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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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Gov. Bernard’s Book of Poetry

In 1760 George III ascended to the throne of Great Britain, and the following year he married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Also in 1760, Francis Bernard (shown here) became governor of Massachusetts, coming from the same post in New Jersey.

His career dependent on making a good impression in London, Bernard started sucking up to the king and the new royal establishment. He proposed that Harvard College run a contest for the best poems about George III, his new bride, and the death of his grandfather, George II.

According to the 1855 Cyclopaedia of American Literature:
A proposal was set up in the college chapel inviting competition on these themes from undergraduates, or those who had taken a degree within seven years, for six guinea prizes to be given for the best Latin oration, Latin poem in hexameters, Latin elegy in hexameters and pentameters, Latin ode, English poem in long verse, and English ode.
Oxford and Cambridge had similar competitions, which was no doubt where Bernard got the idea.

The resulting best poems were collected with some prose addresses as Pietas et Gratulatio Collegii Cantabrigiensis apud Novanglos. The print shop of Green and Russell produced a handsome volume at quarto size, and in early 1762 the college corporation voted to send a presentation copy to the king himself. The Cyclopaedia says George III “does not appear to have made any special acknowledgment of it.”

There was a generally positive review of Pietas et Gratulatio in the July 1763 Monthly Review in London, though the praise was sometimes faint:
It must be acknowledged, after all, that this New England collection, like other publick offerings of the same kind, contains many indifferent performances; but these, though they can not be so well excused when they come from ancient and established seats of learning, may, at least, be connived at here; and what we could not endure from an illustrious university, we can easily pardon in an infant seminary.
The original volume didn’t identify any authors of the poems, but a number of copies with credits written in by hand circulated around Massachusetts. A detailed retrospective in the Monthly Anthology for June, 1809, used a copy owned by Harvard professor Stephen Sewall to identify the poets, including himself.

That article stated that the English poem numbered “XXIX.” was by “Thomas Oliver, afterwards judge and lieutenant governour.” A number of literary reference books repeated that information over the next century.

Since I was studying Lt. Gov. Oliver for my talk on Thursday, I was struck by this attribution. Because nothing else I’d read about Oliver suggested he was at all interested in poetry.

TOMORROW: Digging deeper.

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