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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Longfellow on Madison

One of America's best poets wrote one of his worst poems about our capital.

In 1876, a centennial exhibition was organized in Philadelphia to celebrate the nation's first century. The participation of Wisconsin's women was spearheaded by Mrs. J.G. Thorpe of Madison, whose son had married a daughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She persuaded the famous author to write an original poem for the book that the Wisconsin women's centennial committee was compiling.

His poem was called "The Four Lakes of Madison." It began, "Four limpid lakes, -- four Naiades / Or sylvan deities are these…" and continued for another 16 lines of equally awkward hyperbole. The poet who gave us such immortal phrases as, "Ships that pass in the night" and "Into each life some rain must fall" wrote that Madison, "All like a floating landscape seems / In cloud-land or the land of dreams…"

One assumes he had never visited the city.

Mrs. Thorpe had even worse luck with four paintings she commissioned from Paris to accompany the poem. She expected landscapes that showed off Wisconsin's natural beauty, but just as the exhibition opened she received instead romantic portraits of symbolic lake goddesses. She quickly engaged a New York landscape painter named Thomas Moran to come to Madison and create replacements.

Those arrived in Philadelphia just in time to be displayed in the Wisconsin building, and after the fair closed, a subscription was raised to purchase them for the University of Wisconsin art collection. Unfortunately, they burned up when an 1883 fire destroyed Science Hall.

Longfellow's lamentable verses, ironically, survived intact. They were printed on pages 82-83 of the Centennial Records of the Women of Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.: Atwood and Culver, 1876). This book is about more than just how women across the state celebrated the nation's centennial. It also describes the charitable and philanthropic work done over the previous 50 years by Wisconsin women, including articles on the early history of the Wisconsin Institution for Blind in Janesville, Milwaukee College, the Soldiers' Orphans' Home in Madison, and many other social service institutions.

:: Posted in Madison on November 17, 2008

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