James De Mille's "Class Poem 1854"
Edited and Introduced by Patricia Monk
In my introduction to James De Mille's "Phi Beta Kappa Poem" (Canadian Poetry 9, Fall/Winter 1981), I suggested that it might prove to be the only extended example of his verse to emerge so long after his death. I am pleased to be able to announce that I was mistaken in this expectation, and that a further holograph manuscript of a long poem has recently come to light. Its importance, not only to students of De Mille but also to students of the nineteenth-century Canadian literary scene in general, is considerable.
This manuscript, which is now in the Archives of the John Hay Library of Brown University, consists of a small (19.5x 16.5 cm) book of unruled white paper, with leather covers of a rather disagreeable shade of purple (the brownish tinge which makes it disagreeable is, I suspect, due to age), stamped on the front in gold capitals with the words "Class Poem 1854". The name "Annie Pryor" is written in her own handwriting on the first blank leaf. The poem itself, including the elaborately drawn and lettered title page, takes up the next 19 leaves (using the recto pages only), and there are a few blank leaves at the end. On each page the text, written in De Mille's small but legible hand, is surrounded by pen-and-ink drawings illustrating it.
The MS may be fairly precisely dated. De Mille graduated from Brown University in 1854, and his final term as a student would have finished, some weeks after the examinations of the graduating class (held in June), on 13 July. By this date, he would have known that his name was among those to be submitted to the Board for the granting of the degree of MA. The actual conferring of the degrees at Brown, then as now, takes place during Commencement, held at the beginning of the Fall term. Another part of Commencement is Class Day, with the important inclusion of the Class Dinner at which the "class ode" was presented (see note to line 11). The evidence that James De Mille was actually present for Commencement in 1854 is only circumstantial, since the appearance of his name in the list of graduates could be merely a matter of form. Nevertheless, after consideration of the dates in question and of the internal evidence of the poem, my opinion is that he was present, and that he delivered the poem in person, having completed its composition in the interval between learning in July of his successful graduation and the date of Commencement: Wednesday, 6 September 1854. Harder evidence than this would be appreciated, but I think it is not likely to be forthcoming.
Loosely substantiated though it may be, the reasonably precise dating of the poem is, to students of De Mille, probably the most important of the several interesting features which the poem offers. To begin with, not only is the "Class Poem 1854", with the exception of the prose manuscript of "Ashdod Webster and His Starring Tour", the longest complete holograph MS of De Mille's known to exist, it is by far the earliest, since both "Ashdod Webster" and the incomplete "Behind the Veil", although not yet precisely dated, are clearly late productions. Consequently, it offers a substantial sample of writing from the very beginning of De Mille's career, just as the "Phi Beta Kappa Poem" offers a sample from the very end of it.
Since the lapse of time between the "Class Poem 1854" and the "Phi Beta Kappa" poem is so great, the presence of many points of resemblance between them becomes even more striking. The satirical approach is perhaps not unexpected in the festive circumstances of the poem's occasion, but the ironic eye of the satirist is not always opened quite so early, particularly in a devoutly religious home of the sort from which De Mille had come to Brown only two years before in the early months of 1852. The commentary, developed in lines 325-395, on the careers in prospect for himself and his classmates, makes obvious points, but it makes them with some pretence to wit and some plain good humour. The makings of the shrewd observer of the "Phi Beta Kappa Poem" and of the Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder are already present, but they still have to be developed by wider experience of human folly and increased technical skill.
In addition to revealing the budding satirist, of course, the "Class Poem 1854" reinforces De Mille's claims to being a fairly considerable composer of light and occasional verse. These claims, made by family members and friends of De Mille to Archibald MacMechan, during his researches shortly after De Mille's death, have been so far very hard to support. This poem may only add a single "opus" to De Mille's credit, but its existence provides further support for the claims put forward for his talent in this genre.
From the biographer's point of view, moreover, it is useful to have an extended commentary by De Mille on part of his own experience. The poem provides a very lively sketch (both in words and pictures) of life at Brown University in the early fifties, and one which is the more interesting for being closely contemporaneous with what it describes. There are a number of accounts of life at Brown, collected in a substantial volume under the title Memories of Brown, but none of them seem to have been written quite so contemporaneously as the De Mille poem. In at least one instance, De Mille seems to provide an earlier dating for a particular event than either Brown's official historian, Bronson, or those of his classmates supplying reminiscences to the Memories volume (see note to line 318). Historians of Brown, therefore, as well as students of De Mille, may find the poem of some interest.
Before starting to discuss the technical skill displayed in the poem, I should in fairness to De Mille, make it clear that the poem cannot ever have been intended for publication. It is finished in the sense that it is complete, but not in the sense that it has received any kind of careful polishing. It was very clearly intended for oral delivery on a single occasion, (the class dinner), and to an audience who had shared with De Mille the experiences he describes. Taking this limitation of occasion and audience into account, we should be careful not to expect too much of the poem technically.
Clever, but rough, would nevertheless be my summary of the literary qualities of the style and technique of the poem, even after making such allowances. When De Mille speaks of addressing his audience in "doggerel rhyme", for example, he is being not modest but accurate: he uses a line which is basically an anapaestic tetrameter, characterized by a great deal of variation, including frequent hypermetric syllables at the beginning or end, frequent use of initial trochaic feet, and an occasional shift into dactylic rhythm. This looseness of rhythm contrasts sharply with the smooth, elegantly varied, and neatly managed rhythms of the "Phi Beta Kappa Poem". Nevertheless, the result is an engagingly rollicking rhythm, the tendency of which to accelerate in being read aloud would presumably be controlled by the poet as he read. The rhyme-scheme, equally loose, varies for the most part between rhymed couplets and alternating rhyme. Again, this is in sharp contrast to the regular couplets of the "Phi Beta Kappa Poem", which are varied only occasionally, and then merely by the standard form of variation, the triplet. Certainly, the rhyme scheme of the "Class Poem 1854", however unusual, works, and may even be considered a suitable match, like the rhythm, for the considerable exuberance exhibited in the content of the poem.
This exuberance also affects the type of rhyme-word chosen. In rhyming "rehearse it he" / "university" (lines 4, 6), De Mille is clearly being deliberately playful; elsewhere, he uses similarly surprising rhymes in order to get himself out of a difficulty: "soon yours" / "Juniors" (lines 155-156), or even to enable him to perpetrate a pun: "sky men" / "Hymen" (lines 123-124, see note). In a curious way, some of these surprising rhymes suggest those of Byron, whose work was certainly known to De Mille, and even anticipate those of W.S. Gilbert.
The punning rhymes are a further manifestation of the same exuberance, but they are by no means the only puns in the poem. The text, in fact, is full of them for De Mille seems to make the pun his chief instrument of humour beginning with that on "desert"/"dessert" (line 14) and ending with that on "toback her"/"tobacco" (line 416). I have indicated such puns in the notes only where they seem to be dependent upon allusions to events or places or persons specific to Brown, or occasionally where the meaning is clear only after an examination of the drawings surrounding the text. Although the pun is no longer fashionable, some of De Mille's puns must nevertheless be acknowledged to be remarkably ingenious and quite funny.
There is evidence in the poem, however, for more than a simple talent for ingenious puns and wild rhymes. The narrative of the poem is well organized, falling naturally into seven distinct sections: a short introduction (lines 1-20), a section on the Freshman year (lines 21-76), a section on the Sophomore year (77-154), a section on the Junior year (lines 155-238), a section on the Senior year (239-319), a section on the various careers in prospect for the members of the Class (lines 320-396), and a short conclusion (lines 397-416). In particular, the lines on the "Junior burial" (lines 213-238) form a quite respectable specimen of descriptive verse. In its economy, rhythm, pace, and vividness, this section conveys very clearly a sense of the occasion which was a high point of the College year not only for the students involved but for the people of Providence as well.
It is much to be regretted that the drawings which illustrate the text cannot, at least for the time being, be reproduced with it. They have a vigor, clarity, and humour of their own which makes them more than mere appendages to the verse, while at the same time, unlike the random doodlings of the notebook which has survived from De Mille's years at Brown and the rather overcrowded illustrations to the Virgil translation or to "Eggs, Eggs, Eggs", they form a vivid commentary on the text. I have commented on some of the drawings briefly in notes to various lines, not to tantalize, but simply to indicate points at which the illustration either clarifies the text or forms an integral part of the meaning.
The MS presents considerable editing problems and dilemmas, largely as a result of its not having been intended for publication, or indeed, so far as I can see, for reading by any other person than De Mille himself and Annie Pryor, daughter of Dr John Pryor, whom he subsequently married, and whose name, as I mentioned, is written on the flyleaf of the MS. The punctuation is minimal. Indeed, there is almost no final punctuation to the lines at all. What punctuation, whether final or internal, there is consists largely of dashes and exclamation marks. I have therefore pursued a policy of punctuating the MS sparingly, but sufficiently to make straightforward reading possible. In any case where carrying out this policy involved more than the simple insertion or deletion of a punctuation mark, I have indicated exactly what I have done in the Notes which follow the poem. A second dilemma is De Mille's very problematic division of the text into verse paragraphs. He seems to have divided the text into paragraphs, but it is impossible to tell whether there is any systematic pattern or not, since the spacing between the lines is irregular throughout (for example, in some places it is not possible to tell whether a paragraph division is intended and has been accidentally filled in with part of a drawing, or whether the space between two lines is deliberately widened to allow the enlargement of a part of the illustration, or whether the space is simply accidental). Some lines following apparent paragraph spaces begin with elaborate decorated capitals, others do not. My policy, as finally arrived at, is to ignore all seeming paragraph breaks except where such a break appears to precede a new section of the poem (see above), which I have marked by a paragraph indentation in the text of the poem. I have corrected spelling only where this seems to be a genuine error and not part of the intention of the humour (as, for example, where the misspelling points a pun).
I have explained local, historical, personal, and literary allusions briefly in the Notes, wherever possible, and have also indicated there allusions which I have not been able to explain. (For the latter, I should be happy to receive any suggestions for possible explanations.) The chief sources for the explanations of allusions to events and people at Brown are: Walter C. Bronson, The History of Brown University 1764-1914 (Providence: Brown University, 1914), referred to in the notes simply as Bronson; and Robert P. Brown et al., eds, Memories of Brown (Providence: Brown Alumni Magazine Co, 1909), referred to in the notes as Memories.
I should like to thank the Librarian of Brown University for permission to reproduce the poem from the manuscript in their possession, and also to acknowledge with gratitude the considerable assistance of the Brown University Archivist, Mrs Martha L. Mitchell.
Class Poem 1854
1.11 "the dinner of college": probably an allusion to the occasion on which the poem was delivered. One of the illustrations on this opening page shows a long banquet table with seated figures and figures like waiters carrying dishes.
1.14 "receive": MS "recieve"; the MS spelling of "desert" points the pun on "desert"/"dessert".
1.26 "his own printed name": the Catalogues of this period at Brown included a list of all registered students by year's standing.
1.40 "flunk": spelled "flunck" and defined as "the forced confession of an empty head" in the Brown "Record of College News" of 1843 (Bronson, p. 243). (See also 1.172.)
1.44 "with respectable dress on": this sounds like an allusion to the college regulations, although I have not been able to find this precise phrase.
1.49 "sub tegmine fagi": "under the beech-tree's shelter" (Virgil, Eclogues 1.1).
1.55-58 "smoking": the "smoking" or "smoking out" of freshmen was a traditional method of hazing, and is remembered by Granger, one of De Mille's classmates (Memories, p. 104).
1.59 "Ah": MS has "ah", I have capitalized it for consistency with 1.63.
1.70 "fond of a duck": The ducking of two freshmen by Granger and three classmates on a "fine December night" of their Sophomore year (Memories, p. 103) must still have been fresh in everybody's memories when De Mille arrived at the beginning of the following term.
1.72 "of studious life": MS has "of the studious life", with "the" crossed out.
1.74 "peaceable": MS has "peacable", both here and at 1.389.
1.84 "Sophomore": the word is written in a fancy script, emphasising that it was at this point that De Mille joined the "Class of '54".
1.86 "Timon": Timon of Athens, the byword for misanthropy.
1.93 "Pandemonium": meaning literally "the place of all the devils", it was the nickname given at Brown to the fourth storey of University Hall (Memories, pp. 103, 115), from the name of the capital of Hell in Milton's Paradise Lost (Book I, 756, and Book X, 424).
1.97 "Shepherds": MS has "sheperds" here, and also at line 395.
1.100 "ton": for "haut ton", the social Úlite of Providence.
1.105 "Fire!": no notable fire seems to have occurred during De Mille's years at Brown; major fires had previously occurred in 1817 (this one burned down what the President of the period delicately called "the nuisance", and endangered the college building) and in 1819 (Bronson, p. 185), both of them creating the sort of disturbance De Mille describes.
1.112 "Voices of Night": in quotation marks in MS, although I have so far been unable to find the source.
1.119 "seized": MS has "siezed".
1.124 "Frederick of Prussia . . . Hymen": the pun on "Hymen" and "high men" alludes to the famous personal guard assembled by Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, all the members of which had to be at least six feet tall. An illustration in the margin is the only clue to this one.
1.132 "fire their stoves": literally "light their stoves", but taken in context, De Mille is making an oblique pun on another sense of fire: "to propel . . . (a missile)" (OED); on one occasion a stove left in the hall of the top floor was thrown down the stairs, and on another a stove was thrown out of a second-storey window (Memories, pp. 318, 103).
1.153 "Demosthenes Crown": "On the Crown", an oration of Demosthenes (384?-322 BC), the Athenian statesman and orator, whose work was to be studied in the second-year Greek class in 1853-1854.
1.154 "Prometheus was bound": presumably a reference to the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus, although this is not listed for study during De Mille's stay at Brown.
1.160 I have inserted parentheses round this line to make the sense of the passage clear.
1.166 "trammell": the OED spells the wordwith one "l" and lists several senses of which #5, "To hinder the free action of; to put restraint upon fetter, hamper, impede, confine", makes the best sense, although sense #3, "to fasten together the legs (of a horse)", is also suggested by De Mille's drawing of a running animal (something of a cross between camel and a horse); the same animal provides a link between this line and 1.168, with its put upon "camel" and "Campbell".
1.168 "Campbell": George Campbell, the author of The Philosophy of Rhetoric. This was, with Richard Whateley's The Elements of Rhetoric (see note to line 212), the usual rhetoric textbook at Brown during De Mille's stay; De Mille himself subsequently used both books when teaching rhetoric at Dalhousie.
1.172 "pony": a translation, or key, defined in the 1843 "Record of College News", as "a small steed for cripples, unsafe, obsolete" (Bronson, p. 243). (See also 1.40.)
1.186 "Ephrahim's cake": "Ephraim is a cake not turned" (Hosea 7:8): hence "underdone" because cooked on one side only; the students were "under" Professor Dunn.
1.191 "third-storey": MS has "third story".
1.204 "Tooter": the pun on tooter/tutor is amplified by a marginal drawing of a figure playing what looks like a clarinet.
1.208 "turmoil": "oil" is lightly underlined in the MS stressing the pun on "lamp-oil".
1.212 "Rhetorical burial": For a long period at Brown it was customary for members of the Junior class, in which rhetoric was studied to hold a mock funeral for the authors of the rhetoric textbooks used in the class, aimost always, and certainly in De Mille's junior year (1852-1853), Campbell and Whateley (see above, 1.168). According to the programme for 5 July 1853, copies of the two text-books were encoffined in a weighted wooden box, carried in solemn procession along a circuitous route through the city, and finally rowed out into deep water in the Harbour, off Fox Point at the tip of Narragansett Bay, where they were dropped overboard, after which the participants returned to the college.
1.229 "dirge": the programme for the 1853 burial prints the "words by James De Mille" of such a dirge, to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne".
1.248 "Stewart . . . and Reid": the works of Dugald Stewart (1753-1828) and Thomas Reid (1710-1796), members of the "Common sense" school (see below, 1.251), were studied at Brown in the course on Intellectual and Moral Philosophy.
1.251 "Common-sense school": a school of philosophy which came into existence in the eighteenth century, centred on the notion of common sense.
1.252 "Fichte-tious": a reference to the work of Johann Fichte (1762- 1814), called the "first major representative of the movement called transcendental Idealism", whose Critique of All Revelation would have been sufficiently unpopular with the firmly Christian outlook of the Brown faculty to give De Mille's pun on "Fichte-tious" and "fictitious" some point.
1.262 "serfeit": I have left the misspelling in to make the point of the pun a littler clearer; the MS also divides the word as "serf eit".
1.263 "that provisions were dear": underlined in MS.
1.264 "was in everyone's mouth": underlined in MS.
1.266 "mothers ... know we are out": An allusion to the jeering nineteenth-century streetcry addresses by urchins to anyone foolishlooking.
1.270 "collegiate rust": college mannerisms, with "rust" used in the OED sense #5, "any deteriorating or impairing effect or influence upon character, abilities, etc., especially as the result of inactivity".
1.293 "When": I have indicated a new sentence beginning here, although the manuscript does not, since the lines clearly require it in order to be intelligible.
1.304 "precedent": the pun on "precedent" and "president" refers to Brown's President Francis Wayland, who was generally liked and admired, although capable of inspiring apprehension among some students.
1.307- "A M . . . A B": a reference to the fact that under President Wayland the AM degree
1.308 at Brown had been changed to become, like the AB, a degree which could be obtained by completing course work and passing examinations.
1.312 "Tusculan questionings": the Tusculanae Disputationes of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) of which the first book was set for the examination in Latin for the graduating class in 1854 (see also line 314 below).
1.314 "Augur": the pun is on "augur" (a Roman religious offcial with the duty of inspecting omens) and "auger" (a drill for boring holes in wood); in the illustration at the foot of the manuscript page a recumbent figure (presumably the unfortunate student) is having his head pierced by a drill (labelled "Kikero Disps" and operated by a figure labelled "Kikero"); under it is a note saying "a great bore". Cicero held this office once during his career, and makes a number of references to it in his writings.
1.318 "petition": a partition had been put up on the upper corridor (running from one end of the building to another, with a staircase at each end) of University Hall, in order to stop students rolling a cannonball (among other things) along it. This naturally displeased the students, so that, after the putting up of the partition, newcomers were invited to sign a petition and then led unsuspectingly up to the partition where they were asked to inscribe their names. Bronson (working with the official university records) dates the putting up of the partitions as 1860, and one of the accounts in Memories as 1855, but De Mille's reference implies that it must have been before 1855.
1.331 "Do Politics charm you? Then . . .": MS has "charm you then", but the lines require a new sentence to make sense.
1.332 "lathing machine": from the sense of the passage, this must be a lathe, not a machine for making laths.
1.334 "turning": the sense of "turning" here implies that the politician is always a "turncoat", or traitor; whether to his party, his constituents, or his principles is left open. Ixion was punished for hubris by being lashed to a constantly turning wheel.
1.335 "cum sollicitudine mentis": literally, "with uneasiness of mind"; perhaps another tag from De Mille's Latin reading.
1.340 "Emperor Nicholas": Nicholas I, Emperor of Russia 1825-1855. The allusion to the amount of "killing" he did is presumably a reference to the Crimean War which broke out in March 1854 partly, according to authorities, as a result of Nicholas' foreign pollcy.
1.347 "French Bishops . . . cure": the pun is obviously on "cure" and "cure", but the speed attributed to the French Bishops remains unaccounted for.
1.354 "phtysics": "phthisic" (with an "s" added for the rhyme with "physics"), the OED defines phthisis "as a wasting disease of the lungs; pulmonary consumption [tuberculosis]".
1.357 "bar": the word is lightly underlined in the MS.
1.358 "the liquor law's passage away Down East": the law in question, known as the "Maine Law" (officially, in the Public Laws of Maine, 1851, Chapter 21, "An Act for the suppression of drinking houses and tippling shops"), introduced statewide Prohibition.
1.381 "pastorial": possibly misspelled for the sake of the rhythm.
1.390 "Hand over . . . your wife": there is a small cross just before the first word of this line which may have indicated some deeper meaning for the person who at some point received the MS as a gift, Annie Pryor, whom De Mille subsequently married.
1.394 "look out for their fleece": lightly underlined in the MS, at the foot of the page, a figure is shown busily shearing a sheeplike animal, under a noticeboard which reads "Pastor Fido".
1.405 "Brunette": Brown University as Alma Mater.
1.416 "toback her": the pun on "tobacco" is highly consistent with De Mille's reputed heavy smoking.