‘Celia’s an Artful Little Slut’ (And Other Thoughts on the Founding Fathers)

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I am reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, albeit somewhat slowly, and I am trying to share my HAMILTON obsession with you in ways that are not derivative and cliché (you’re welcome), so today I’m here to tell you that my favorite part of the biography so far is the snippet of Hamilton’s poetry that appears on page 34. He was still a teenager when he published two poems in a newspaper called the Royal Danish American Gazette on his home island of St. Croix – a newspaper at which all one had to do to guarantee publication was send a couple of poems and an obsequious letter (yet another reason to wish one was a founding father). Chernow summarizes the first poem, which is a paean to pseudo-Romantic poetry (never mind that Romantic poetry didn’t exactly exist when Hamilton wrote this poem in 1771, but more on that in a moment).

And OK, if you insist, I’ll fill space by quoting from the Chernow:

In the first poem, “the dreamy poet steals upon his virgin love, who is reclining by a brook as ‘lambkins’ gambol around her. He kneels and awakens her with an ecstatic kiss before sweeping her up in his arms and carrying her off to marital bliss, intoning, ‘Believe me love is doubly sweet / In wedlock’s holy bands.’” (34)

In the second poem, says Chernow, the future treasury secretary has “metamorphosed into a jaded rake”; the opening line of that poem is “Celia’s an artful little slut.” My first thought: where in English poetry in 1771 was there any kind of precedent for a line like this? I answered my question as quickly as I asked it – Swift, of course – and Chernow makes the same connection. But still. Of this poem, Chernow quotes the final six lines:

So, stroking puss’s velvet paws,

How well the jade conceals her claws

And purrs; but if at last

You hap to squeeze her somewhat hard

She spits – her back up – prenez garde;

Good faith she has you fast.

I’m sorry – did I forget to mention that this is not just a founding father slut poem but a bilingual founding father slut poem? And also that it is not only a bilingual founding father slut poem but a bilingual founding father slut poem with a cat in it? (a metaphorical cat, yes – but a cat nonetheless). Consider the record corrected.

Just to make sure I stay in the running for the Nerdiest Marginalia Award, I annotated this excerpt as follows: Remarkable enjambment! Precedent for this?

But my third gut response (after Swift and remarkable enjambment) actually gave me chills. Then I did a quick Google search and had even more chills. These poems don’t reach backwards to Swift nearly as much as they reach forward to William Blake. In 1771, seventeen year-old Alexander Hamilton wrote what could easily be part of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, which Blake published in 1789. And honestly, only the very best of Blake (“The Tyger,” if that) lives up to the quality of the lines quoted above.

I’m no scholar of literary history. I don’t know if the young Hamilton would have known of Blake or read some of his work in a periodical. On the one hand, he read everything he could get his hands on, as teenaged founding fathers were wont to do. On the other hand, he grew up on St. Croix, where slaves outnumbered libraries several thousand to one. And 1771 is a whole eighteen years before 1789.

And now I’m getting chills all over again. I may have to do some research. Like with databases and shit. Not this week – this week has enough on its to-do list. But soon. I will do a little research and let you know what I find out.

Emma

An artful little slut? Moi?

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This entry was posted in Authors, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Reviews by Bethany, Ron Chernow, THE HAMILTON SOUNDTRACK, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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