9 Poems Penned by Presidents
These presidents were more than just politicians—they also tried their hands at poetry.
1. "From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was Undone" — George Washington
Long before he was our first president, George Washington was just a teenager in love. So he did what so many teenagers do: He wrote two lovesick poems in his diary, one of which was dedicated to Frances Alexander, in 1749-50:
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 was attempting to make an acrostic—in which the first letter of each line forms a word—but he only got halfway through Alexander's last name before abandoning his efforts.
2. "Verse on Lee's Invasion of the North" — Abraham Lincoln
Like Washington, Abraham Lincoln was a teenage poet, penning verses in his arithmetic book between the ages of 15 and 17. He continued to read and write poetry throughout his life, including the bittersweet "My Childhood-Home I See Again," written in February 1846. The last poem Lincoln is known to have written, "Verse on Lee's Invasion of the North," was about the North's victory at Gettysburg on July 3; Lincoln wrote it on July 19, 1863:
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 they got arter us, and giv us particular hell, And we skedaddled back again, And didn't sack Phil-del.
Clearly, he was saving the serious stuff for the Gettysburg Address.
3. "A death-bed Adieu. Th:J to MR" — Thomas Jefferson
Our third president had a great appreciation of poetry—so great, in fact, that he made scrapbooks comprised solely of clippings of poems he liked (he also helped his granddaughters make them). There's only one surviving poem that Jefferson himself, wrote, though, when he was nearing his death—"A death-bed Adieu. Th:J to MR," or Martha Randolph, his daughter:
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.
Jefferson stashed the verse in a small box, which he instructed Randolph to open after he had died.
4. "Sweet Lady, Awake! A Serenade." — John Tyler
Our 10th president often wrote poetry, penning verses when he was happy, when he was sad, and when he was going through periods of transition. "Sweet Lady, Awake! A Serenade" was written in 1843, when Tyler was president and wooing his second wife, Julia Gardiner:
Sweet lady awake, from your slumbers awake, Weird beings we come o'er hill and through brake To sing you a song in the stillness of night Oh, read you our riddle fair lady aright? We are sent by the one whose found heart is your own, Who mourns in thy absence and sighs all alone. Alas, he is distant—but tho' far, far away, He thinks of you, Lady, by night and by day. Sweet lady awake, sweet lady awake! His hearth, altho' lonely, is bright with your fame, And therefore we breathe not the breath of his name. For oh! if your dreams have response in your tone, Long since have you known it as well as your own. We are things of the sea, of the earth, and the air, But ere you again to your pillow repair, Entrust us to say you gave ear to our strain, And were he the minstrel you would listen again. Sweet lady awake, sweet lady awake!
Julia, 30 years younger than Tyler, set the poem to music after the pair were married.
5. "A Poem Against the Tories" — James Madison
Madison wrote three poems in the early 1770s, when he was attending the College of New Jersey (aka Princeton). According to the Library of Congress, the pieces were "written as part of a paper war between the American Whig Society and the Cliosophian Society" and were "recorded along with sixteen other American Whig Society satirical pieces in a notebook copy by [Madison's friend] William Bradford." Madison—a Whig—called one "A Poem Against the Tories":
Of late our muse keen satire drew And humourous thoughts in vollies flew Because we took our foes for men Who might deserve a decent pen A gross mistake with brutes we fight And [goblins?] from the realms of night Where Spring & Craig lay down their heads Sometimes a goat steps on the pump Which animates old Warford's trunk Sometimes a poisonous toad appears Which Eckley's yellows carcuss bears And then to grace us with a bull Forsooth they show McOrkles skull And that the Ass may not escape He take the poet Laureat's shape The screech owl too comes in the train Which leap'd from Alexander's brain Just as he scratch'd his grisly head Which people say is made of lead. Come noble whigs, disdain these sons Of screech owls, monkeys, & baboons Keep up you[r] minds to humourous themes And verdant meads & flowing streams Untill this tribe of dunces find The baseness of their grovelling mind And skulk within their dens together Where each ones stench will kill his brother; J.M.
6. "Considering the Void" — Jimmy Carter
In 1995, former president Jimmy Carter published a book of 44 poems called Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems. He recites "Considering the Void" in the video above.
7. "Underground" — Barack Obama
When he was 19, our current president published two poems in Feast, the literary magazine of Occidental College—one about his grandfather, called "Pop," and another called "Underground":
Under water grottos, caverns Filled with apes That eat figs. Stepping on the figs That the apes Eat, they crunch. The apes howl, bare Their fangs, dance, Tumble in the Rushing water, Musty, wet pelts Glistening in the blue.
8. "The Hour-Glass" — John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams was a great lover of poetry; he read it, wrote it, and translated it from other languages into English. After he died in 1848, his verses were published in Poems of Religion and Society, including "The Hour-Glass":
Alas! how swift the moments fly! How flash the years along! Scarce here, yet gone already by, The burden of a song. See childhood, youth, and manhood pass, And age, with furrowed brow; Time was—Time shall be—drain the glass— But where in Time is now? Time is the measure but of change; No present hour is found; The past, the future, fill the range Of Time's unceasing round. Where, then, is now? In realms above, With God's atoning Lamb, In regions of eternal love, Where sits enthroned I AM. Then, pilgrim, let thy joys and tears On Time no longer lean; But henceforth all thy hopes and fears From earth's affections wean: To God let votive accents rise; With truth, with virtue, live; So all the bliss that Time denies Eternity shall give.
9. "I love your back, I love your breasts" — Warren G. Harding
By most accounts, Warren G. Harding was not a great president. But he was an excellent author of dirty poetry and letters, which he sent to his mistress, Carrie Phillips:
I love your back, I love your breasts Darling to feel, where my face rests, I love your skin, so soft and white, So dear to feel and sweet to bite.... I love your poise of perfect thighs, When they hold me in paradise....
"Jerry ... told me to say that you are the best and darlingest in the world," he wrote to Phillips in 1915, when he was a senator, "and if he could have but one wish, it would be to be held in your darling embrace and be thrilled by your pink lips that convey the surpassing rapture of human touch and the unspeakable joy of love’s surpassing embrace." Jerry, by the way, was Harding's nickname for his penis.
You can read more of Harding's letters to Phillips, which recently became public, here, and enjoy Last Week Tonight host John Oliver's hilarious take on the letters here.
AND ONE THAT WASN'T
Woodrow Wilson loved limericks, and was so fond of reciting one in particular—which starts "For beauty I am not a star"—that he was often credited with writing it. But in fact, the poem was written by Anthony Euwer in 1917.