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, March 24, 2016

The Mystery of Poem XXIX

Yesterday I described the 1761 collection of poems titled Pietas et Gratulatio, designed to show off the learning of Harvard College in praise to King George III.

Although the college announced a competition for students and recent graduates, surviving copies of the book with handwritten notes indicate that many of the poems came from men well past their undergraduate days. That list included grammar-school master John Lovell, merchant and scholar James Bowdoin, the Rev. Samuel Cooper, and Dr. Benjamin Church. To be fair, those men all had received Harvard educations.

Several of the poems, particularly those in Latin and Greek, came from Stephen Sewall (1734-1804), who was a recent Harvard graduate. He was also on his way to becoming the college’s professor of Hebrew and other languages.

In 1809 the Monthly Anthology magazine of Boston used Prof. Sewall’s own copy of Pietas et Gratulatio to attribute the poem numbered XXIX to “Thomas Oliver, afterwards judge and lieutenant governour.” Thomas Oliver (1734-1815) would have qualified as a recent Harvard graduate, and he did become the last royal lieutenant governor.

However, Oliver was never a judge. In fact, no one matches that magazine’s description. The other candidates are:
  • Andrew Oliver, lieutenant governor but not judge.
  • His brother Peter Oliver, judge but not lieutenant governor (shown above).
  • Their brother-in-law Thomas Hutchinson, judge and lieutenant governor—and more prominent as governor.
I’ve seen different authors identify all four of those men as the author of poem XXIX.

But there’s more. Soon after publishing that article, the Monthly Anthology received letters from two people in Maine disputing and filling out its attributions. One was the Rev. Dr. Samuel Deane of Portland, the last surviving contributor to Pietas et Gratulatio. The other, left unnamed, said he (or she) had a copy of the book with poem XXIX attributed to Prof. Sewall.

The magazine’s editors accepted what that letter said, even though that reattribution created another question: If Sewall had composed that English poem, why didn’t his own copy of the book say so? Why did it evidently name some other man as author?

In an 1879 issue of the Harvard Library Bulletin, Justin Winsor tallied up the evidence from all the copies of and reports on Pietas et Gratulatio he could find. He wrote that copies owned by the Rev. Jeremy Belknap, Samuel A. Eliot, the Rev. John Lowell of Newbury, college president Edward Holyoke, and Prof. John Winthrop all named the author of poem XXIX as Stephen Sewall. However, five other copies named either Peter or Thomas Oliver.

Sewall definitely wrote poetry, though he was best known for work in Greek and Latin, not English. Peter Oliver wrote newspaper essays and a delightfully sarcastic account of the coming of the Revolution. In contrast, I’ve never come across Thomas Oliver writing anything but justifications for his actions on 2 Sept 1774 (the topic of my talk at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters tonight).

Therefore, though I’m still unsure about who wrote that poem, Thomas Oliver is one of the least likely of the named candidates.

TOMORROW: Poem XXIX at last.

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