Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Stephen Colbert, meet Robert Blackwell

Gawker is running a poll about Stephen Colbert's speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner (there's also a link to the full transcript of his remarks at the Daily Kos). I'm surprised at David Corn's ambivalent review of it, given his big reaction to last year's events.

Today, by chance, I found this amazing collection of acrostics about American presidents and states written by Robert Blackwell in 1861. The collection was published in Tennessee, so you can guess the trajectory of the later acrostics.

Here's Honorable Millard Fillmore--the FILLMORE section may transcend its time.
HONORED for thy love of right,
Onward soar to fame and might;
Never from the truth diverging,
Or spurious doctrines on us urging;
Respect the good, reprove the bad,
And brace the weak, and cheer the sad.
Be kind to all, do what we may,
Let nothing lead thy heart astray;
Ever kind in thought and deed,
Men by acts thy heart can read.
Indebted for past favors, we
Like loyal subjects, reverence thee;
Labor on, and be content,
And if elected President,
Restore the good to office, and
Disperse the bad, at thy command.

For many now in office be
In whom defects we plainly see;
Living on the revenue
Like wolves they eat, but nothing do.
Mean men, they seek for wealth and fame,
Our country's good is not their aim;
Repulse them all from office, and
Extend thy sway o'er all the land.

Someone didn't like Martin Van Buren:
MORE greedy than wise, more knave than saint,
And yet he had so many charms,
Reclining on his chair of ease,
The people took him to their arms;
In all his glory they saw him rise,
Not clothed with virtue, but with disguise.

Vows he broke from day to day,
And, in truth, we this can say,
No tears can wash his sins away.

But still from us he homage claims,
Unmindful of his traitorous aims;
Robed in the garments of a foe,
Enticing men with him to go--
Not to heaven, but down below.

The book gets hot when James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln show up. The oddest thing about the poem is that all of the others are composed of multiple elegant sentences, even to tell Martin Van Buren to go to hell, but he's so livid about Lincoln that he uses the acrostic format to think up all the nasty adjectives he can muster:
ABHORRED by all,
Both great and small,
Existing on this Southern soil.
Lean, hungry,
Insidious,
Nefarious man,
Cunning, and trying
Our ruin to plan;
Let Northerners bow to him,
No Southerner can.

Following the poem is a fable about an eagle and a fox and some trickery. Here's the Moral Lesson:
This fable is a warning to us, not to deal hardly or injuriously by anybody. The consideration of our being in a high condition of life, and those we hurt below us, will plead little or no excuse for us in this case. For there is scarce a creature of so despicable a rank, but is capable of avenging itself some way, and at some time or other. When great men happen to be wicked, how little scruple do they make of oppressing their poor neighbors! they are perched upon a lofty station, and have built their nest on high; and, having outgrown all feelings of humanity, are insensible to any pangs of remorse. The widow's tears, the orphan's cries, and the curses of the miserable, like javelins thrown by the hand of a feeble old man, fall by the way, and never reach their heart. But let such a one, in the midst of his flagrant injustice, remember how easy a matter it is, notwithstanding his superior distance, for the meanest vassal to be revenged of him. The bitterness of affliction, even where cunning is wanting, may animate the poorest spirit with resolutions of vengeance, and when once that fury is thoroughly awakened, we know not what she will require before she is lulled to rest again. The most powerful tyrants can not prevent a resolved assassination; there are a thousand different ways for any private man to do the business, who is heartily disposed to do it, and willing to satisfy his appetite for revenge at the expense of his life. An old woman may clap a firebrand to the palace of a prince, and it is in the power of a poor weak fool to destroy the children of the mighty.

That's published in 1861.

The state poems are also good. I like the shout-outs to the lovely ladies of Rhode Island, Delaware, and Maryland. He runs into trouble with his X's:
THY lands are rich and sweet thy clime,
Ever mild so be it.
X neither begins nor ends a rhyme--
And yet we place it in the line,
So the folks may see it.

I can sympathize with this compositional problem--or at least I could when I was nine--having grown up in ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO.