When most of us consider the relationship between U.S. presidents and poetry, we’re likely to conjure up scenes of poets reading at presidential inaugurations or of presidents quoting lines of verse in public speeches and addresses. Few of us, however, give any thought to the achievement of presidents as poets. Yet a look at the biographies of U.S. presidents reveals that a number of them—Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and even Barack Obama–have tried their hand at poetry at some point in their lives. While the tone of presidential poems ranges from the romantic to the religious to the satirical, only the poetry of one president, Warren G. Harding, has dared to dip its feet into the deeply sensual.
Harding’s poetry drew increased national attention after the Library of Congress’s long-awaited release in July 2014 of Harding’s correspondence with his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips. The correspondence, written between 1910 and 1920, consists primarily of letters from Harding to Phillips—a family friend and wife of a Marion, Ohio, store owner—written before and during his tenure as a U.S. senator.
Although Harding’s poems are sprinkled throughout the correspondence, the President’s passionate prose itself frequently verges on the poetic. In a 1910 Christmas Eve letter, Harding expresses his “mad, tender, devoted, ardent, eager, passion-wild, jealous, reverent, wistful, hungry, happy love” for Phillips. This adjectival abundance may remind some readers of the driving string of adjectives used by Shakespeare to describe love’s darker cloud, lust, in Sonnet 129: “lust / Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust. . . .”
Of course, serious comparison of Harding’s sentimental, often overwrought poems to the work of any practicing poet, let alone Shakespeare, should be avoided. As noted by Karen Linn Femia, the Manuscript Division archivist who organized and described the Warren G. Harding-Carrie Fulton Phillips Correspondence collection, the poems were written for Phillips’s private consumption, and “it would be unfair to judge [Harding] against real poets. He was never that.”
Still, one can’t help but marvel at the passion invested by Harding into his verses, which he sometimes inserted—seemingly spontaneously—into the body of longer letters to Phillips, and sometimes composed as standalone pieces. A letter to Phillips from 1913 provides an example of how a Harding letter could suddenly break into poetry. Harding, expressing his desire to see Carrie, and referring back to a December 1912 rendezvous in Richmond (referred to in the letter as “R—“), writes:
Precious, my Beautiful Goddess: Do you mind if I add more of my hungering thoughts? Why am I loving you so? I am wild to be loved. . . .
Oh, that I might [come in person], this very night. What would I do and say? I must not write. But I’d love you sweetly, blissfully, long and completely (I like that completely — as we did at the end of a happy day in R– and then, in glad content, I’d hold you close and tenderly cuddled, and whisper–
Who cares not what was wrough[t] today
Of the medley that fate has whirled?
I hold you in my arms to say–
I love you more than all the world.
We loved today, let’s dream tonight
So we may thus repeat that bliss,
Then hail, in arms, a new day bright
With exquisite and loving kiss.
Possessed, possessing, our loves true–
Night is heaven and day is life!
So I repeat, dear, I love you!
I’ll be your lover, you my wife!
There! all told, I think, this is enough verse to hold you one night.
Harding’s “The Seventh Anniversary” is an example of a standalone poem. Written for Phillips on August 23, 1912, it’s one indication that the Harding-Phillips affair stretched back to 1905. Here are the poem’s first two stanzas, followed by a digital image of the full poem:
When it is said no love endures
But fades in seven years–
You know of one so wholly yours,
Which time itself endears.
Seven years ago you heard spoken
The love of heart and soul:
Now, today, I send you token
Of that love, since made whole.
Before he was president, Harding was editor of The Marion Daily Star newspaper, which explains the letterhead on which he wrote “The Seventh Anniversary.” Harding’s work in the newspaper profession may also help explain the ease with which his thoughts to Carrie seemed to spill from his pen (his voluminous letters frequently run to around 30 pages).
In addition to writing poetry for Phillips, Harding would often send or share with her clippings of love poems that reflected his feelings. One poem, quite appropriate given that it’s so close Valentine’s Day, is Glenn Ward Dresbach’s “To My Valentine“:
The underlinings and markings in “To My Valentine” and other clippings are likely Harding’s own, used for emphasis.
While it’s easy, and tempting, to focus on the lighter fare of the Harding-Phillips correspondence, the collection is an important resource for historians and scholars exploring Harding’s personal relationships and political views. On July 22, 2014, a week before the public release of the collection, the Library of Congress hosted a program that took a closer look at the collection’s historical significance. Anyone interested in learning more about the collection can watch the program, which features historian James D. Robenalt, Dr. Richard Harding (a grandnephew of Harding), Karen Linn Femia, and Manuscript Division Chief James Hutson, below:
President Warren Harding’s Love Letters, July 22, 2014