“Two Sonnets” by Thomas Dunn English

by Ann Neilson

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Cabinet Card of Thomas Dunn English. Year: unknown.

Although often recognized as the brass knuckled*, mustachioed, sometimes friend, sometimes enemy of Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas D. English was a celebrated politician, author, and songwriter during his day.* Here for your consideration are two sonnets by English, from The Ladies’ Companion, May, 1841 (14).

Two Sonnets.
Thomas Dunn English, M. D.

I.
PLEASURE! what’s that?—the heat to reason’s ice;
A specious term in use, to banish vice.
Men seek this beldame, and she seems to them
Attired in purple, decked with many a gem,
And fair as day-dawn when the bright sun sips
The dewy nectar from each blossom’s lips.
Fools! strip her of her mask—her face is old;
Tinsel is that your eyes mistook for gold;
Her velvet, serge, and false her colored gaws—
Pursue her not, or, if pursuing, pause.
Virtue may seem austere, but dim your eye,
If less than bliss within her face you spy.
Or, if you deem aught false within her train,
Weak, your perception, and your judgment vain.
II.
Well have I learned by bitter deeds, to deem
Not always men are candid when they seem.
Cowards oft courage, as a mantle, don;
Liars talk loud their matchless truth upon;
Those born ignobly, bear of birth no taint,
And sinners hide them in the name of saint.
Not so with holy nature, who is still,
As she has ever been, and ever will.
Governed by laws, by fixed, unchanging rules,
That mock the wise man’s fathoming, and fool’s.
She still the same external visage wears,
Or filled with sunny smiles, or dewy tears.
Her every beauty to thy touch is free,
Mistress, as well as mother, she to thee.

*Note: English did not actually don brass knuckles. The story goes, rather, that, spurred by Poe’s indignant, demanding behavior over borrowing one of his guns for a duel, English proceeded to get in a scuffle with Poe, accidentally cutting Poe’s face with his ring.
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**Consider “Ben Bolt,” arguably English’s best known lyric. Visit this link for the poem. Visit this link for a musical recording.