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Thomas Jefferson (President of the United States, 1801-1809)

Jefferson as Poet

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson
Photomechanical print.
[between 1890 and 1940(?)]

Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson did not write many poems, although he had a great appreciation for poetry.[1] He read and quoted widely from poets such as Homer, Virgil, John Dryden, and John Milton. Ossian was a special source of pleasure. In 1786, Jefferson's pleasure reading briefly turned more scholarly when he wrote "Thoughts on English Prosody," an essay in which he debated whether the principal characteristic of English poetry was accent or quantity (he settled on accent). From the age of about fifteen to thirty, he kept a Literary Commonplace Book[2] in which he pasted newspaper clippings of favorite poems and prose, and beginning in 1801 he began the first of two poetry scrapbooks dedicated exclusively to poetry clippings.[3] Jefferson also helped his granddaughters create their own poetry scrapbooks. One of them, Virginia Randolph Trist, recalled that "whenever an opportunity occurred, he sent us books; and he never saw a little story or piece of poetry in a newspaper, suited to our ages and tastes, that he did not preserve and send it to us."[4] The following unfinished poem, "To Ellen," apparently written by Jefferson himself,[5] may have been intended for his granddaughter Ellen Coolidge.

     Page One           Page Two
"To Ellen," Page 1  "To Ellen," Page 2

"To Ellen"

Tis hope supports each noble flame,
'Tis hope inspires poetic lays,
Our heroes fight in hopes of fame,
And poets write in hopes of praise.

She sings sweet songs of future years,
And dries the tears of present sorrow,
Bids doubting mortals cease their fears,
And tells them of a bright to-morrow.

And where true love a visit pays,
The minstrel hope is allways there,
To soothe young Cupid with her lays,
And keep the lover from despair.

Why fades the rose upon thy cheek;
Why droop the lilies at the view?
Thy cause of sorrow, Ellen speak,
Why alter'd thus thy sprightly hue?

Each day, alas! with breaking heart,
I see they beautous form decline;
Yet fear my anguish to impart,
Lest it should add a pang to thine.

I will not be afraid whi
have to


1. Until recently, most scholars thought that Jefferson's interest in poetry waned significantly in his later years. To learn why this may not have been the case, see Jonathan Gross's "When Jefferson Dined Alone" (, History News Network, February 12, 2006).

2. See Jefferson's Literary Commonplace Book, ed. Douglas L. Wilson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989) for a critical edition. Catalog Record.

3. The contents of Jefferson's poetry scrapbooks can be found in Jonathan Gross's Thomas Jefferson's Scrapbook's: Poems of Nation, Family & Romantic Love Collected by America's Third President (Sterforth Press: Hanover, New Hampshire, 2006). Catalog Record.

4. B. L. Rayner, Sketches of the Life, Writings, and Opinions of Thomas Jefferson. With Selections of the Most Valuable Portions of His Voluminous and Unrivaled Private Correspondence (New York: A. Francis and W. Boardman, 1832.): 346-347. Catalog Record.

5. The authorship of the poem remains uncertain. Gilbert Chinard, in his introduction to The Literary Bible of Thomas Jefferson (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928), believes that "the fact that the last lines [of the poem] are incomplete, as if the young author had been unable to find the proper rhymes and bring his effort to a satisfactory completion, is at least an indication that Jefferson wrote the poem himself and did not copy if from an anthology" (p. 26). The first three stanzas of Jefferson's poem, however, appear anonymously as part of a poem titled "Hope" in the literary compilation The Cruet Stand (Londs, W. Tegg, 1853). The final two stanzas of Jefferson poem also appear as a separate poem, titled "To Maria," in the May 15, 1793 issue of The Bee, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer. The poem differs from Jefferson's stanzas only in its use of the name Maria instead of Ellen ("Thy cause of sorrow Maria speak"), and is attributed to James Watt. These poems may have been in circulation in Jefferson's time; if so, Jefferson, or another person, may have copied the two poems as a single work and changed the reference from Maria to Ellen, perhaps to make it applicable to Jefferson's grandaughter. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Jefferson's unpublished poem would have been circulated outside of the family, raising the question of how it would have become known and published, in partial versions, in The Cruet Stand and The Bee.


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  November 5, 2008
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