Wednesday, June 19, 2013

John Quincy Adams, The Sleeping-Pill Poet

by Stephen J. Gertz

American diplomat, Harvard professor, Secretary of State, member of the House of Representatives, Senator, son of a President, and himself President of the United States, sure. But John Quincy Adams, poet?

"Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I would have made myself a great poet," he once declared, as cited in Nagel's John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1997). Actors want to be musicians; musicians want to be actors; writers want to be athletes; everyone wants to be what they aren't, except, perhaps, to be an insurance salesman, a species, I imagine, that would like to be anything but what they are. We all dream about what we wanted to be and might have been if only life hadn't gotten in the way.

John Quincy Adams read copiously and wrote poetry throughout his lifetime. He enjoyed composing secular and inspirational verse, hymns, translating poetry into English, and writing his own versions of the Psalms.

His poems, when published, were not well-received. When Dermot MacMorrogh or the Conquest of Ireland was issued (Boston: Carter, Hendee, 1832), a reviewer ripped him a new canto:

"This work consists of three parts, each very remarkable in its way. These parts are, first, the Title Page; second, the Dedication and Preface ; and, third, four Cantos of Rhyme. The most noticeable part of the title-page is the announcement of the author's name. Indeed, it is that short sentence of four words, By John Quincey Adams, to which Dermot Mac Morrogh will be solely indebted for all the attention it will receive. Were it not for this magic sentence, we doubt if many readers would get further than the middle of the first Canto; and we are quite certain that none would ever reach the end of the second. But as it is we are sure the work will be read through; for, in spite of yawns innumerable, and a drowsiness most oppressive, we have read it through, ourselves; and whatever effect it may have produced upon us, or whatever may be our opinion of it, we dare say, there will be found quite a number of persons, who, by the help of the author's name, will discover this Historical Tale of the Twelfth Century to be full of all manner of wit, genius, and ingenuity, and a striking proof that talent is not a mere bent towards some peculiar style of excellence, but an inherent power, which qualifies its possessor to succeed alike, in the closet and the council chamber, in politics and poetry, in business and philosophy.

"So much for the title page…" (The New-England Magazine,  Volume 3, Issue 6, Dec 1832).

That review was written a few years after Adams' Presidency and while he was a member of the House. He may have been President, he may have been a sitting Congressman, but that didn't stop the New-England Magazine's litterateur from lambasting the former President's literary ambitions.  Politicians can do many things when they leave office but entering the arts is not one of them; the waters are more treacherous than the Bermuda Triangle, which is to say, more dangerous than Beltway gossip and the D.C. commentariat. Newt Gingrich's historical novels? Consigned to Davey Jones' Locker almost immediately after publication. Jimmy Carter's The Hornet's Nest? Call pest control. Former Senator Gary Hart, writing as "John Blackthorn," published four novels. Remember I, Che Guevara? Me, neither.

While it is true that "politics is show business for ugly people," it is also true that fiction is a sinkhole for politicians, despite their routine ease with it during the pursuit their day jobs. But verse?

Roses are red, violets are blue,
Pols writing poetry?
What, nothing else to do?

Ten years after Adams wrote Dermot MacMorrogh..., he composed the poem whose manuscript appears above:

Not Solomon the wise, in all his glory
Bright bird of beauty, was array’d like thos
And thou like him shalt be renown’d in story -
Bird of the wise, the valiant and the free.
Borne on thy pinions, down the flight of Time
Columbia’s chosen sons shall wing their way;
United here, in harmony sublime
To teach mankind the blessings of her sway.
Oh! counst thou bid the floods of discord cease
And to the ark return, like Noah’s dove.
Thy voice would turn, surest Harbinger of Peace
This world of sorrow, to a world of Love
                    John Quincy Adams
Washington 9. June 1842

Under the spreading chestnut tree a former prez writes purplely.

This manuscript poem by John Quincy Adams, on stationary with a vibrantly hand-colored Eurasian bullfinch perched on a sprig of holly as header, is being offered by Profiles In History in its Rare Books & Manuscripts Sale, July 10, 2013. It is estimated to sell for $800-$1200. 

Image courtesy of Profiles In History, with our thanks.


  1. Love John Quincy Adams and love his poem!

  2. I am reminded of Andrew Lang's character Thomas Blinton, who "had discovered a new sin, so to speak, in the collecting of books;" with the reservation that Adams, at 65, was old enough to know better. Blinton "maintained that every man who came to notoriety had, at some period, published a volume of poems which he had afterwards repented of and withdrawn. It was Blinton's hideous pleasure to collect stray copies of these unhappy volumes...He had all Lord John Manners' poems, and even Mr. Ruskin's. He had the 'Ode to Despair' of Smith (now a comic writer); and the 'Love Lyrics' of Brown, who is now a permanent under-secretary...Blinton was wont to say he expected to come across 'Triolets of a Tribune by Mr. John Bright, and 'Original Hymns for Infant Minds' by Mr. Henry Labouchere, if he only hunted long enough." Vincent Starrett tells how, as a very young collector, he was flimflammed out of his copy of H.L. Mencken's youthful poems when Mencken himself bemoaned the fact he no longer had a copy of his own. No doubt, Starret concluded in his maturity, this was true, and as true ten minutes after he received Starrett's copy, a gift, as it had been ten minutes before.


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