A BC Professor Recovered Lost Poems About Boston
Boston is undoubtedly a hub of literary greatness. From Thoreau to Hawthorne, countless writers have penned classics within city limits and produced eloquent reflections on daily life in their neighborhoods.
For writers not celebrated as literary giants, though, their musings about Boston were lost to time. That is, until recently, when Boston College professor Paul Lewis created a project to recover forgotten poems from everyday Bostonians in the years after the Revolutionary War.
Lewis worked with groups of undergraduate students over a three year period, sifting through 4,500 poems in 59 literary magazines. They recovered works by mostly anonymous writers published in early Boston magazines on subjects spanning from new residents’ first impressions of the city to snide criticisms of lawyers, doctors, and ministers. The poems will be published in an anthology, The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789–1820, to be released in April.
“With so much of the early architecture of Boston ravaged by fire, the poems selected serve as buckboard time machines that allow us to see the place through the eyes of its citizen-poets,” writes Lewis.
He highlights a poem detailing what sounds like Boston’s first traffic jam, and one that describes a bachelor’s purchase of a lottery ticket at the Exchange Hotel—in which he hopes he can win money to impress the girl he’s courting. Another is directed at Boston’s young ladies:
Ye lovely nymphs of Boston’s beauteous race,
Let no false shows your native charms disgrace.
Ape not the vain Coquette, too kind or rude,
Nor imitate the stiff dissembling prude.
From “Advice to the young Ladies of Boston,” Gentlemen and Ladies’ Town and Country Magazine, 1789
Lewis began work on the citizens poet project after a 2012 BPL and Massachusetts Historical Society exhibit he organized about the forgotten chapters of Boston’s literary history. He realized he was finding enough poetic gems to “open the doors to the felt life of the city in the early national period.” From works set in the Common, near the harbor, and on the Charles, Lewis says many of the poems strike notes that ring loudly through to modern times.
The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789–1820, University Press of New England.