Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Chastellux, [October 1786]

To Chastellux

[Oct. 1786]

Th: J. to M. De Chastellux

Among the topics of conversation which stole off like so many minutes the few hours I had the happiness of possessing you at Monticello, the Measure of English verse was one. I thought it depended, like Greek and Latin verse, on long and short syllables arranged into regular feet. You were of a different opinion. I did not pursue this subject after your departure, because it always presented itself with the painful recollection of a pleasure which, in all human probability, I was never to enjoy again. This probability like other human calculations, has been set aside by events: and we have again discussed, on this side the Atlantic, a subject which had occupied us during some pleasing moments on the other. A daily habit of walking in the Bois de Boulogne gave me an opportunity of turning this subject in my mind and I determined to present you my thoughts on it in the form of a letter. I for some time parried the difficulties which assailed me in attempting to prove my proposition: but at length I found they were not to be opposed, and their triumph was complete. Error is the stuff of which the web of life is woven: and he who lives longest and wisest is only able to wear out the more of it. I began with the design of converting you to my opinion that the arrangement of long and short syllables into regular feet constituted the harmony of English verse: I ended by discovering that you were right in denying that proposition. The next object was to find out the real circumstance which gives harmony to English poetry and laws to those who make it. I present you with the result. It is a tribute due to your friendship. It is due to you also as having recalled me from an error in my native tongue, and that too in a point the most difficult of all others to a foreigner, the law of it’s poetical numbers.

MS (DLC); written with TJ’s left hand. Not dated and not recorded in SJL, this letter may never have been sent, for the Editors are assured by M. le Duc de Duras, Chateau Chastellux, Yonne, France, that neither the essay, “Thoughts on English Prosody,” nor the letter is among the Archives de Chastellux, though other letters from TJ to Chastellux are (see Vol. 7:581). The letter, being in TJ’s left hand, was certainly written after 18 Sep. and probably before mid-November 1786. The rough draft of “Thoughts on English Prosody,” which occupies 27 pages and is in DLC: TJ Papers, 234:41823–37—though seriously disordered—has been printed without correction of the disorder in L & B description begins Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert E. Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, “Memorial Edition,” Washington, 1903-1904 description ends , xviii, 413–51, and elsewhere; it will be published in the Literary Miscellany, Second Series. This draft is in TJ’s right hand, and has numerous corrections and deletions, some of which are in his left hand. It could, therefore, have been written at any time between Aug. 1784 and 18 Sep. 1786. The Editors think that in all likelihood it was composed during the summer of 1786 and that TJ had about completed the rough draft when the accident to his wrist befell him. This accident threw an additional burden of work upon his secretary, William Short, and TJ, evidently not wishing to lose the value of a work on which he had clearly expended so great an amount of time and thought, composed the present letter, making also a few corrections on the manuscript itself preparatory to having a fair copy made. He may even have thought of transcribing it himself with his left hand or have laid it aside to copy when he recovered the use of his right hand. But that recovery was exceedingly slow, public business continued to press upon him, and in the spring of 1787 his long absence in the South of France added both to his own labors and to those of Short. The transcribing of so lengthy a document, which because of its very nature and the state of the rough draft would have been an arduous undertaking, may have been deferred from time to time until 24 Oct. 1788 when the death of Chastellux rendered it futile so far as its original purpose was concerned. This is conjectural, but it is a conjecture supported by the fact that the extant text of the letter is not a press copy but the original MS, a fact which it is difficult to explain on any other ground. If he had needed a retained copy, TJ surely would not have failed to use his copying press in this instance when, as he stated to Thomson, writing with his left hand was so slow and awkward as to be done but in “cases of necessity” (TJ to Thomson, 17 Dec. 1786); the “cases of necessity” may have included a four-thousand-word letter to Maria Cosway, but it is doubtful if they would have included the making of two copies of the present letter, one to be sent to Chastellux and the other to be retained. The absence of any acknowledgement from Chastellux of the letter or the essay on English versification points to the same conclusion. It is, of course, possible that Short transcribed copies of both the letter and the essay, but the Editors do not believe this likely; in view of all the circumstances, they are convinced that Chastellux never saw either the letter or the essay.

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