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John Quincy Adams

The selections from John Quincy Adams in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry are fairly forgettable. Three poems are included, “The Wants of Man,” “To the Sun-Dial,” and “To Sally.” The first is effectively a long list of what the title promises. At first it seemed as if it were going to be a standard moral-driven work, moving from material to spiritual wants. That is, broadly, the arc, but it is not quite strictly held, and higher and lower desires (at least as I rate them) start to intermingle by the end. Perhaps interestingly, there is no indication that the desire for “Submission to the will of God” in any sense reflects back on the rest of the poem. That is, it coexists with the other desires, but it does not seem to nullify them, or make them seem any less. Indeed, the only indication that it is the highest desire in the poem is that it is presented last. This mingling of a lavish materialism with genuine religious devotion is perhaps tellingly American. But this interest is intellectual; the language of the poem adequately conveys its meaning, but it’s only poetry in the surface sense of being written in meter and rhyme. The delights inherent in the shaping of language into beautiful form are absent, to my ear.

“To Sally” starts similarly: as a versified, moralized list:

The man in righteousness array’d,
A pure and blameless liver,
Needs not the keen Toledo blade,
Nor venom-freighted quiver.
What though he wind his toilsome way
O’er regions wild and weary—
Through Zara’s burning desert stray;
Or Asia’s jungles dreary:

And on it goes for its first three stanzas. It is a reworking of one of Horace’s odes (Book 1, Ode 22), and a fairly faithful one—it is basically a loose translation, though Adams changes ‘Lalage’ to ‘Sally’ and a handful of anachronisms find their way into the poem (e.g. “since days of Noah”). I was well-prepared for a tedious continuation of this, but the fourth stanza surprised me:

Else wherefore was it, Thursday last,
While strolling down the valley
Defenceless…

He moves from the general to the personal, to his own case (and here it becomes the love poem the title suggests, for he is “musing… a canzonet to Sally”). And with it comes a poetic shift. Where the first three stanzas are heavily end-stopped—all but three lines end with punctuation, and those three aren’t exactly enjambed—here we get true spillover, and at a heightened moment, that of the shift from casual strolling to ominous defencelessness. The sing-song of the opening moralizing gives way to a more personal language, if only briefly. (The poem remains mostly end-stopped, though not as mind-numbingly as at the start.) It is a beautiful, surprising moment. It doesn’t save the poem as a whole, but it was pleasant to find it in the midst of otherwise forgettable lines.

“To the Sun-Dial,” the best of the three poems included here, is a sonnet about the sundial “Under the Window of the Hall of the House of Representatives of the United States.” Where the other two poems included are overly musical, to the point of becoming saccharine, this poem takes some work to draw out its music. Though in iambic pentameter with only a few unsurprising substitutions (e.g. the line-opening trochee of line three), it is thick, and doesn’t quite flow smoothly, an effect compounded by the fairly heavy enjambment in the middle (lines 4, 5, and 7). I don’t think it quite works—for instance, the last line (“By virtuous deeds to give eternity to Time”) strives for grandeur but stumbles over itself, not least because it is needlessly a hexameter—but I prefer its grit to the too-smooth sweetness of the other poems.

And I suppose it is worth noting, in this climate, that I enjoy the thought of the president of my country writing even mediocre poetry.