Young James Madison exercised his right to bust rhymes.
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.
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.” But he gets stopped short when Apollo grabs a big stick and mashes his jaws and head.
Then Euterpe, the muse of music, starts whipping Samuel 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 get 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, the 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, the 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 poem-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.
I suppose I should finally thank you for introducing to me to “The aerial Journey of the poet Laureat of the cliosophic Society,” now one of my favorite funny bits of history. I first found this blog a few years ago during an obsession with this era of American history, but I keep coming back to this particular article and every time it makes me laugh. My life is much the better for knowing that Jemmy participated in college poetry battles and wrote this… interesting piece.
Love your blog; keep up the great work!
Thank you so much! Everyone needs to know about this poetry haha. We dig into this and other examples of Madison’s…weirdness in a recent podcast episode you might enjoy called “Finding Madison’s Funny Bone.”