Daniel Webster: Great American Orator on Poetry


Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury or Franklin, New Hampshire in 1782, and died in Marshfield Massachusetts in 1852. He was a constitutional attorney, a US Senator, and a great orator. He opposed war, and sought compromise. Some say it is because of his compromising that he did not attain the presidency. It would have been remarkable for this man to have stood his ground firmly as an abolitionist opposed to slavery, and not compromise this position, for instance. A century after his death, in 1957, the Senate voted him as one of the top 5 Senators in US history. We may also vote him in some top 10 or 5 group of all-time US orators, somewhere in the close numbers that lead up to Martin Luther King through John F. Kennedy.

So what does Daniel Webster have to do with poetry? In the course of a life of speeches filled with stirring remarks and quotable quotes, come some thoughts on poetry, worth pondering 170 or so years later. Below are four excerpts from The Great Speeches and Orations of Daniel Webster.




Poetry is found to have few stronger conceptions, by which it would affect or overwhelm the mind, than those in which it presents the moving and speaking image of the departed dead to the senses of the living. This belongs to poetry, only because it is congenial to our nature. Poetry is, in this respect, but the handmaid of true philosophy and morality; it deals with us as human beings, naturally reverencing those whose visible connection with this state of existence is severed, and who may yet exercise we know not what sympathy with ourselves; and when it carries us forward, also, and shows us the long continued result of all the good we do, in the prosperity of those who follow us, till it bears us from ourselves, and absorbs us in an intense interest for what shall happen to the generations after us, it speaks only in the language of our nature, and affects us with sentiments which belong to us as human beings.

at Plymouth Rock, Dec 22, 1820



An aged man, without an enemy in the world, in his own house, and in his own bed, is made the victim of a butcherly murder, for mere pay. Truly, here is a new lesson for painters and poets. Whoever shall hereafter draw the portrait of murder, if he will show it as it has been exhibited, where such example was last to have been looked for, in the very bosom of our New England society, let him not give it the grim visage of Moloch, the brow knitted by revenge, the face black with settled hate, and the bloodshot eye emitting livid fires of malice. Let him draw, rather, a decorous, smooth-faced, bloodless demon; a picture in repose, rather than in action; not so much an example of human nature in its depravity, and in its paroxysms of crime, as an infernal being, a fiend, in the ordinary display and development of his character.

at the trial of John Francis Knapp, Essex County MA, April 6, 1830



A true lover of the virtue of patriotism delights to contemplate its purest models; and that love of country may be well suspected which affects to soar so high into the regions of sentiment as to be lost and absorbed in the abstract feeling, and becomes too elevated or too refined to glow with fervor in the commendation or the love of individual benefactors. All this is unnatural. It is as if one should be so enthusiastic a lover of poetry, as to care nothing for Homer or Milton; so passionately attached to eloquence as to be indifferent to Tully and Chatham; or such a devotee to the arts, in such an ecstasy with the elements of beauty, proportion, and expression, as to regard the masterpieces of Raphael and Michael Angelo with coldness or contempt. We may be assured, Gentlemen, that he who really loves the thing itself, loves its finest exhibitions.

at a centennial birthday celebration for George Washington, Washington DC, Feb 22, 1832



In the early part of the second century of our history, Bishop Berkeley, who, it will be remembered, had resided for some time in Newport, in Rhode Island, wrote his well-known “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America.” The last stanza of this little poem seems to have been produced by a high poetical inspiration:–

            “Westward the course of empire takes its way;
                The four first acts already past,
          A fifth shall close the drama with the day:
                Time’s noblest offspring is the last.”

This extraordinary prophecy may be considered only as the result of long foresight and uncommon sagacity; of a foresight and sagacity stimulated, nevertheless, by excited feeling and high enthusiasm. So clear a vision of what America would become was not founded on square miles, or on existing numbers, or on any common laws of statistics. It was an intuitive glance into futurity; it was a grand conception, strong, ardent, glowing, embracing all time since the creation of the world, and all regions of which that world is composed, and judging of the future by just analogy with the past. And the inimitable imagery and beauty with which the thought is expressed, joined to the conception itself, render it one of the most striking passages in our language.

                                “A muse of fire, . . .
          A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
          And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”

The Muse inspiring our fathers was the Genius of Liberty, all on fire with a sense of oppression, and a resolution to throw it off; the whole world was the stage, and higher characters than princes trod it; and, instead of monarchs, countries and nations and the age beheld the swelling scene. How well the characters were cast, and how well each acted his part, and what emotions the whole performance excited, let history, now and hereafter, tell.

at the laying of the cornerstone of the addition to the Capitol, July 4, 1851







by George Berkeley (1685-1753)

On the Prospect of Planting Arts
and Learning in America


          The Muse, disgusted at an age and clime
                Barren of every glorious theme,
          In distant lands now waits a better time,
                Producing subjects worthy fame:

          In happy climes, where from the genial sun
                And virgin earth such scenes ensue,
          The force of art by nature seems outdone,
                And fancied beauties by the true;

          In happy climes, the seat of innocence,
                Where nature guides and virtue rules,
          Where men shall not impose for truth and sense
                The pedantry of courts and schools:

          There shall be sung another golden age,
                The rise of empire and of arts,
          The good and great inspiring epic rage,
                The wisest heads and noblest hearts.

          Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
                Such as she bred when fresh and young,
          When heavenly flame did animate her clay,
                By future poets shall be sung.

          Westward the course of empire takes its way;
                The four first Acts already past,
          A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
                Time’s noblest offspring is the last.




by William Shakespeare

The Life of King Henry the Fifth


            [Enter Chorus.]          Chorus.

          O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
          The brightest heaven of invention,
          A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
          And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
          Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
          Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
          Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
          Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
          The flat unraised spirits that hath dar’d
          On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
          So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
          The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
          Within this wooden O the very casques
          That did affright the air at Agincourt?
          O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
          Attest in little place a million;
          And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
          On your imaginary forces work.
          Suppose within the girdle of these walls
          Are now confin’d two mighty monarchies,
          Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
          The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder;
          Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
          Into a thousand parts divide one man,
          And make imaginary puissance;
          Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
          Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth.
          For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
          Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times,
          Turning the accomplishment of many years
          Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
          Admit me Chorus to this history;
          Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray,
          Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.








9 responses to “Daniel Webster: Great American Orator on Poetry”

  1. This was a very informative post. I’ve always known Webster as the dictionary I keep by my side, and nothing more. I liked the quotes you referenced from Webster and I liked his stance against slavery.

    “The Muse, disgusted at an age and clime
    Barren of every glorious theme,”

    This is a good poem by Berkeley and I think it is relevant to our world today where much cruelty, emptiness and pain is the theme in many places. That is one of the reasons why I turn to poetry, as a means of escape.

  2. I own an original book of Shakespeare’s Life of King Henry the Fifth. 1830. It’s in excellent condition. I am willing to sell.

  3. Happy Birthday William Shakespeare

    445 today

    though not mindful of any of it

    or the movement to dethrone, defrock, deconstruct you

    Is Shakespeare Devere?

    Traditionalists hold trashcan lids, brooms

    the edges whittle sharp,

    though the stick itself the same old brittle

    and the barriers are piled high

    the second best marriage beds and frozen turkeys

    game purloined from the supermarket

    and charging down the street

    the Devere clan

    hoisting a swinging effigy of their man

    and every partisan yelling


    like a crowd at a football game

    and the leader of the cheer

    can of beer in hand



    the crowd thunders


    Oh, Willy, if there was an immortal soul

    that could roam the oceans blue,

    the forests green, the cities gray,beige, black

    with a ouch of blood red,and pale cadaver dead,

    then you’d be dismayed

    and curse the disinterers,

    stir their little brains to stew,

    whip them up to charge

    and cause their own Waterloo

    (what a crappy rhyme,

    Mr Britain’s Spear, unworthy of you).

    Will, what do you think?

    Who is being robbed of their soul?

    You or Edward DeVere?

    Who is William Shakespeare?

    The person left not a book

    in the nook of his house,

    though the name was etched with fame,

    later, seven years from the Stratford’s death

    but so unproductive

    the bloke after retirement.

    Was it a stroke

    that stilled the pen of Will?

    or was Shakespeare a name to shill,

    the pea under the thimble

    moving nimbly quick,

    while Eddie vaulted over the candlestick,

    uncaught in that Elizabethan life

    to whore a noble name

    with the shame of writing,

    of writing,

    good Gawd of the Puritan marauders,

    for the stage,

    those players,

    those pimps, imps, boys dressed

    like girls, oh, what shame,

    who could blame a noble house

    from eschewing the fame

    of being a hack poet,

    though did Devere know it

    that his leap into verse

    coursed the heavens

    and men’s souls?

    Or is DeVere the unknowing fraud,

    and poachers are trying to steal

    the applause, the laurels,

    the laudatory


    Is this the Puritan Gawd’s revenge,

    to shroud that immortal man,

    Shakespeare, the pen name,

    with such shadow?

    Is this the fall of hubris—-

    Will, whoever you are,

    maybe A Spanish Jew,

    or an underground Catholic,

    though syphillitic through and through,

    vice being so unclean,

    the buggies wiggling

    microscopically in the moist places,

    hiding behind pretty and handsome faces,

    oh Will

    what have you done,

    a moment of fun

    forever punished by the Puritan Gawd?

    Who are you?

    A bawd, a fraud, or someone we applaud.

    Perhaps all three,

    a very human Trinity.

    Shakespeare or DeVere?

    The plays live—

    play them as they lay,

    and putt thee authorship question

    into the grave’s hole

    because it is too late

    to resurrect the reprobate

    that is the author,

    poor man

    still alive today.

    Happy Birthday Will.

    —dan cuddy 4/23/2009

  4. this is a poem re Shakespeare by Baltimore poet- Dan Cuddy- originally posted on Baltimore’s wondrous site- “Poetry in Baltimore”- check it out- it is-nxt to clattery’s, of course- one of the best designed sites i have run across ever

    i love “poetry in baltimore” and “clattery machinery”- (Rus the bread and roses lowell guy)

    what are some of the other great poetry web sites?- some one mentioned litkick to me and the poetry foundation has a good one

    dave (froginbog) in balto- give a holler when u come thru town or go to

    http://www.http: davideberhardt.web.com/index.html

    i know there is something wrong w that address

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: