"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Drunken Poet of Danville

Tell me that Thomas Johnson Jr. was the author of the first known book of poetry to be published in Kentucky--indeed, that his slim volume "The Kentucky Miscellany," may have been the first book ever published in the American West--and I will nod, smile politely, and shrug. I am not a literary scholar, I say. I have no plans to become a contestant on "Jeopardy." ("I'll take 'Dead and Unread' for $500, Alex.") What is that bit of historical trivia to me?

Go on to inform me that Johnson has gone down in history as "The Drunken Poet of Danville," and I begin to prick up my ears.

Throw in the fact that his verses were notoriously vulgar, blasphemous, and breathtakingly defamatory, and I give out a joyful yell of "Blog post!!"

Unfortunately, we have very few details about Johnson's life. Like many other great artists of the past, his work must serve as his biography. It is believed that he was born in Virginia around 1760 and that he moved to Danville some time in his early adulthood, although that is only guesswork. In the 1780s, his poems began to appear in Kentucky newspapers.

It seems that Johnson had mixed feelings about his adopted town. "On Danville" probably won't be reprinted by the city's Chamber of Commerce any time soon:
Accursed Danville, vile, detested spot
Where knaves inhabit, and where fools resort--
Thy roguish cunning, and thy deep design,
Would shame a Blackbeard or an Algernine.
O, may that fatal day be ever curst,
When by blind error led, I enter'd first.

Johnson was even less flattering about the Bluegrass State as a whole. It inspired one of his most memorable odes, "The Author's Hatred to Kentucky in General":
I hate Kentucky, curse the place,
And all her vile and miscreant race!
Who make religion's sacred tie,
A mask thro' which they cheat and lie;
Proteus could not change his shape,
Nor Jupiter commit a rape,
With half the ease those villains can
Send prayers to God and cheat their man:
I hate all Judges here of late,
And every Lawyer in the state.
Every quack that is call'd Physician,
And all blockheads in Commission--
Worse than the Baptist roaring rant,
I hate the Presbyterian cant--
Their Parsons, Elders, nay, the whole,
And wish them gone with all my soul.
Far worse than these, I yet do hate,
All those who pimp or speculate.
All rogues and villains, men in trade,
(If a distinction may be made.
Glad would I be: `twas quickly done,
For my own part I know of none).

One man of God in particular has achieved immortality thanks to Johnson's "On Parson Rice, Who Refused to Perform Divine Service Till His Arrears Were Paid."
Ye fools! I told you once or twice,
You'd hear no more from canting R—e;
He cannot settle his affairs,
Nor pay attention unto prayers,
Unless you pay up your arrears.
Oh, how in pulpit he would storm,
And fill all hell with dire alarm!
Vengeance pronounced against each vice,
And, more than all, curs'd avarice;
Preach'd money was the root of ill;
Consigned each rich man unto hell;
But since he finds you will not pay,
Both rich and poor may go that way.
'Tis no more than I expected—
The meeting-house is now neglected:
All trades are subject to this chance,
No longer pipe, no longer dance.

An executed wife-murderer named William Hudson was the theme of one of Johnson's better epigrams:
Strange things of Orpheus poets tell,
How for a wife he went to Hell;
Hudson, a wiser man no doubt,
Would go to Hell to be without.

Johnson's most famous poem commemorates the time when one of his frequent drinking bouts caused him to arrive at Erasmus Gill's tavern too late for dinner:
O Thou, who bless'd the loaves and fishes:
Look down upon these empty dishes!
By the same power those dishes fill,
Bless each of us and curse old Gill.

A Parson Douglass, who married a "young and buxom wife/By nature form'd for those delights/That brides expect on wedding nights," probably never thanked Johnson for the poet's description of his honeymoon:
The priest cries, "it will not do,
Faith, Betty, you'll not get your due;
I've tried, but cannot make it out,
Love's fierce machine has turn'd to snout.
Make you the way but fair and plain,
I'll take a nap and try again."
At length the wish'd for morning came,
The Parson tried, 'twas all the same--
"Ah! Faith and troth, 'tis worse and worse,
I'll keep thee, Betty, for a nurse;
My hapless impotence deplore,
And never will attempt it more."

One also wonders what the heroine of "On a Lady, Who Suffered a Loud Escape at Craig's Meeting," thought of the honor.
While Craig deplor'd our Savior's fate,
Close by the pulpit Celia sat.
Twas silence now, and all was calm,
When Craig began to sing a psalm;
With solemn look, devotion pours,
And all the congregation roars;
Celia, too, among the rest,
But Celia was with wind oppress'd--
So laying modesty aside,
And sweet becoming female pride,
Careless too of all decorum,
Let a rouser just before 'em;
Which soon dispell'd all devout gloom,
And sent a smile throughout the room.
Let others show their lukewarm zeal,
That cannot warm emotions feel.
The praises sure are far above,
Which issue near the fount of love.
It sings the sure approach of death
But sings the tune with stinking breath.

This is how an acquaintance of Johnson's named Captain Hughes has gone down in history:
A dingy hat compound of wool,
Closely confin'd his empty skull--
Beneath, short hair, in Baptist dock;
With vermin strung on every lock,
His little eyes both sore and red,
Were sunk an inch within his head;
O'er which, a pair of eye-brows rose,
Shading the wart upon his nose.

When a Danville lawyer named Michie died, Johnson wrote an ode describing him as "the ugliest man God did made," and that "He'll plead in Hell without a fee." Even more stirring was Johnson's eulogy for William Gill:
Here lies the corpse of Billy Gill,
Whom cruel Crow in rage did kill,
Beneath this stone he safely lies,
No orphans mourn, no widow cries;
His happy children, happy wife,
Freed from oppression, freed from strife;
Join in the shout, proclaim the joy,
He's gone who did our peace destroy.

On one occasion, a Danville man who raced horses fled town leaving a pile of unpaid debts. Johnson observed the event with:
John run so long and run so fast,
No wonder he run out at last;
He run in debt, and then to pay,
He distanc'd all, and run away.

Johnson's softer side is shown in his eulogy for a dog:
Here lies the corpse of little Cue,
Whose heart was honest, good and true.
Why not preserve her memory then,
Who never yet, like faithless men,
Concealed in smiles a mortal spite,
Nor fawned on them she meant to bite?

The following poem addressed to his "Brother Soldiers," indicates that Johnson served in the Revolutionary War:
Our country gave us great applause,
And own'd our valour gain'd the cause.
To praise, false show of profit lack;
They grant us lands then take them back.
What could brave soldiers wish for more:
We now are independent sure!
Our cash and chattels being gone,
We've nothing to depend upon.

Johnson was capable of tender romantic interludes, as shown in some lines addressed to a Polly Armstead, who played the frontier Laura to this Kentucky Petrarch:
The lilies pleasing to the sight,
May boast indeed their virgin white;
But Polly's breasts doth lovelier dawn,
Beneath their envious veil of lawn."

Some more suitable-for-mixed-company verses read:
To sing of Polly, lovely maid,
Requires no fabled muse's aid;
Her charms can inspiration give,
And make her poets numbers live.
Venus, thy throne of beauty yield;
Nor love dispute with her the field;
Thou ne'er had won the golden prize,
Had Paris viewed my Polly's eyes.
In vain the Goddess would compare,
With her for feature, shape and air;
In Pallas' self, alas! we find
But a weak emblem of her mind.
Observe the diamond's lucid blaze,
Darting forth its sparkling rays;
These shining charms could never vie
With charming Polly's brighter eye.
The crow who mounts on pinion high,
And seems to pierce the azure sky,
His sable plume, however rare,
Is white, compared with Polly's hair.

Unfortunately, Johnson's affections were not returned. In another poem, he refers to Armstead as the "dear tho' fatal cause of all my pain." One of his poems serves as a farewell to this lost love:
But kind heaven forbid that she should know
Pains like mine, or feel such scenes of woe;
Whate'er my fate may be, may bliss be thine,
And still be guarded by the powers Divine.

Johnson appears to have remained a childless bachelor.

Johnson's autobiographical poems have a genuine ring of melancholy, even self-disgust:
Love's the pain that I endure,
The sole disease you cannot cure;
I love, but am not lov'd again,
O curse of curses, cruel pain!
'Tis this deprives my soul of rest,
And fills with care my troubled breast.
To drive the fair one from my soul
I fly for refuge to the bowl.
O Whiskey dear, thy aid impart,
And cease my dying, bleeding heart.
'Tis done, thy fumes are in my brain,
And quite absorb all sense of pain;
But soon is quenched the pleasing flame,
And Pain and Grief their empire claim--
My spirits soon begin to sink,
I rise to take the other drink,
To shun the pangs of Grief and Pain,
And get completely drunk again.

He once wrote his own pessimistic epitaph:
Underneath this marble tomb,
In endless shades lies drunken Tom;
Here safely moor'd, dead as a log,
Who got his death by drinking grog.
By whiskey grog he lost his breath,
Who would not die so sweet a death.

There must have been something inherently lovable about Johnson. It is the only way to explain why his more insulting verses failed to get him killed. He was hardly immune to criticism, however. One of his victims attempted to give the Drunken Poet a dose of his own medicine by composing some unflattering lines:

Hail Danville! hail! where Johnson shines,
The hero of his blackguard rhymes;
Whose limber pen and polite brains,
Turns epic into dog'rel strains;
Who has ne'er plead true virtue's cause,
Where merit never met applause;
Each noble act by him consign'd,
To low burlesque and dirty rhymes;
Whose genius in the jingling skill
If chiefly drawn from whiskey stills.
If e'er a lady comes to town,
Johnson's the first to run her down.
Calls Presbyterians common evils,
And sends all Baptists to the Devil.
Church prayer-books only fit for slaves,
And Methodists all fools and knaves.
From man the Polecat sure must think,
Himself defended by his stink.

Johnson was so delighted by the tribute that he included it in the "Miscellany." He remained a famously controversial figure for some years. As late as 1834, an outraged reader wrote to the "Lexington Intelligencer" sputtering about how his "decency" had never been "more outraged" than when he encountered some of Johnson's "low doggerel." "Save us from the blackguardism, for the world is sufficiently demoralized."

Johnson would undoubtedly have been flattered by that characterization, as well.

The Drunken Poet of Danville died sometime around 1820. According to an early Kentucky historian, "his intemperance hurried him to a premature grave." His burial site has long been lost.

Sadly, due to the crude and unsettled nature of frontier life, few of his verses survive. What we have of his poetry comes mainly from "The Kentucky Miscellany," which first appeared in 1789. Although it was immensely popular at the time, going through four editions, only two copies are known to be extant, both of them from the final 1821 edition. (They can be found in Louisville's Filson Historical Society and the University of Chicago.) The "Miscellany" could be called the "Tamerlane and Other Poems" of off-color doggerel.

Crude though his verses may be, they are not only weirdly entertaining, but provide a portrait of the lively social history of the early frontier. It can only be hoped that one of the above institutions will digitize their copy of the "Miscellany," thus enabling internet users to discover the work of this forgotten figure in American literature.


  1. The term 'misanthrope' seems apt in this case, especially as he seemed to like, at least, a dog.

  2. Bwa-hah-hah! I'll bet this guy was great at parties (if he got invited to any parties).

  3. Absolutely entertaining blog!
    Perhaps Mr. Johnson was our first literary troll...


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