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John Tyler (President of the United States, 1841-1845)

Tyler as Poet


John Tyler: Tenth President of the United States
John Tyler: Tenth President of the United States
.
Lithographic print.
[between 1835 and 1856]

Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
Library of Congress.

As Tyler biographer Robert Seager has noted, "when John Tyler was happy poetry invariably flowed from his lips and from his pen." [1] It is unsurprising, then, that Tyler wrote the ballad "Sweet Lady, Awake! A Serenade" during the heady period in 1843 when he was courting his second wife Julia Gardiner.

[click thumbnail for larger image]
Poem: "Sweet Lady, Awake!"

Sweet Lady, Awake!
     A Serenade. By Pres John Tyler

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! [2]

Tyler, who became the first president to be married while in office, revised the poem during their honeymoon, and it was later set to music by the musically talented Julia.

"Sweet Lady, Awake!" is not the only poem Tyler wrote while courting Julia, who was thirty years his junior. From the same period comes the following verse reflecting on the President's second chance at love in later life.

Shall I again that Harp unstring,
Which long hath been a useless thing,
Unheard in Lady's bower?
Its notes were once full wild and free,
When I, to one as fair as thee,
Did sing in youth's bright hours.
Like to those raven tresses, gay,
Which o'er thy ivory shoulder's play,
Were those which waked my lyre.
Eyes like to thine, which beamed as bright
As stars, that through the veil of night,
Sent forth a brimy fire.
I seize the Harp; alas! in vain,
I try to wake those notes again,
Which it breathed forth of yore.
With youth its sound has died away;
Old age hath touch'd it with decay;
It will be heard no more!
Yet, at my touch, that ancient lyre
Deigns one parting note respire.
Lady, it breathes of heaven,
It speaks in praise of holy shrine;
Of eyes upturned to Him Divine,
By whom are sins forgiven.

II

It tells the rose, which blooms so gay
And courts the Zyphers kiss today,
As if t'would never die;
Its leaves, which perfume all around,
Strew'd on the earth shall soon be found;
Unnoticed, there to die.
Unwelcomed truth it tells to thee,
Lovely in Beauty's majesty,
The roses fate—is thine:
Unlike in this—thy soul, so pure,
Through endless ages shall endure.
Kneel thou at Holy Shrines! [3]

Tyler was often inspired to write poetry when faced with difficult or transitional moments in his life. When his three-month old daughter Anne died in July 1825, Tyler composed an elegy which opened with the following two stanzas:

Oh child of my love, thou wert born for a day;
And like morning's vision have vanished away
Thine eye scarce had ope'd on the world's beaming light
Ere 'twas sealed up in death and enveloped in night.

Oh child of my love as a beautiful flower;
Thy blossom expanded a short fleeting hour.
The winter of death hath blighted thy bloom
And thou lyest alone in the cold dread tomb. . . . [4]

When Tyler resigned from the Senate in 1836, he again turned to poetry to reflect upon his changing circumstances. The poem he wrote, "Speed On, My Vessel," reveals an earnest desire for the comforts and contentment of home after years of political engagement.

Speed On, My Vessel.
   Air—"Oh no! I'll never mention him."

Speed on, my vessel, speed thee fast,
  Swift o'er the briny sea;
I am going to my home at last,
  Where there's peace and rest for me.

My bark of life, long tempest tossed,
  Seeks now a place of rest,
Where memory of the past is lost,
  And sunshine fills my breast.

Now, at the harbor's open gate,
  The anxious eyes are strained;
The "wee ones" all will set up late,
  And sigh for me detained.

Then on, my vessel, speed thee fast,
  Swift o'er the briny sea;
Home rises on my sight at last,
  And there is rest for me. [5]

Tyler was quick to share his poetry with members of Julia's family. Robert Seager writes that Julia's first cousin Phoebe "often received his poetic outpourings to cheer her dreary existence on Shelter Island, and after the Gardiners moved . . . to Staten Island in 1852 [Julia's younger sister] Margaret was the subject and recipient of a piece titled 'Margaret of the Isle' which began":

The springtime has its violets,
The summer has its rose;
The autumn has its varied tints,
But winter has its snows—
But springtime's violet, summer's rose
Are not so sweet to see,
Or autumn's tints or winter's snows
So bright—so pure is she;
As Margaret of the lovely Isle
That is girt in by the sea. . . . [6]

While Tyler's poetry went unseen and unheard among most outsiders, it featured regularly in his private life as a source of consolation, reflection, and delight.


Link disclaimerNotes

1. Robert Seager II, And Tyler Too: A Biography of John & Julia Gardiner Tyler (Norwalk, Conn.: Easton Press, 1989): 13. Catalog Record. For online information about Tyler's presidency and life, see the Internet Public Library's POTUS (Presidents of the United States) Web page on Tyler.

2John Tyler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Catalog Record. Poem was written March 8, 1843, less than four months before Tyler's wedding.

3. Seager, 198, 582. Tyler wrote the poem in Julia's autograph album.

4. Ibid., 102.

5. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, ed. The Letters and Times of the Tylers (New York: Da Capa Press, 1970): 543-544. [Available online through Google Book Search]

6. Seager, 358-359.

 

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