Poetry and Cheese

Posted 9 July, 2009 13:04 by Karla Baker

On the 8 March, 1889, Bartholomew printed 510 sheets of illustrations by George Tait. I’m none too familiar with the works of George Tait but, let me put it this way, he ain’t no Quentin Blake! These illustrations were produced for an edition of the works of Scottish poet Thomas Kennedy. Now, I’m none too familiar with the works of Thomas Kennedy either but in truth, he’s no Philip Larkin. Nevertheless, Kennedy turns out to have been quite an interesting character and for this reason is a worthy subject for today’s entry.

Thomas Kennedy (1776-1832) was born in Paisley, but at the age of nineteen he emigrated to the United States. As a result, whilst by birth and youth and indeed even by language he was Scottish through and through, his star arguably burns brightest in his adopted home. He landed in Georgetown in 1796 before finally settling in Williamstown, Washington County. He was able to secure employment with the Potomac Navigation Company but swiftly began to pursue his ultimate goal of becoming a poet-politician.

His first major work was published in 1816, when Kennedy was forty years old. It was simply called Poems. The Bartholomew illustrations are for a much later reprint of the original. The illustrations include quotes from the text, arguably because of the potential for confusion amongst readers as to what they are actually trying to depict. But, what these quotes helpfully show is that, even after twenty years as a citizen of a foreign land, Kennedy continued to utilise the Scots dialect.

If your interest has been piqued then you will be delighted to know that we here at the National Library of Scotland have a microform version of the original book which is freely available for consultation at our George IV Bridge building in Edinburgh. But, before you all rush out of the door the best is yet to come….

Thomas Kennedy was not just a poet, as referred to earlier, he also had political ambitions. Indeed, he was arguably fairly successful, entering the House of Delegates in 1817 and the Senate in 1826 before finally again entering the House of Delegates in a career that was only cessated due to his untimely death. Although a Republican, he can perhaps be viewed as something of a liberal. One of his most resounding successes was fought over what was contemporarily called “the Jew versus the Christian Ticket”. At the time it was constitutionally impossible for a person to take up office without first declaring their belief in Christianity. Clearly, this excluded from office members of other faiths or indeed those with none. Kennedy brought about a Bill in 1822 and whilst initially defeated, by 1825 it was approved by the people and passed by the Legislature. This success is still regarded as his foremost political achievement.

In 1802, Kennedy was able to combine his twin loves of poetry and politics in what is probably one of the best stories that I have ever heard. This is the story of the Mammoth Cheese!

Baptist preacher John Leland (1754-1841) was the genius behind the cheese. It was conceived of as a gift to the newly elected Republican President, Thomas Jefferson. As preacher to a religious and political minority in Cheshire, Massachusetts, the separation of church and state, as advocated by Jefferson, and the coming of a more democratic Republicanism, marked a welcome liberation for the community from the relative legal tyranny of the Congregationalist-Federalist majority that had preceded it. Perhaps suitably poignant for a man that favoured yeoman farmers to city bankers, the community rallied and produced a gift best suited to their means and expertise. And what they produced was no ordinary cheese. It was reported to have been four feet in diameter, thirteen feet in circumference, seventeen inches tall and weighed 1,235 pounds. It became known as the Mammoth Cheese.

This cheese travelled to Washing D. C. by sea and land for a month before finally reaching the door of Pennsylvania Avenue. As Leland couldn’t resist noting, “it was the greatest cheese in America, for the greatest man in America”, indeed. Clearly, this cheese was of great poetic inspiration to Kennedy; and who amongst us wouldn’t be moved by so much cheese? He penned his, in my opinion legendary poem “Ode to the Mammoth Cheese presented to Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, by the inhabitants of Cheshire, Massachusetts, January 1, 1802″ to commemorate the occasion. Reproduced here is the first stanza:

“Most excellent–far fam’d and far fetched cheese!

Superior far in smell, taste, weight and size,

To any ever form’d `neath foreign skies,

And highly honour’d–thou weft made to please,

The man belov’d by all–but stop a thrice,

Before he’s praised– I too must have a slice….”

Just brilliant, but maybe not as good as the dizzying heights of the poem’s climactic conclusion:

“All that we want for or wish for in life’s hour,

Heaven still will grant us – they are only these

Poetry – Health – Peace – Virtue – Bread and Cheese.”

And who could argue with that?

One Response to “Poetry and Cheese”

  1. Excellent article, however, I have to disagree with your comments about George Tait’s illustrations. They are really rather good. And the poetry is pretty good too.

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