Tiny Verses on Envelopes: The Handwritten Poems of Famous Authors

By Emily Temple
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"Poets don't draw. They unravel their handwriting and then tie it up again, but differently," Jean Cocteau once said. Examining the handwritten poems of famous authors—those made popular by their texts and several famous for other art forms—offers a kind of intimacy that typed words cannot convey. Many of these poems were born from spontaneous bursts of creativity or late-night meditations. Read on:

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Mary Shelley, "Absence"

"Ah! he is gone—and I alone;
How dark and dreary seems the time!
'Tis Thus, when the glad sun is flown,
Night rushes o'er the Indian clime."

The Frankenstein author wrote this heartbreaking poetic tribute to her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, published eight years after his death in 1822. Women were prohibited from attend funerals in pre-Victorian England due to health concerns, so she never had a chance to bid him a final farewell—perhaps for the best, since the drowned writer was cremated on the beach to comply with quarantine laws.


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Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems

Emily Dickinson wrote many of her poems on torn scraps of paper, envelopes, and other fragments. Artist Jen Bervin and Dickinson scholar Marta L. Werner have compiled a beautiful collection of the writer's "envelope poems" in The Gorgeous Nothings, releasing this October. You can pre-order the book about Dickinson's "crucially important, experimental late work," or spring for the limited-edition.


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F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Addenda (Seven Years Later)"

What shall I do with this bundle of stuff
Mass of ingredients, handful of grist
Tenderest evidence, thumb-print of lust.

It's unclear why the Great Gatsby author was penning an 8-year-old poems mentioning lust and necking, but F. Scott Fizgerald did just that. Addenda (Seven Years Later) was written for actress Helen Hayes' daughter Mary MacArthur. Fitzgerald spent time at the family's New York home and wrote the verse on the reverse side of another poem he composed for Mary when she was an infant (during the time he wroteTender is the Night). He died several years after Addenda was written, beset with illness from a life of alcoholism. Mary died at 19 from polio. View both poems in full over here.


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Bob Dylan, "Little Buddy"

"Your too late sir my doggy's dead."

A teenage Bob Dylan, born Bobby Zimmerman, proved to be a lyrical artist at an early age in this poetic revision of the Hank Snow song, "Little Buddy." The future singer-songwriter saw his poem published in the Herzl Herald—the official newspaper of the Wisconsin camp where Dylan spent summers (but didn't learn the difference between "your" and "you're").


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John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"

Looking at the Romantic poet's handwritten verse, we can almost imagine him under a plum tree in the garden of his London home. Keats' friend Charles Armitage Brown observed the poet deep in thought while composing one of his most famous works:

In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feelings on the song of our nightingale.

See more handwritten pages by Keats, here.


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Marilyn Monroe's Unpublished Poems

Only parts of us will ever
touch only parts of others—
one's own truth is just that really—one's own truth.

The screen icon's poems and text fragments scribbled in notebooks and on hotel letterhead reveal quiet moments of soul-searching and clues about the woman, Marilyn Monroe, beneath the bubbly image. Brain Pickings has more of Monroe's previously unpublished poems, which have been collected in Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters.


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Anne Sexton, "Moon Song, Woman Song"

"I am alive at night."

The handwritten manuscript for Anne Sexton's "Moon Song, Woman Song" set the scene for her archetypal lovers.


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Virginia Clemm Poe's Valentine's Day Poem to her Cousin and Husband Edgar Allan Poe

Ever with thee I wish to roam—
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.

Although Poe's teenage wife (his first cousin) was not a poet, she wrote this Valentine's Day prose to him in 1846—the year before she died of tuberculosis. At the time, she lived with the troubled author in a small cottage in Fordham (Bronx), New York. The "tattling of many tongues" is believed to be a reference to Poe's scandalous relationship with writer Frances Sargent Osgood, who was married—though people had plenty to talk about when it came to the boozy, tormented Poe.


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A 13-Year-Old Charlotte Brontë's Tiny Poem

I've been wandering in the greenwoods
And mid flowery smiling plains
I've been listening to the dark floods
To the thrushes thrilling strains.

The Brontë sisters often wrote their works in a minuscule handwriting on whatever scraps of paper they could find. A magnifying glass is often required to read the texts. This early poem from a 13-year-old Charlotte (dated 1829) was scrawled on a three-inch square paper. Scholars believe the miniature handwriting was a way for the sisters to hide their work from prying eyes and due to the expense of paper at that time. Others suggest it's the scale that the sisters' beloved toy soldiers would have written in, since the playthings were an integral part of their childhood fantasy world that inspired their earliest works.


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Lewis Carroll's Previously Unknown and Unpublished Poem to a Friend

My missive's meant to murmur this
With mute mysterious touch
If I should merely miss the 'Miss'
Would you, Miss, miss it much?

Last month, scholars discovered a set of previously unknown and unpublished writings by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson). A poem written to a friend, believed to be Bessie Hussey, wittily debates whether or not Carroll should address her as "Miss." The wordplay is clever and written in Carroll's violet ink.

This post also appears on Flavorpill, an Atlantic partner site.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/04/tiny-verses-on-envelopes-the-handwritten-poems-of-famous-authors/274784/