The Abusive Poetry of James Madison

Young James Madison exercised his right to bust rhymes.
The baby-faced James "Little Jemmy" Madison at 32.
While reading Richard Brookhiser’s biography of James Madison, I came across this little nugget:
…Madison did and said a number of improper things while he was at Princeton, writing abusive poems about students who belonged to the other of the college’s two debating societies.
Abusive poems? It’s hard enough to believe the stern-looking Father of the Constitution was ever young, let alone that he wrote abusive poetry. I had to find them.

This is how I'm used to seeing Madison – as so old and stern he needs to keep his head tied to his neck so it doesn't scowl its way off.

Thankfully Founders Online came through, with three of Madison’s poems from a “paper war” between Madison’s Whig Society and their rivals The Clios. These nasty poems were read aloud in the college’s Prayer Hall, like a rap battle at Hogwarts. Madison didn't do any of the reading himself though – shy Little Jemmy was the only member of his graduating class excused from performing a required oratory. He preferred to spit his gold on the page.

By far Madison’s best (worst) piece is called “The aerial Journey of the poet Laureat of the cliosophic Society.” It’s a mythical fantasy where Clio member Samuel Spring encounters Apollo and his muses, who proceed to beat the everloving shit out of him.
Samuel Spring, years after he was the poor subject of Madison's violent fantasy poem.
In the poem, written mostly from Spring’s point of view, Spring recounts a dream he had where he traveled to the domain of the gods and tried to steal Apollo’s laurel wreath so he could gain his poetic skills “And then a poet laureate rise / The dread of whigs of every size.” Instead, Apollo grabbed a big stick and mashed his jaws and head.

Then Euterpe, muse of music, started whipping Spring with a dishcloth full of grease and boiling water on his “sides & back / Which lost its hide at every whack.”

That’s when things got a little weird.
Urania threw a chamber pot
Which from beneath her bed she brought
And struck my eyes & ears & nose
Repeating it with lusty blows.
In such a pickle there I stood
Trickling on every side with blood
So Urania, muse of astronomy, beat this dude’s face to a bloody pulp with a chamber pot that I have to assume was at least filled with urine.

The muses Euterpe and Urania admiring Apollo while awaiting their next victim.
That’s when Clio, muse of history (and inspiration for his society’s name) swoops in to rescue poor bloody Spring.
When Clio, ever grateful muse
Sprinkled my head with healing dews
That has to be more pee, right? Maybe Little Jemmy had a thing for golden showers.

At least Spring is finally getting some relief in the form of muse dew. The worst is surely behind him. Right?
Then took me to her private room
And straight an Eunuch out I come
My voice to render more melodious
A recompense for sufferings odious
The muse of history peed on his head and cut off his balls. That seems like overkill if the only objective was to improve his karaoke game.

In Charles Meynier's painting, Clio the muse of history looks ready to make some Eunuchs.

Clio returned Spring to earth and promised he would be famous, as long as he gave up writing poems about the Whigs:
But mark me well if e’er you try
In poetry with Whigs to vie
Your nature’s bounds you then will pass
And be transformed into an ass
Madison wasn’t just saying Sam Spring would make an ass of himself if he dared poetry-battle the superior Whigs – if Spring didn’t give up the pen, he would turn into a literal donkey, Pinocchio-style.

At the end of the poem, it turned out Spring’s dream was more than just a dream. He forgot Clio's warning...
And wrote an ode and then essay’d
To sing a hymn and lo! He bray’d
This is what happens when you poem-battle James Madison.

Madison was only 20 years old when he wrote this poem, but some of his defining qualities were on display even then – a command of the pen as weapon, an attraction to strong, powerful women (hello, Dolley), and a penchant for doing his best work behind the scenes.

A lifetime later when Madison was 81, he told John Quincy Adams he had “never myself been favored with the inspiration of the Muses.”

If the muses were anything like Madison described, I’d say he got off lucky.

Plodding Through The Presidents on Facebook for more like this!

Hightlights (and Lowlights) from My First Live Blogging Experience

A post-mortem of my performance in the fourth Democratic debate
I’m used to slowly plodding through history before regurgitating it, but on Sunday night I decided to do something different. I live blogged the fourth Democratic Debate on Tumblr and Twitter.

I figured I should be as open to the history happening right now as I am to the presidential politics of the 1800s. Why not try to dust off that supposed quick wit from my college improv days and share my thoughts in real time with whoever would listen?

The results of the experiment were mixed.

As the candidates took the stage, I started with something related to the president I’m currently reading:
This sad little post got no love. My own mom, if she were on Twitter and alive, would probably have unfollowed me.

Then the real debate began. Since it was held the night before Martin Luther King Day and hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, Hillary started off by reminding the audience she heard Dr. King when she was a teenager. Martin O’Malley began by saying “My name is Martin O’Malley, I was born the year King delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.”

First off, it’s not a great sign that this is the fourth debate and you have to introduce yourself. But this is what he was really saying:

Later in the debate when Clinton said “there should be no bank too big to fail and no individual too powerful to jail,” I got lost in her rhymes.

I carefully constructed a comment on Hillary’s lack of popularity with the Bernie-loving kids by incorporating her use of the clinical-sounding word opioids and social media faux pas of congratulating a YouTube celebrity for having five million views instead of subscribers.
Somehow, in my fervor, I forgot the word “get” and also how comedy works. (If the kids are high on the opioids, they won't make it to the polls for the Iowa caucus and...yeah.)

It's fitting that in the very act of condescendingly correcting Hillary, I got called out for making my own social media faux pas.

When it came to Bernie Sanders, my approach was one of awe and fear.

When Bernie mentioned that climate change was noticed by ice fishermen who no longer had ice, I tried to look on the bright side. Not everyone agreed.

My darkest time may have come during a commercial break. After some talk about "Shadow Banks" and Goldman Sachs, I checked on Twitter’s #DemDebate hashtag.

I found a tweet that captured the creepy awesome feel of Shadow Banks and I retweeted it with a few words of my own from the place my mind naturally goes to – the gutter. And not just any gutter, but the lowest gutter of them all – the pun gutter.

What’s worse is I don’t know why these shadow bankers’ testicles (or anyone’s) would be gold, so the joke barely works on one level. My apologies to Mr. Drucker.

When the topic shifted to foreign policy, I wasn’t sure what to make of Hillary’s “It’s…interesting” response about her relationship to Putin.
For the record: I am not implying that Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin made a profound connection in a Japanese hotel ala Lost in Translation. But if they had, it would certainly be interesting.

Overall I found myself concentrating on the small things I could riff on rather than the actual content. I wonder if this is how cable news feels.

The whole experience was exhilarating and uncomfortable, just like writing about it is now. It feels wrong to preserve these ephemeral digital comments, especially alongside posts I’ve written that were based on what important people wrote on actual paper hundreds of years ago. Live blogging is probably meant to exist only in the moment, but history is all about capturing moments in all their messy details.

Even though my words were nowhere near as nuanced and informative as I’d like, I think I managed to capture the essence of the debate a couple times.

Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr to find out when I might do something like this again. Or comment below with your own thoughts on the debate, and I’ll take my sweet plodding time responding with how it relates to James Madison and James Monroe.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...