional life.
At first, I was surprised to learn that the man who penned the Declaration of Independence seemed equally enamored with the decidedly literary as he was with poems of a more pedestrian nature. But this actually makes perfect sense, since Jefferson was known to eschew formality, greeting ambassadors in corduroy and house slippers.
The South Square Room at Monticello doubled as a family sitting room and school room for his grandchildren, who are pictured here with Jefferson’s daughter, Martha (standing), and Israel, a slave. Painting by G.B. McIntosh.
While fulfilling his duties as President, Jefferson missed domestic life. He wrote endearing letters to his granddaughters (often enclosing poems), and was ever the benevolent tutor when it came to guiding their intellectual and social development. He advised them to “strengthen your memory by getting pieces of poetry by heart.” The practice of saving personally meaningful poems follows the romantic tradition described by Wordsworth in the closing lines of The Prelude:
“what we have loved,/others will love, and we will teach them how.”
That sort of sums up the purpose of Poetry Friday, don’t you think?
While there are many overly sentimental, erudite, and ho-hum poems in the collection, there are also many gems, including odes, epigrams, satires, parodies, songs, and elegies, written by known, unknown, young and female poets. Who can resist titles like, “On a Long Nose,” “A Squint at the Ladies,” or this one, which intimates Jefferson’s well-known love of gardening and food:
ODE ON POTATOES
Where lies the sterling taste in eating?
In the costly French ragout?
I say No, but in Potatoes;
What my gentle friend, say you?
Sordid Epicures may glory,
In the joys their feast afford;
May Contentment and Potatoes,
Ever spread my humble board.
O thou honest Irish sirloin!
How I chuckle when I see
Social on the table smoking,
Hot Potatoes stand by thee!
Here, ye nauseous frog destroyers,
Here the feasts of health behold;
Feed on these, ye wiser Irish,
If ye covet to be old.
Happiest produce are Potatoes,
Of Hibernia’s happy Isle;
The support of toiling millions,
And the glory of her sail.
These refin’d to snowy whiteness,
With Munditia’s bosom vie,
Please at once her nicest palate,
And delight the wand’ring eye.
These, in bread, in pie, or pudding.
Scallop’d, roasted, boil’d excel;
All their uses, all their value,
Not the Muse herself can tell.
Never may those virtuous Irish,
Who their King and Country serve,
Never may they want Potatoes
Who those noble roots deserve.
Yes, I would have liked this one, if I had been a Jefferson granddaughter. The best I can do is cook some potatoes tonight. Scalloped or mashed?
Enjoy your weekend. We have a brand new, totally cool President!!
To read Jonathan Gross’ intro, in which he details how he discovered the scrapbooks, click here. Fascinating.
Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Check it Out.