Jefferson, Poetry, and Dialogue:
A Look into the Influence Behind Jefferson’s Writing of
“A Dialogue Between My Head and My Heart”
During the earlier stages of my research, I danced around with many topics, all surrounding Thomas Jefferson and poetry. I thought to write about several scrapbooks of his that have been shelved at U.VA’s library for decades. I thought it would be an intriguing topic, when I discovered that a professor at DePaul University, Jonathan Gross, published the collection and titled it, appropriately, Thomas Jefferson’s Scrapbooks, Poems of Nation, Family and Love. These were poems that Jefferson had clipped from the newspaper, for the most part. While focusing on Gross’ scrapbook findings (which included the work of great poets from Melville to Milton to Shakespeare to Shelley and Keats and Wordsworth,) I also learned that Thomas Jefferson has written a poem of his own, titled, “To Ellen.” His granddaughter is named Ellen Coolidge, but the poem, in a broader sense, is about heroism and true love. I also learned that he wrote a letter in the form of an essay: Thoughts on English Prosody. In this letter, he offers his theory about the principal characteristics of English verse - - quantity versus accent as its basis. Jefferson sided with the latter, stating “[w]hat proves the excellence of blank verse is that the taste lasts longer than that for rhyme.” Jefferson details a comparison of accentual and syllabic scansion, which he believes that any “well-organized ear” can detect. I never knew much about Jefferson before I enrolled in this class, nor do I think that I cared to know. However, I have come a long way, from then to now, in understanding him - - and therefore, appreciating him. When I was trying to wrap my head around my paper topic, I had thought about participating with most others by writing about Jefferson’s political platform, his money issues, or his contribution of the Declaration of Independence. In the end, I was more interested in finding out about Jefferson, the person. There’s not exactly an abundance of evidence to go by when it comes to trying to find out who he was, as a person, because he was a politician and most of his decision making was based on image. In truth, Jefferson was dynamic. He was multidimensional. Aside from his roles as a political leader and social activist, I was surprised to learn that he was quite the hopeless romantic. He is extremely sentimental (as we can tell with the clippings in the scrapbooks.) “A Dialogue Between My Head and My Heart,” the title of a letter that he wrote to his beloved friend, Maria Cosway, could very well be a reader’s most vivid and honest connection to Thomas Jefferson as he uncovers his personal masks and uses poetry to show desire, devotion and despair. One of the documentaries shown in the World of Thomas Jefferson class made mention of the speculated romance between Jefferson and Cosway, but I found an article in American Heritage Magazine, written by Charles Van Pelt, which specifies the story of Jefferson’s travels to Paris after he accepted his position as minister to France in 1784. It is in Paris where Jefferson meets Maria Cosway, through friends who circulated in various art circles. Maria Cosway was visiting Paris from London, on a business venture with her husband, Richard. Jefferson developed a fast fascination with the couple - - mainly Maria, and Van Pelt describes Maria as “beautiful, vivacious, talented, and still young at twenty-seven. Her delicately rounded face held eyes so deeply blue that they often appeared violet. Her hair was golden blond. She was slim and graceful; she spoke in a soft and musical voice that held an attractive hint of Italian accent...” He explains that Jefferson was impressed with the fact that Maria was a gifted painter. Jefferson was invited to stay with the couple on the countryside, and the two of them were often left alone while Richard Cosway worked,...
Cited: Gross, Jonathan. Thomas Jefferson’s Scrapbooks.: Poems of Nation, family & Romantic Love. New Hampshire: Steel forth Press 2006.
Van Pelt, Charles “Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway,” American Heritage Magazine. Volume 22, Issue 5. August 1971.
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