Finding Poetry in Illinois State Documents

It may seem funny to us now, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon to see poems used as introductions to state government reports, or interspersed throughout departmental publications. Some featured writings by famous poets, while others used anonymous or little-known authors. As April is National Poetry Month, it’s a great time to take a look at how poetry—from sublime to sappy—enlivened these publications.

These gardening-related excepts from William Shakespeare and Ralph Waldo Emerson were used to preface the 1868 Transactions of the Illinois State Horticultural Society:

"--You see--we marry. A gentler scion to the wildest stock, And make conceive a bark of baser kind By bud of nobler birth: This is an art Which does mend nature--change it rather, but The art itself is nature." Winter's Tale, Act IV. True Bramin, in the morning meadows wet, Expound the Vedas of the violet, Or, hid in vines, peeping through many a loop, See the plum redden, and the beurre stoop. Emerson--The Gardener.
From verso of title page of Transactions of the Illinois State Horticultural Society, 1868

Poetry was considered an important subject in school during this period. The Illinois Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (precursor to the State Board of Education) published some poems by students at the Forestville School in Chicago in Circular no. 55, from 1911. This one was by a seventh-grader named Marion Dwight:

The Robin. I. Far up among the branches Of yonder cherry tree A flood of rapture poureth forth, A bright red breast we see. II. Where wast tho through the winter long? This land was cold and bare. Where didst thou pour thy sweetest son? What was they shelter there? III. O welcome, robin redbreast, Thou art the sign of spring; When thou appearest in they nest My heart for joy doth sing. Marion Dwight, Seventh Grade.
From Illinois Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction Circular no. 55, page 76

Sometimes the poems were used as part of a campaign to educate the public. Before pasteurization was common, many people got sick from milk from diseased cows. This example, from the February 1917 issue of Illinois Health News, served as a warning. Although no author is cited, it's clearly a riff on "There was a little girl" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

The Questionable Cow. Oh see the Cow! The gentle little Cow! With a Curl in the Middle of its Forehead. When its Milk is Good it's very very Good. But when it is Bad it is Horrid.
From back cover of Illinois Health News, February 1917

Sometimes the poetry was meant to raise people's spirits and inspire them to enlist or serve in other ways during times of war. The Illinois State Council of Defense reprinted many patriotic poems in the Illinois State Council News during World War I. One of the most famous was "In Flanders Fields," by John McCrae (misspelled as McRae below), which appeared in the January 4, 1918 issue:

In Flanders Fields. Captain John McRae, in London "Punch." In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place, and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly, Scarce heard amidst the guns below. We are the dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe! To you, from falling hands, we throw The torch. Be yours to hold it high! If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
From Illinois State Council News, January 4, 1918, page 2

Although it's no longer in style to include poetry in government documents, it's fun to stumble across them when doing research!

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