While we await the next installment of Ronald Johnson’s piece on the death of John Quincy Adams, let’s ponder the fact that Adams was a poet as well as a statesman. In fact, he once noted that, “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I would have made myself a great poet.” (1)
Leaving aside for a moment the question of the relative merits of his poetry, consider this piece Adams wrote about the timepiece in the House chamber. As far as I can tell, it was likely published as part of another collection in the years before his death and was also included in a volume of his collected works, edited by Senators Thomas Hart Benton and John Davis, published shortly after his death.
Under the Window of the Hall of the House
of Representatives of the United States
Thou silent herald of Time’s silent flight!
Say could’st thou speak, what warning voice were thine?
Shade, who canst only show how others shine!
Dark, sullen witness of resplendent light
In day’s broad glare, and when the noontide bright
Of laughing fortune sheds the ray divine,
Thy ready favor cheers us–but decline
the clouds of morning and the gloom of night.
Yet are thy counsels faithful, just, and wise;
They bid us seize the moments as they pass–
Snatch the retrieveless sunbeam as it flies,
Nor lose one sand of life’s revolving glass–
Aspiring still, with energy sublime,
By virtuous deeds to give eternity to Time.
Given that we are examining Adams’ death and burial on this blog, it seems appropriate that he urges readers to “seize” each moment and aspire to “virtuous deeds.” The outpouring of grief that followed his death, as well as his strong presence in our sense of our history, certainly suggests that Adams followed his own bidding. Was he also challenging his fellow Members of Congress to do the same, to operate according to their own consciences and for the betterment of the nation and humanity? How do you think he would judge Congress through the years? What do you think Adams was getting at in this poem?
(1) Paul C. Nagel. John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (New York, Knopf: 1997), 231.
Adams, John Quincy. Thomas Hart Benton and John Davis, eds. Poems of Religion and Society (New York, William H. Graham, 1848), 38.