George Washington and Poetry
A teenaged George Washington has been credited with penning several love poems. The examples offered here exhibit a youthful enthusiasm as well as an immature command of language.
The poems also offer a unique glimpse into the state of mind of one of America's most important statesmen.
"From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone"
The young lady's name was Frances Alexander, and after she captured the heart of the young George Washington, he wrote the following twelve-line acrostic—spelling out her name vertically; it is not clear why he did not complete her last name:
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.
Washington's speaker first gushes about the brightness of his love's "sparkling Eyes," which have "undone" him. Typical to those verses that glorify through exaggeration, he finds that no one can equal her "bright array."
She is calm, has an "unspotted Mind," but sorrowfully, she has not been kind to the lovesick speaker. He suffers the pains of love. But he reports that even the great hero Xerxes "was't free from Cupids Dart."
Musical rendition of Washington's poem "From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone"
"Oh Ye Gods why should my Poor Resistless Heart"
The love interest of the second poem, also a twelve-line offering, has not been identified, but the relationship is quite similar to that portrayed in the acrostic. The speaker again is suffering the pain of not having his love returned by the lady whose charms have smitten him:
Oh Ye Gods why should my Poor Resistless Heart
Stand to oppose thy might and Power
At Last surrender to cupids feather'd Dart
And now lays Bleeding every Hour
For her that's Pityless of my grief and Woes
And will not on me Pity take
Ill sleep amongst my most Inviterate Foes
And with gladness never with to Wake
In deluding sleepings let my Eyelids close
That in an enraptured Dream I may
In a soft lulling sleep and gentle repose
Possess those joys denied by Day.
In the first quatrain, the speaker addresses the "gods" asking why he has not been able to fight off the arrows of that god, Cupid. Because he has failed to achieve victory over Cupid, his poor heart now "lays (sic: lies) Bleeding every Hour."
(Today, the word "God" as used here would be not be capitalized, just as "Poor Resistless Heart" would not be capped. English and early America writers used to capitalize much more freely than now—likely influenced in part by the fact that in German, a cousin language to English, all nouns are always capitalized.)
The second quatrain announces somewhat dramatically that the speaker, because his lady will not take pity on him and yield to his love, will volunteer to go off to war and gladly die "amongst [his] most Inviterate Foes." Of course, he means "inveterate."
In the final quatrain, he suggests that he might be able to settle for dreaming about the woman; thus, he asks that be allowed to just close his eyes and drift off into "a soft lulling sleep" so he can "Possess those joys denied by Day." He can fulfill his wishes by simply dreaming about the target of his desire.
George Washington's Presidency
George Washington, somewhat like Abraham Lincoln, loved poetry, and the first president even penned a couple of love poems. His love of freedom and wish for his country to become a republic kept him from becoming a king or dictator or even accepting a third terms as president.
Turning down the offer of serving a third term, George Washington could have become a king or a dictator had he chosen. But his love for freedom and his desire for his country to become a republic guaranteed his refusal for such undemocratic positions.
George Washington was born to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington February 22, 1732, on his father’s plantation near Popes Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia. George was the first of six children born to Augustine and Mary Washington. By his first wife, Jane Butler Washington, Augustine also had three children, two sons, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr, and one daughter, Jane.
George's family moved from the Popes Creek Plantation to Little Hunting Creek Plantation, which was later renamed Mount Vernon and became the Washington official home. But before settling down at Mount Vernon, he moved with his family to Ferry Farm, a plantation on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia; it was here that George spent most of his childhood. His older, half-brother, Lawrence, lived at Mount Vernon.
Not much factual information is known about the first president’s childhood; that is probably why so many legends have grown up around his early life, such as the chopping down the cherry tree tale that has been disputed, and that he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac, an impossible feat.
George had a rudimentary education. Because of the death of his father when George was only eleven years old, George received less education than most boys of his gentry class received. He was unable to go to England to finish his schooling as most gentry boys did. He later tried to make up for his lack of schooling by extensive reading, and he always prized education as an important asset.
Lawrence suggested that George join the British Navy, probably as way of seeing the world, improving his education, and procuring an interesting career, but because George was only fourteen years old, his mother would not give consent. So George became a land surveyor, which, by the time he was seventeen turned out to be satisfying and useful career for him. He worked hard and bought land in his effort to fit into the gentry class.
George traveled with his brother Lawrence to Barbados after Lawrence contracted tuberculosis. In Barbados, George saw military installations and became interested in the military after speaking with British soldiers. He came down with small pox but quickly recovered; however, it is thought that the disease rendered him sterile because he and his future wife, Martha, had no natural children.
After Lawrence died, George inherited the plantation called Mount Vernon, which later became the famous home of the first president. George also took Lawrence’s place in the Virginia militia as a major; this was the beginning of George’s important military career.
Not only is George Washington noted as the first president, he is also America’s first hero, because of his extensive military experience. Although he lost many battles in military career, he helped win the most important ones, and his compatriots admired him for it.
George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and when it came time to elect a president of the country, his compatriots naturally looked to him to fill that position. He was unanimously elected president in 1789, the only president to be so elected.
Organizing the executive branch of government fell to the first president; he chose Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, and Henry Knox, as Secretary of War. James Madison was one of his most trusted advisors. This assembly of men represented some of the most talented and capable minds of the time period.
Washington served two terms as president, and he has been admired and held as an example of integrity for turning down the offer of serving a third term. It has been said that he could have been king or dictator had he chosen. But his love for freedom and his desire for his country to be republic guaranteed his refusal for such undemocratic positions.
Washington developed what is likely pneumonia after a strenuous outing on his plantation during the onset of a hail storm. About an hour before his passing, he requested that he have a decent burial, and "not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead." This important request helps to guarantee that the soul has had enough time to leave its physical encasement.
On December 14, 1799, the first US president passed away. By his bedside were the people in his life to whom he had been close: his wife, house workers Charlotte, Caroline, and Molly, Christopher Sheels who served as Washington's valet, and his friends Dr. Craik and Tobias Lear.
As per Washington's request, he body lay in state for three days in a mahogany casket; then on December 18, Mount Vernon became the scene of his solemn funeral service after when he was entombed on the Mount Vernon estate.
Poetry and the President
Many presidents have admired poetry and made the art part of their lives. George Washington penned at least two poems that remain extant. Poets have returned the admiration. Walt Whitman's devotion to President Abraham Lincoln is legendary. James Russell Lowell's tribute to the first president offers a marvelous tribute that honors the important service George Washington rendered his country.
James Russell Lowell's "George Washington"
Soldier and statesman, rarest unison;
High-poised example of great duties done
Simply as breathing, a world's honors worn
As life's indifferent gifts to all men born;
Dumb for himself, unless it were to God,
But for his barefoot soldiers eloquent,
Tramping the snow to coral where they trod,
Held by his awe in hollow-eyed content;
Modest, yet firm as Nature's self; unblamed
Save by the men his nobler temper shamed;
Never seduced through show of present good
By other than unsetting lights to steer
New-trimmed in Heaven, nor than his steadfast mood
More steadfast, far from rashness as from fear,
Rigid, but with himself first, grasping still
In swerveless poise the wave-beat helm of will;
Not honored then or now because he wooed
The popular voice, but that he still withstood;
Broad-minded, higher-souled, there is but one
Who was all this and ours, and all men's—WASHINGTON.
First Black American Poet to the First American President
Phillis Wheatley, America's first black poet, also penned a tribute honoring the service of the great first American president. Washington responded to Mrs. Wheatley in a sweet letter—an excerpt follows—dated Cambridge February 28th 1776:
If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favourd by the Muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am, with great Respect, Your obedt humble servant,
Phillis Wheatley's "His Excellency General Washington"
Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!
The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.
Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or think as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honors—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.
The First President as Poet and Man of Manners
Apparently, the first US president's journeys into poetry creation occurred only twice, and it is uncertain that he actually composed those pieces. No later efforts in poetry have been uncovered.
George Washington did leave a book of rules for etiquette, titled Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. He likely copied out these rules, perhaps summarizing or simplifying them for his own purpose. He likely felt them important enough to study and apply.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes