Poetry of Alexander Hamilton
By Nicole Scholet
April 22, 2015
Though poetry is not one of the first things that you would associate with Alexander Hamilton, he did enjoy reading and writing poems. Thanks to efforts by his widow Elizabeth and their children to preserve Hamilton's papers, several of his poems live on through copies in their hand. In honor of April being "National Poetry Month," here are some of Alexander Hamilton's poems from his youth.
Poetry from the Caribbean
It is particularly difficult to trace Hamilton's earlier poetry from the Caribbean. Historians have come across poems published in the newspaper of St. Croix, the island where Hamilton lived from age eight to fifteen, and have attributed them to Alexander Hamilton. However, little proof other than general pennames, vague author descriptions, and ambiguous newspaper formatting exist to support these claims.¹
One of the attributed poems that seems most likely to have been written by Alexander Hamilton is "The Soul ascending into Bliss, In humble imitation of Popes Dying Christian to his Soul." A copy of the first three verses of the poem were found among the Hamilton family papers stating that Alexander Hamilton had written the poem and it was published in the Royal Danish American Gazette on St. Croix on October 17, 1772.
AH! whither, whither, am I flown,
A wandering guest in worlds unknown?
What is that I see and hear?
What heav’nly music fills mine ear?
Etherial glories shine around;
More than Arabias sweets abound.
Hark! hark! a voice from yonder sky,
Methinks I hear my Saviour cry,
Come gentle spirit come away,
Come to thy Lord without delay;
For thee the gates of bliss unbar’d
Thy constant virtue to reward.
I come oh Lord! I mount, I fly,
On rapid wings I cleave the sky;
Stretch out thine arm and aid my flight;
For oh! I long to gain that height,
Where all celestial beings sing
Eternal praises to their King.
O Lamb of God! thrice gracious Lord
Now, now I feel how true thy word;
Translated to this happy place,
This blessed vision of thy face;
My soul shall all thy steps attend
In songs of triumph without end.
One of Alexander Hamilton's most recognized writings today is a letter that he wrote to his father after surviving a destructive hurricane that hit St. Croix on August 30, 1772.
The letter was afterwards printed in the Royal Danish American Gazette on October 3rd. Describing his experience, Hamilton writes: "My reflections and feelings on this frightful and melancholy occasion, are set forth in the following self-discourse."
Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine arrogance and self sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptible you now appear. And for why? The jarring of elements—the discord of clouds? Oh! impotent presumptuous fool! how durst thou offend that Omnipotence, whose nod alone were sufficient to quell the destruction that hovers over thee, or crush thee into atoms? See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise thyself, and adore thy God. How sweet, how unutterably sweet were now, the voice of an approving conscience; Then couldst thou say, hence ye idle alarms, why do I shrink? What have I to fear? A pleasing calm suspense! A short repose from calamity to end in eternal bliss? Let the Earth rend. Let the planets forsake their course. Let the Sun be extinguished and the Heavens burst asunder. Yet what have I to dread? My staff can never be broken—in Omnip[o]tence I trusted.
He who gave the winds to blow, and the lightnings to rage—even him have I always loved and served. His precepts have I observed. His commandments have I obeyed—and his perfections have I adored. He will snatch me from ruin. He will exalt me to the fellowship of Angels and Seraphs, and to the fullness of never ending joys.
But alas! how different, how deplorable, how gloomy the prospect! Death comes rushing on in triumph veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed, and ready for the stroke. On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: Calamity on his left threatening famine disease and distress of all kinds. And Oh! thou wretch, look still a little further; see the gulph of eternal misery open. There mayest thou shortly plunge—the just reward of thy vileness. Alas! whither canst thou fly? Where hide thyself? Thou canst not call upon thy God; thy life has been a continual warfare with him.
Hark—ruin and confusion on every side. ’Tis thy turn next; but one short moment, even now, Oh Lord help. Jesus be merciful!
Thus did I reflect, and thus at every gust of the wind, did I conclude, ’till it pleased the Almighty to allay it. Nor did my emotions proceed either from the suggestions of too much natural fear, or a conscience over-burthened with crimes of an uncommon cast. I thank God, this was not the case. The scenes of horror exhibited around us, naturally awakened such ideas in every thinking breast, and aggravated the deformity of every failing of our lives. It were a lamentable insensibility indeed, not to have had such feelings, and I think inconsistent with human nature.
Our distressed, helpless condition taught us humility and contempt of ourselves. The horrors of the night, the prospect of an immediate, cruel death—or, as one may say, of being crushed by the Almighty in his anger—filled us with terror. And every thing that had tended to weaken our interest with him, upbraided us in the strongest colours, with our baseness and folly. That which, in a calm unruffled temper, we call a natural cause, seemed then like the correction of the Deity. Our imagination represented him as an incensed master, executing vengeance on the crimes of his servants. The father and benefactor were forgot, and in that view, a consciousness of our guilt filled us with despair.
But see, the Lord relents. He hears our prayer. The Lightning ceases. The winds are appeased. The warring elements are reconciled and all things promise peace. The darkness is dispell’d and drooping nature revives at the approaching dawn. Look back Oh! my soul, look back and tremble. Rejoice at thy deliverance, and humble thyself in the presence of thy deliverer.
Yet hold, Oh vain mortal! Check thy ill timed joy. Art thou so selfish to exult because thy lot is happy in a season of universal woe? Hast thou no feelings for the miseries of thy fellow-creatures? And art thou incapable of the soft pangs of sympathetic sorrow? Look around thee and shudder at the view. See desolation and ruin where’er thou turnest thine eye! See thy fellow-creatures pale and lifeless; their bodies mangled, their souls snatched into eternity, unexpecting. Alas! perhaps unprepared! Hark the bitter groans of distress. See sickness and infirmities exposed to the inclemencies of wind and water! See tender infancy pinched with hunger and hanging on the mothers knee for food! See the unhappy mothers anxiety. Her poverty denies relief, her breast heaves with pangs of maternal pity, her heart is bursting, the tears gush down her cheeks. Oh sights of woe! Oh distress unspeakable! My heart bleeds, but I have no power to solace! O ye, who revel in affluence, see the afflictions of humanity and bestow your superfluity to ease them. Say not, we have suffered also, and thence withold your compassion. What are you[r] sufferings compared to those? Ye have still more than enough left. Act wisely. Succour the miserable and lay up a treasure in Heaven.
Poetry as a Collegiate
Upon arriving to the North American mainland from St. Croix, Alexander Hamilton began studying at a preparatory academy in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. There he befriended Elias Boudinot, a lawyer, who would later become President of the Confederation Congress, a member of the first US Congress, and Director of the US Mint. Hamilton also spent a great deal of time with Elias Boudinot's family - his wife Hannah and their two young daughters Susan and Maria.
The youngest daughter Maria was just a baby when Alexander Hamilton moved to Elizabethtown, and Hamilton wrote that he felt "all a Mother's fondness" toward her. When Maria died at the age of two and a half on September 3, 1774, Alexander Hamilton had already moved from Elizabethtown to New York City to study at King's College, but he wrote a heartfelt poem in reaction to her passing.
For the sweet babe, my doating heart
Did all a Mother’s fondness feel;
Carefull to act each tender part
and guard from every threatning ill.
But what alass! availd my care?
The unrelenting hand of death,
Regardless of a parent’s prayr
Has stoped my lovely Infant’s breath—
With rapture number Oer thy Charms,
While on thy harmless sports intent,
Or pratling in my happy arms—
No More thy self Important tale
Some embryo meaning shall convey,
Which, should th’ imperfect accents fail,
Thy speaking looks would still display—
Thou’st gone, forever gone—yet where,
Ah! pleasing thought; to endless bliss.
Then, why Indulge the rising tear?
Canst thou, fond heart, lament for this?
Let reason silence nature’s strife,
And weep Maria’s fate no more;
She’s safe from all the storms of life,
And Wafted to a peacefull Shore.
Poetry as a Man in Love
Alexander Hamilton wrote letters with very poetic language to his wife Elizabeth, both while courting and throughout their marriage. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, who outlived her husband by over fifty years, dedicated much of her life to collecting his papers to perserve his legacy.
When Elizabeth passed away at age 97, a little bag was found around her neck, which she had apparently always worn. Inside the bag was a short verse written by Alexander Hamilton for her, likely during their courtship. Elizabeth had obviously unfolded and read it many times, for Allan McLane Hamilton, their grandson, noted that, "What is apparently a sonnet was written upon a piece of torn and yellow paper, fragments of which had been sewn together with ordinary thread."² Here is the poem that Elizabeth so greatly cherished throughout her life:
"Answer to the Inquiry Why I Sighed"
Before no mortal ever knew
A love like mine so tender, true,
Completely wretched—you away,
And but half blessed e’en while you stay.
If present love [unlegible] face
Deny you to my fond embrace
No joy unmixed my bosom warms
But when my angel’s in my arms.
¹ See Newton, Michael E., Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years
² Hamilton, Allan McLane, Alexander Hamilton, An Intimate Life, pg. 126