Poetry in Early 19th Century Newspapers

Poetry occupied far more print lines in the early newspapers than now.  Most newspapers had a dedicated space for poetry–usually on the back page, upper left corner.  Sometimes named “Poet’s Corner,” in the Raleigh Register, the poetry column was entitled, “Repository of Genius;” in the Columbian Centinel it was called “The Fount;”  in the Massachusets Spy, it was “Flowers of Fancy.”  The Scioto Gazette was unusual, in that its poetry column was in the middle of the first page; the Baltimore Patriot placed “The Parterre” on the upper left of the second page.  Memorial poems were a favorite, and the number on fallen heroes unnumbered.  Those memorializing Captain Lawrence or Zebulon Pike were many, probably as many as there were newspapers in the country.  Some editors sought to restrict the topics of poets; one editor discouraged praise of the dead or flattery of the living.  This editor beseeched one poet (possibly William Cullen Bryant) to please, write no more tributes.[i]

Any subject could be versified, as seen by a sampling of titles:  “The White Clover,” “Lines composed on a remarkably mild moon light night at sea,” by John Howard Payne, and “Ye Shavers of Columbia, A Barber-ous Ode.”  Songs of Indians were popular; William Cullen Bryant addressed this to the editor of the Boston Weekly Messenger:  “The author of the following effusion, in imitation of the manner of an INDIAN WAR SONG, flatters himself, that however deficient it may be in fire and nature, the sentiments it expresses are somewhat of that sanguinary cast, which distinguishes our red brethren of the West.”   Poems could announce marriages.  Here is “On the Marriage of Captain Hull, to Miss Ann M. Hart”:

Brave Hull first won the hearts of all
Who wish Columbia’s glory,
By forcing Briton’s flag to fall–
Well known in recent story.
But not content with victory,
His joy he must impart;
And after conquering foes at sea,
Now gains a female Heart.

A poem could advertise for a run-away apprentice, as this “Six Cents Reward”:

            Good people all, I’ll tell you plain,
My ‘prentice Boy’s run off again;
Five feet eight is just his height,
Won’t work by day and rakes by night.
Isaac Wisner is his name,
When he ran off he took with him
A good brown coat, and ‘pon my word.
As good as war times can afford.
His pantaloons were brown likewise,
His hair cut short, and dark blue eyes,
If to the jail he is convey’d,
By me no charges will be paid.


Or advertise for a husband:

Immediately Wanted, a Youth about twenty–
In B–ton the people assure me they’ve plenty
Of whom, if he “now and then bear admonition
A husband I’ll make with all due expedition.”

And editors were not slow to bestow praise upon the press:

Here shall the Press, the public rights maintain
Unawed by influence and unbribed by gain.
Here patriot Truth her sacred precepts draw,
Pledged to Religion; Liberty and Law.” [ii]

Poetry was not confined to the male sex.  Many submissions were by women;  Mrs. Holley’s poem, “On Leaving Kentucky,” was published by the Kentucky Reporter.   The Richmond Enquirer published “Ode to Peace,” By Emily C. Stras, of Richmond, “a young lady of fifteen.”  Sarah Hale, later author of Northwood: A Tale of New England, published many of her poems under the pen-name Cornelia.  When Godey’s Lady’s Book began publishing, she was asked to be an editor.  Poetry was not dominated by one party or the other, although congratulatory poems on naval victories were usually written by republicans, and published in republican presses.  But the Federalists had their poets, including William Cullen Bryant, whose “Ode Sung at the Late celebration in Northampton,” which contained these lines:  “Nor shall the PATRIOT draw his sword / At GALLIA’s proud command”, was printed in the New York Herald, which got it from the Hampshire Gazette.  The Connecticut Mirror published this “poetic sublimity:”

 The day is past–th’Election’s o’er,
And Madison is King once more!
Ye VAGABONDS of ev’ry land,
CUT THROATS and KNAVES–a patriot band–
Ye demagogues lift up your voice–
Mobs and BANDITTI–all rejoice![iii]

Lines were published celebrating the Russian defeat of Bonaparte.  Alexander might have been surprised to learn what his causes were:

The Czar of all the Russias,
Who boldly led the van,
And triumphed, in the sacred cause
Of Liberty and man.
–Boston Weekly Messenger, April 2, 1813

One wit used poetry to pose as an auctioneer auctioning off the various pieces of booty that were taken by the tars under Admiral Cockburn during his rampages ashore along the Chesapeake. This is advertized by the Democratic Press, reprinted by the Boston Independent Chronicle on June 5, 1815, as “Prize Sales, on board his Britannic majesty’s ship Sceptre, as advertised in the Alexandria Gazette, September 29, 1814″:

Knives, forks and spoons; cows, calves and cats,
Beds, chairs and stools, coats, wigs and hats;
Glasses, ,pitchers, piggins, tongs, tubs and trays;
Potatoes, turnips, wheat, flour, rye and maize.|
Bottles, full and empty, ducks, fowls and dogs;
Turkies, gees and pigs; negroes, hoes and hogs.
Saddles, bridles, mares, horses, mules and asses,
Sophas, coaches, combs, tables, looking-glasses.
Shifts, shirts and bibs; clouts, towels, cradles;
Pans, dishes, plates, spits, pots and ladles
With various such-like things, we’ve a list complete,
If you wish to buy, come on board the fleet,
Sale begins at ten–bring cash; you needn’t fear;
I’ll protect you all–I’m chief auctioneer.


[i] Boston Weekly Messenger, October 2, 1812.

[ii] Boston Weekly Messenger, February 28, 1812; Raleigh Register, January 29, 1813; New YorkSpectator, March 23, 1814; New York Herald, February 29, 1813, The Gleaner, September 29, 1815.

[iii]Richmond Enquirer, February 25, 1815; New York Herald,July 23, 1812.

The Headliners Foundation appreciates and supports efforts to preserve our national journalistic legacy and suggests that Texans and others who love journalism and its rich history in this country consider donating to their state’s efforts to put these early newspapers online.  Contact your state library, historical society or university.  For a list of historic newspapers online, use this link: http://gethelp.library.upenn.edu/guides/hist/onlinenewspapers.html

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden