CLOSE
getty images / istock / rebecca o'connell
getty images / istock / rebecca o'connell

9 Poems Penned by Presidents

getty images / istock / rebecca o'connell
getty images / istock / rebecca o'connell

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
The Secret Underground Life of Newborn Meerkat Pups
iStock
iStock

The Secret Underground Life of Newborn Meerkat Pups. Nature photographers fitted a meerkat with a camera to get a look inside.

*

America’s Secret Ice Base Won’t Stay Frozen Forever. When the glacier hiding it is gone, environmental hazards will be exposed.

*

All 11 Versions of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Ranked. With each described in excruciating detail.

*

How Tennessee Became the Final Battleground in the Fight for Suffrage. The process was much dirtier than we ever learned in school.

*

A Remix in Tribute to Han Solo. He had a lot of great lines over four films, so Eclectic Method gave them rhythm and rhyme.

*

Ishmael Beah tells what it was like to go from child soldier in Sierra Leone to high school student in New York. His classmates couldn't figure out why he was so good at paintball.

*

A Brief History of Credit Cards. They aren't as old as you might have thought.

*

10 Allegedly Cursed Objects. Just keep telling yourself that all the bad things that happened around them could be coincidence.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
arrow
science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios