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From George Washington to Elizabeth Willing Powel, February 1793

To Elizabeth Willing Powel

[Philadelphia, February 1793]

The enclosed thoughts are well conceived.1 The sentiments are just; and altho’ the envy expressed in some of them is to be regretted, yet it is hoped that Mira, at the age of four score, will stand as much in the way of Cloe as she does at present;2 and will appear the Same in the eyes of all who may then see her, as she did on her anniversary of fifty.3

AL, ViMtvL.

1The enclosed poem reads:

“Lines, by a Friend, addressed to Mrs Elizabeth Powel on her Birth Day of Fifty Years February 21. 179⟨3⟩

“Since Fifty Suns have annual run

From Mira’s Date on Earth

And half a Century is spun

Since Fate proclaimed her Birth

A joyous Evening shall be spent

And old & young agree

To mark the Hour which Time has lent

To hail the Jubilee.

The old are pleased, because her Days

Approach near to their own

Tho’ yet no Traces of Decays

On Mira’s Face are shown

The Young rejoice because they hope

Like her to please & shine

When they have ranged thro’ Pleasure’s Scope

And verge on Life’s Decline

Ungenerous, some derive a Joy

To think that Winter soon

Will all her vernal Charms destroy

And turn to Eve her Noon.

The chattering Flirts from fifteen Years

To Twenty Five collect

And, tho’ they whisper, yet one hears

What they, in vain, expect

Miss Chloe begs with selfish Sneer

‘Since Mira owns her Age

That She’ll less frequently appear

Midst Youth upon the Stage

‘Indeed I think she should retire

Contented with the past

Fifty should other Thoughts inspire

Would She, forever last

‘For We may frizz and powder too

And Garlands gay arrange

For Praise & Conquest vainly sue

Our Shapes like Proteus change

‘But Mira comes & we’re forsook

And left to mope alone

No more can We such Usage brook

Unnoticed where she’s known

‘Her facinating Tongue does more

Than Youth & vernal Bloom

I fear She’ll charm at dread Fourscore

Descending to the Tomb

‘The famous Ninon, we are told

At Ninety boasted Powers

And none, who heard her, thought her old

Tho’ Time all Things devours.’

Miranda sagely thus replied

To Chloe’s selfish Thought

‘My Dear it cannot be denied

That Miracles are wrought.

‘By Eloquence and Wit combined

Yet both of these will fade

The Laurel’s droop with which they’re twined

And blast in Deaths cold Shade

‘If Virtue and an Heart sincere

Should not with these conspire

They but provoke a biting Sneer

Not true Esteem inspire

‘These Ninon wanted; Mira, here,

Transcends her far above

’Gainst her e’en Slander ne’er could dare

Her venom’d Tongue to move

‘Then ye who hope in Autumn’s Eve

Like Mira long to reign

Like Ninon aim not to deceive

Or Virtue’s Garb obtain.

‘Like Mira, Virtue’s Self possess.

‘Let her adorn your Mind

For Virtue in a pleasing Dress

Has Charms for all Mankind.’

Her spotless Mantle shall be shown

When its blest Owner flies

The flaming Chariot make it known

When soaring to the Skies.

Græme Park Farm May 1st 1792.Laura.” (ViMtvL)

Tobias Lear apparently copied this poem from a manuscript dated 1 May 1792, which is in the handwriting of the poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson (1737–1801) and which ends with a personal note from the author that reads: “My dear Mrs Powel will be so good as to accept this Humble Esay of a Solitary Muse with the Same Candor she Showd to the Same hand in happier Days some two and twenty years past when she gave her hand to Mr Powell to whom my best Regards” (ViMtvL). Despite the fact that Lear left out two couplets, rearranged the words in some lines, substituted lines of his own, and eliminated most of Fergusson’s punctuation, the theme of the poem sent to Mrs. Powel is still the same as Fergusson’s original. Fergusson, Powel, and Ninon (Anne) de Lenclos (1620–1705), to whom the poem refers, were all women noted for their intellect and quality of conversation, and their homes were frequented by the leading intellectuals and politicians of their day.

2Chloe was a shepherdess in the popular pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, a Greek writer of the second or third century A.D. Chloe became a generic name used by romance writers and pastoral poets, often as a substitute for a contemporary woman. In much the same way, poets used the name of Mira, which means wonderful and is the name given to the brightest star in the constellation Cetus, the Whale.

3GW and Martha Washington sent a joint birthday greeting to Mrs. Powel on 21 Feb., along with their regrets at not being able to attend her party that evening.

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