Lines Copied from Tristram Shandy by Martha and Thomas Jefferson
Time wastes too fast:1 every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return—
more every thing presses on2—and every
time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which
follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation
which we are shortly to make!
MS (James Monroe Law Office, courtesy of L. G. Hoes, Fredericksburg, Va.); in the hand of Martha Wayles Jefferson with additional lines by TJ as indicated below; endorsed on verso by Martha Jefferson Randolph: “A Lock of my Dear Mama’s Hair inclosed in a verse which she wrote.” The original is wrapped around a lock of Mrs. Jefferson’s hair and is accompanied by an authentication in the hand of a granddaughter.
There is no date on this affecting exchange of sentiment between two gifted people whose marriage was one of consummate happiness, but the lines must have been written in the weeks—perhaps days—immediately preceding Martha’s death on 6 Sep. 1782. Martha Jefferson Randolph later recalled that her father had been in constant attendance on her mother during this last illness: “For four months that she lingered he was never out of Calling. When not at her bed side he was writing in a small room which opened immediately at the head of her bed” (“Reminiscences of Th.J. by MR,” from MS copy made by Mary and Anne Cary Randolph, ViU). We may imagine that sometime during these months, facing an eventuality too painful to be spoken about, Martha turned to the lines of Tristram Shandy that both recalled, and he continued the passage. The full text from Sterne is as follows: “I will not argue the matter: Times wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more—every thing presses on—whilst thou art twisting that lock,—see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.—Heaven have mercy upon us both!” (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. By Laurence Sterne, Shakespeare Head Edition, Oxford, 1926, iii, 166–7). The editors wish to express their grateful appreciation to Professor Edward L. Hubler of the Department of English, Princeton University, for identifying these lines. Though this identification proves that the lines were copied from another rather than composed by Martha and TJ, they are included here because they represent the only known writing of any sort exchanged between the two that has been preserved. Martha Jefferson Randolph evidently thought that her mother had composed the lines and that they were intended as verse.
1. The colon is in dark ink and is written over some mark or letter (perhaps “e”). TJ evidently corrected Martha’s transcription of the lines.
2. Everything preceding this point is in a faded ink in the handwriting of Martha Wayles Jefferson; all that follows is in a darker ink and in TJ’s hand. MS is here given line for line and verbatim save for the fact that the first word in first line and fifth word in third line are begun with initial capitals.