Gest Fellow Michael Cohen is Assistant Professor of English at the UCLA. His project is entitled “Poetry, Abolition, and a Circle of Friends.”
I spent my month as a Gest Fellow working on a project on nineteenth-century poetry, The Social Lives of Poems. In essence, this project seeks to understand how people used poems in a variety of different contexts and projects, from large-scale efforts to imagine shared histories, to political endeavors like antislavery, to more personal situations such as developing pietistic practices or maintaining relationships with others. Poems were the most popular form of literature in nineteenth-century America, and (unlike novels, sermons, and other widespread forms) a great many readers of poems also wrote them. “Writing” poems actually entails a range of different practices: recording original poetry; participating in collaborative efforts and games with others; and copying or transcribing verses from books, newspapers, and other printed sources.
At the center of my research this month was a two-volume book that combines these different forms of verse-writing. Entitled “Fragments from the unpublished writings of John Greenleaf Whittier,” and “Whittier Leaves,” these volumes are comprised of hand-written transcriptions of poems by the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The book was primarily the work of two women, Elizabeth Nicholson and Elizabeth Lloyd, who became friends with Whittier and his sister Elizabeth Hussey Whittier when they lived in Philadelphia between 1838-1840. Nicholson and Lloyd were both abolitionists and poets as well, and they formed the center of a group of friends (who were also Friends) who met regularly to socialize, talk, discuss politics and religion, and compose poetry. Sometime around 1839 they began collecting and transcribing Whittier’s verses. At the time, Whittier was a well-known abolitionist author, but he was not nationally renowned, and had not yet published a book of poems under his own name. Nicholson and Lloyd collected his poems as they were published piecemeal and scattershot in northeastern newspapers over the 1830s and 1840s.
These books are the most gorgeous manuscript books I’ve ever seen from the nineteenth century. The labor that went in to them (careful transcription, hand-drawn illustrations, manuscript effects such as black letter font, and so on) demonstrates the sheer pleasure that these friends took in copying, quoting, and circulating poems. The work was a collaborative venture, in which Nicholson and Lloyd recruited many other friends to participate. People would send them copies of Whittier’s poems, or contribute illustrations or other materials to the book. Nicholson would ask Whittier to contribute new work to “his” collection, which was not really his or by him. As the project grew, the books began to circulate among friends, who would copy from it into their own commonplace books. On occasion, Whittier requested it for his own records–it was more complete than any other volume of his work, and had poems that he himself no longer possessed! (Much of the poetry included in it did not appear in the collected writings of Whittier published in the 1890s, so to date it is arguably more complete than any other collection of his early work). Nicholson did not always know where the books were; through reading the friends’ letters, I’ve tracked this book as far away as New Hampshire.
For me, these books help to materialize and make manifest how poems could contribute to social, historical relationships. I spent a good deal of time in the library learning about the different people who contributed to the volume, reading letters and diaries and searching for clues and connections among these different people, almost all of whom have left behind poems of their own (a cache of letters from Elizabeth Whittier to Elizabeth Nicholson was especially great in this regard). Yet, this book also shows me that people could claim ownership over poems they had not originally authored: copying and transcribing poems clearly had value for people that was productive rather than simply re-productive.
The Quaker Collection at Haverford College has a wonderfully rich collection of manuscript poetry. Some of it is by published authors, but most of it is by ordinary people who had no ambition or desire for literary fame. People wrote down poems in letters, diaries, notebooks, and commonplace books. People also used these sources to record what they were reading and, occasionally, what they thought of it. Not surprisingly, a great deal of this manuscript poetry is pietistic and develops conventions of Protestant hymnody that would have been quite familiar to most people. The poetry is conventional in a strong sense: familiar conventions (a regular rhyme and metrical pattern; standard images and forms of language, often adopted from scripture) made poetry an accessible form of expression, and helped readers develop a sense of agency and relation to their language. Composing hymns or poems of devout expression therefore helped people understand their spiritual life.
While this sort of devotional poetry is common throughout the collections, many people wrote satirical, impromptu comic verses to their friends, often about other friends or local events, scandals, and controversies. The huge collection of the Allinson family, for instance, especially the letters and papers of William James Allinson, his wife Rebecca, and brother Samuel, is rich with this sort of verse, which names names and delights in wordplay, puns, and triple (even occasionally quadruple) rhymes. The recently-acquired Potts family papers is another treasure trove of poems. Young Mary Potts, whose diaries make up the bulk of the collection, was an avid reader and diarist. Her commonplace books are full of poems, original and copied, while her diaries detail what she read, who she read with, and what she was doing (for instance, she attended the meeting of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women at Pennsylvania Hall, the day before it was burned down by a mob). Her papers reveal an enchanting record of one woman’s intellectual, social, and literary life.
It was a pleasure reading through materials like Mary Potts’ (she also had neat, albeit small, handwriting), and I’ve learned a great deal from my time at Haverford. I’d especially like to thank the wonderful staff in the Special Collections library for all their help and support: John Anderies, Diane Peterson, and Ann Upton.