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"H"

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Between 1831 and 1846, the Sangamo Journal in Springfield, Illinois, published seventy-one poems by a poet who signed himself “H.” He remains anonymous today, in part because he could not make up his mind. Should he be an English poet, or an American one?

We know from hints in the poems that “H” came to Springfield from Cornwall, England, in the 1820s. He was very likely Scottish. There is some indication that he studied law. He knew Latin, and was widely read in Milton, Gray, Dante, and Pope. He had already published several sonnets in English journals when he emigrated. The sonnets were thoroughly English in style and subject, as in the sonnet to his dead cat: "Erstwhile I did a gentle sonnet write / In praise of Scaccro, my poor harmless cat, / And shewed how many virtues could unite / In creatures that destroy the felon cat."

On the Illinois frontier, however, both law and poetry took a tumble. “H” took a job as the tavern keeper at Jabez Capp's Grocery and began writing for the newspaper, unwilling to sign his name to the poems. And what was there to write about in a small frontier town: frogs out in the swamp, a night on the prairie, the Sangamon River, ghost stories, subjects which forced “H” to become, as he called it, a "small beer poet."

And what happens when fancy English style meets a humble American subject? Listen to these lines describing the arrival of the first steamboat on the Sangamon River to reach Springfield on March 24th, 1832. “H” compares Captain Pollock, who braved ice and fallen trees, "until he reached the distant strand / Where the great saw-mill points the land. Henceforth shall Captain Pollock's name / Be blazoned on the rolls of fame," right up there, “H” suggests, with Jason and his Argonauts, and Columbus’s voyages to the New World.

Even the Springfield citizens who flocked down in amazement to see the steamboat were not so sure about “H.” Was the steamboat arrival really an epic event in world history. Was “H” our Homer? Or, just possibly, could a bit of mocking British superiority be showing through, laughing at the Americans?

Unable to decide if “H” was a bard or a small beer poet, Springfield left him without a name.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.