J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

“His verses are the fruits of simple nature.”

Yesterday I took note of John Hawthorn, poet and private in His Majesty’s 6th and then probably 20th Regiment of Dragoons in 1778-79. During his service Hawthorn actually published a slim book of poetry.

The July 1779 Critical Review, or Annals of Literature, took notice of Hawthorn’s work with a, well, critical review:
His verses are the fruits of simple nature. He appears to be a total stranger to all the rules of grammar; yet in some of his pieces there are strokes of imagination, which seldom appear in the productions of illiterate versifiers.
The Monthly Review, or Literary Journal in October 1779 had less praise but more pity:
Of honest John Hawthorn’s poetical attainments the Reader will form his own judgment from the following extract, which is given, not as the most favourable specimen of his abilities, but merely that, by pointing out the Writer’s situation and circumstances, the humane may be induced to become purchasers of his book.
It is not many months ago, since I
Enjoy’d my freedom and my liberty,
Before I e’er took up a haversack,
Or bullying serjeant to rattan my back,
When on my stockings there might be a spot;
No matter if my shoes were black or not:
Then, calmly I could lie, and take my rest,
No powder’d hair, or ruffles at my breast:
When at my ease I liv’d in a warm cot,
And had of land a fertile handsome spot:
What though my roof no tiles or slates sustain,
The well pack’d thatch kept out the driving rain;
A chearful fire glanced through my floor;
My wife could milk her own cow at my door;
Each day, a dinner dress’d by my good dame,
And chearing smells from boiling beef-pots came:
My horse was sure to know me at first sight;
Nay more, my dog would know my feet at night:
Oft’ I would walk in a fair evening tide.
And muse in quiet by a river’s side;
Where oziers green were nodding o’er the waves,
And water lilies spread their moisten’d leaves;
Then home return with calm and serene breast;
Return my thanks to God, and go to rest.
Thus did I live but in a low degree;
If some liv’d better, some liv’d worse than me:
Till trading bad, and loss of different kind,
Made me enlist, and leave them all behind.
It’s not certain that those lines from “The Drill” are strictly autobiographical; Hawthorn may have adopted the persona of a rustic yeoman. (He identified himself elsewhere as a trained linen weaver.) If so, Britain’s literati offered sympathy but not much respect.

Hawthorn’s poetry appears to have been rediscovered in the late 20th century as an unusual voice from Britain’s eighteenth-century laboring class. The poems he wrote about his army experience are also rare in providing a first-hand description of the everyday life of a British soldier during the period of the Revolutionary War.

Hawthorn’s “On His Writing Verses,” other lines from “The Drill,” and “Advice to a Recruit” appear in Don N. Hagist’s new book, British Soldiers, American Revolution. Tomorrow I’ll say more about that book, and for the rest of the week I plan to share news and opinions about some other recent books of Revolutionary history. I’ll try to be kinder than The Critical Review.

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