His Poetic Side
As is evident in the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was an excellent writer and could be downright poetic at times.
Here's an example from Notes on the State of Virginia, a travel book he wrote for some friends in France:
"The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is, perhaps, one of the
most stupendous scenes in nature. You stand on a very high point of land.
On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of
the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches
the Potomac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction,
they rush against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea.
The first glance of this scene hurries our senses into the opinion, that this
earth has been created in time, that the rivers began to flow afterwards,
that in this place, particularly, they have been dammed up by the Blue Ridge
of mountains, and have formed an ocean which filled the whole valley; that
continuing to rise they have at length broken over at this spot, and have
torn the mountain down from its summit to its base. The piles of rock on
each hand, but particularly on the Shenandoah, the evident marks of their
disrupture and avulsion from their beds by the most powerful agents of nature
corroborate the impression. But the distant finishing which nature has given
to the picture, is of a very different character. ... It is as placid and
delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountain being cloven
asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth
blue horizon, at an infinite distance in the plain country, inviting you,
as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around, to pass through the
breach and participate of the calm below."
When he was in France, he wrote one of the world's most famous love letters
after saying goodbye to Maria Cosway:
"My Dear Madam:
Having performed the last sad office of handing you into your carriage at the Pavilion
de St. Denis, and seen the wheels get actually into motion, I turned on my heel and walked,
more dead than alive, to the opposite door, where my own was awaiting me. ... We were crammed into the carriage, like recruits for the Bastille, and not having soul enough to give orders to the coachman, he presumed Paris to be our destination, and drove off. ... Seated by my fireside, solitary and sad, the following dialogue took place between my Head and my Heart:
Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.
Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every
fibre of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever
catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear.
Head. These are the eternal consequences of your warmth and precipitation. This is one of
the scrapes into which you are ever leading us. You confess your follies indeed: but still you
hug and cherish them, and no reformation can be hoped, where there is no repentance.
Heart. Oh my friend! This is no moment to upbraid my foibles. I am rent into fragments by
the force of my grief! If you have any balm, pour it into my wounds: if none, do not harrow
them by new torrents. ...
Head. ... You will be pleased to remember that when our friend Trumbull used to be telling us
of the merits and talents of these good people, I never ceased whispering to you that we had no occasion for new acquaintance, that the greater their merit and talents, the more dangerous
their friendship to our tranquillity, because the regret at parting would be greater.
Heart. Accordingly, Sir, this acquaintance was not the consequence of my doings. It was one
of your projects which threw us in the way of it. It was you, remember, and not I, who desired
the meeting, at Legrand & Molinos. ...
Heart. Oh! my dear friend, how you have revived me by recalling to my mind the transactions
of that day! How well I remember them all, and that when I came home at night and looked back
to the morning, it seemed to have been a month agone. Go on then, like a kind comforter, and
paint to me the day we went to St. Germains. How beautiful was every object! Port de Neuilly,
the hills along the Seine, the rainbows of the machine of Marly, the terras of St. Germains,
the chateaux, the gardens, the statues of Marly, the pavillon of Lucienne. Recollect too Madrid,
Bagatelle, the King's garden, the Dessert. How grand the idea excited by the remains of such a
column! The spiral staircase too was beautiful. Every moment was filled with something agreeable.
The wheels of time moved on with a rapidity of which those of our carriage gave but a faint idea,
and yet in the evening, when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we
travelled over! Retrace all those scenes to me, my good companion, and I will forgive the
unkindness with which you were chiding me. ...
Head. Thou art the most incorrigible of all the beings that ever sinned! I reminded you of the
follies of the first day, intending to deduce from thence some useful lessons for you, but
instead of listening to these, you kindle at the recollection, you retrace the whole series with
a fondness which shews you want nothing but the opportunity to act it over again. ...
Head. Very well. Suppose then they come back. ... Perhaps you flatter yourself they may come to America?
Heart. God only knows what is to happen. I see nothing impossible in that supposition, and I
see things wonderfully contrived sometimes to make us happy. Where could they find such
objects as in America for the exercise of their enchanting art? Especially the lady, who paints
landscape so inimitably. She wants only subjects worthy of immortality to render her pencil
immortal. The Falling spring, the Cascade of Niagara, the Passage of the Potowmac thro the
Blue mountains, the Natural bridge. It is worth a voyage across the Atlantic to see these objects; much more to paint, and make them, and thereby ourselves, known to all ages. And our
own dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye? Mountains,
forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we there ride above the storms! How sublime to
look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all
fabricated at our feet! And the glorious Sun, when rising as if out of a distant water, just
gilding the tips of the mountains, and giving life to all nature!--I hope in God no circumstance
may ever make either seek an asylum from grief! With what sincere sympathy I would open every
cell of my composition to receive the effusion of their woes! I would pour my tears into their
wounds: and if a drop of balm could be found at the top of the Cordilleras, or at the remotest
sources of the Missouri, I would go thither myself to seek and to bring it. Deeply practiced
in the school of affliction, the human heart knows no joy which I have not lost, no sorrow
of which I have not drank! Fortune can present no grief of unknown form to me! Who then can
so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the some wound himself? But
Heaven forbid they should ever know a sorrow! ...
Head. ... Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it. The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which it is beset. Pleasure is always before us; but misfortune is at our side: while running after that, this arrests us. The most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, and to suffice for our own happiness. Those, which depend on ourselves, are the only pleasures a wise man will count on: for nothing is ours which another may deprive us of. Hence the inestimable value of intellectual pleasures. Ever in our power, always leading us to something new, never cloying, we ride, serene and sublime, above the concerns of this mortal world, contemplating truth and nature, matter and motion, the laws which bind up their existence, and that external being who made and bound them up by these laws. Let this be our employ. Leave the bustle and tumult of society to those who have not talents to occupy themselves without them. Friendship is but another name for an alliance with the follies and the misfortunes of others. Our own share of miseries is sufficient: why enter then as volunteers in those of another? Is there so little gall poured into our own cup that we must needs help to drink that of our neighbor? A friend dies or leaves us: we feel as if a limb was cut off. He is sick: we must watch over him, and participate of his pains. His fortune is shipwrecked: ours must be laid under contribution. He loses a child, a parent or a partner: we must mourn the loss as if it was our own.
Heart. And what more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven
hath smitten! To watch over the bed of sickness, and to beguile its tedious and its painful
moments! To share our bread with the one to whom misfortune has left none! This world
abounds indeed with misery: to lighten its burden we must divide it with one another. But
let us now try the virtues of your mathematical balance, and as you have put into one scale the
burdens of friendship, let me put its comforts into the other. When languishing then under
disease, how grateful is the solace of our friends! How are we penetrated with their assiduities
and attentions! How much are we supported by their encouragements and kind offices! When
Heaven has taken from us some object of our love, how sweet is it to have a bosom whereon
to recline our heads, and into which we may pour the torrent of our tears! Grief, with such a
comfort, is almost a luxury! In a life where we are perpetually exposed to want and accident,
yours is a wonderful proposition, to insulate ourselves, to retire form all aid, and to wrap
ourselves in the mantle of self-sufficiency! For assuredly nobody will care for him who cares for
nobody. But friendship is precious not only in the shade but in the sunshine of life: and thanks
to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine. I will recur for
proof to the days we have lately passed. On these indeed the sun shone brightly! How gay
did the face of nature appear! Hills, valleys, chateaux, gardens, rivers, every object wore its
liveliest hue! Whence did they borrow it? From the presence of our charming companion. They
were pleasing because she seemed pleased. Alone, the scene would have been dull and
insipid: the participation of it with her gave it relish. Let the gloomy Monk, sequestered from
the world, seek unsocial pleasures in the bottom of his cell! Let the sublimated philosopher
grasp visionary happiness while pursuing phantoms dressed in the garb of truth! Their
supreme wisdom is supreme folly: and they mistake for happiness the mere absence of pain.
Had they ever felt the solid pleasure of one generous spasm of the heart, they would
exchange for it all the frigid speculations of their lives, which you have been vaunting in such
elevated terms. Believe me then, my friend, that that is a miserable arithmetic which would
estimate friendship at nothing, or at less than nothing. ... If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts, where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman's. You began to calculate and to compare wealth and numbers: we threw up a few pulsations of our warmest blood: we supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers: we put our existence to the hazard, when the hazard seemed against us, and we saved our country: justifying at the same time the ways of Providence, whose precept is to do always what is right, and leave the issue to him. In short, my friend, as far as my recollection serves me, I do not know that I ever did a good thing on your suggestion, or a
dirty one without it. ... We are not immortal ourselves, my friend; how can we expect our
enjoiments to be so? We have no rose without its thorn; no pleasure without alloy. It is the law
of our existence; and we must acquiesce. It is the condition annexed to all our pleasures, not
by us who receive, but by him who gives them. True, this condition is pressing cruelly on me at
this moment. I feel more fit for death than life. But when I look back on the pleasures of which it is the consequence, I am conscious they were worth the price I am paying. Notwithstanding your endeavors too to damp my hopes, I comfort myself with expectations of their promised return. Hope is sweeter than despair, and they were too good to mean to deceive me. In the summer, said the gentleman; but in the spring said the lady: and I should love her forever, were it only for that! Know then, my friend, that I have taken these good people into my bosom: that I have lodged them in the warmest cell I could find: that I love them, and will continue to love them thro life: that if misfortune should dispose them on one side of the globe, and me on the other, my affections shall pervade its whole mass to reach them. Knowing then my determination, attempt not to disturb it. ..."
He wrote a poem to comfort his only surviving daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, giving it to her a couple of days before his death in 1826:
" A Death-Bed Adieu from Th.J. to M.R.
Life's visions are vanished, its dreams are no more;
Dear friends of my bosom, why bathed in tears?
I go to my fathers: I welcome the shore
Which crowns all my hopes or which buries my cares.
Then farewell, my dear, my lov'd daughter, adieu!
The last pang of life is in parting from you!
Two seraphs await me long shrouded in death;
I will bring them your love on my last parting breath."