The Curious Story of a Long Lost Valentine’s Day Poem

This Valentine’s Day poem comes from our archive collection…

 

Well! Thou art happy, and I feel

That I should thus be happy too;

For still my heart regard thy weal

Warmly as it was wont to do.

Thy sway’s blest and twill impart

Some pangs to view her happier lot

but let them pass, oh! how my heart

Would hate her if she loved thee not!

Away! Away! my fondest dream,

Remembrance never must awake:

Oh! Where is Lethe’s fabled stream?

My foolish heart, be still or break.

Peace to that heart, tho’ another’s it be

and bloom to that cheek tho’ it bloom not for me

Feb 14th                             Valentine

 

03_poem10787-v2

The first half of the Valentine’s Day poem.

 

Of the thousands of Civil War era documents in our collection, this one is somewhat peculiar. It’s simply a piece of paper with a rather curious Valentine’s Day poem written on it and an envelope that is addressed to Charles Capen, Esq. of Dedham, Mass., it’s dated Feb. 15, and it was mailed in Dedham, Mass. No other pertinent information exists.

 

01_poem10787-v2

The second half of the Valentine’s Day poem.

 

This begs the question, why do we have this rather non-descript poem in our archives collection when there are no obvious connections to the Battle of Gettysburg or the Civil War? There isn’t even a year associated with this document. This was a question that needed to be answered, so we started digging. It’s what we do. Sure enough, just like peeling back the many layers of an onion, this simple document began to reveal a very robust story.

 

02_poem10787-v2

The Valentine’s Day poem was mailed in this envelope.

 

As it turns out, this document is one of many that the park acquired as part of the vast Rosensteel Collection. The Rosensteel family began collecting artifacts from the Gettysburg battlefield as soon as the guns fell silent. By the 1880s they, like other local families, established a private artifact and souvenir stand to cater to the growing number of tourists coming to see the battlefield. By the 1920s, the family had constructed a home on Taneytown Road across from the gates of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and opened a fully operational museum and gift shop in it. The Rosensteels expanded this building over the years to house a growing collection of historical artifacts. In 1972 the National Park Service negotiated to acquire the museum and the entire Rosensteel Collection housed therein. This building would serve as the park visitor center until 2008 when the current visitor center opened.

Over the years, the Rosensteel family collected items that were mainly associated with the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War. However, not all items in their collection fit neatly within this rather narrow focus. There were many other items included in their collection that were acquired simply because they were collectible. Some of these items included American furniture, Native American artifacts, Revolutionary era documents, and this Valentine’s Day poem.

gett_041135_26s_1047-v2

View of the Rosensteel National Museum on Taneytown Road; circa 1939-1945.

The next phase of our research was to find out who was Charles Capen and was he a Civil War veteran. Charles Capen was born in Boston, MA on April 5, 1823. He graduated from Harvard in 1844, became a school teacher, and later principal, in Dedham, MA, a suburb of Boston. He would spend his life dedicated to education, serving as teacher, vice principal, and principal of various schools in the Boston, MA area, including forty-seven years at the Public Latin School of Boston from 1852-1899. He married his wife Lucy Richmond Seaver on April 26, 1848.

He was 38 years old when the Civil War broke out and he registered for the draft in 1863 but was never called to serve. Although we don’t know why he was never called to serve, we can make a few educated guesses. He may have been able to afford a substitute, given his profession and his high standing in local circles, but his age may have also played a role in not getting called to serve. He would have been 40 years old at the time of the draft and during the Battle of Gettysburg.

The final questions dealt with why this Valentine’s Day poem was addressed to him on February 15 and not prior to February 14, and why did the author not sign the poem or provide a return address on the envelope? These answers are not quite as simple or definitive and require delving into the words and meaning of the poem.

harpers-weekly-valentine

A Valentine’s Day illustration from Harper’s Weekly in 1864.

Take another moment to re-read the poem. Knowing what you now know about Charles Capen, his profession, and his leadership over a student population for many decades, we are led to a certain conclusion about the author of this poem. We know the poem is from an unidentified admirer, it was mailed from the same town as where Charles Capen lived, and it’s dated the day after Valentine’s Day. Based on some of the words and phrases used in its’ construction, we hypothesize that this poem was written by a love-struck student, somewhat distraught over the married bliss of her Mister Charles Capen.

With the background of the story in place, let’s take a closer look at the work itself and its’ general construction, to uncover a few of the hints that led to this hypothesis.

The poem itself is nearly in the form of an English, or Shakespearean, sonnet, consisting of three quatrains of four verses, and closing with a rhyming couplet. However, a traditional English sonnet strives for 10-syllable lines, as it places emphases on particular ones. These are a bit harder to construct than the (mostly) 8-syllable lines used by our poet, who is not shy in revealing her feelings from the first word –

NOTE: The following are evidences of a student crafted poem with corrections/suggestions in parentheses. 

Well! Thou art happy, and I feel

(Well! – Very accusatory; you can almost feel the pointing finger)

That I should thus be happy too;

Perhaps this is an admission that Charles Capen is happily married and that his admirer should also be happy as well or happy for him.

Thy sway’s blest and twill impart

(“Thy sway’s” refers to “Your influence is” and “twill” refers to “will”)

Some pangs to view her happier lot

(Some pangs viewing her “bless′ed” lot)

but let them pass, oh! how my heart

(But, let them pass; Oh! How my heart)

Would hate her if she loved thee not!

The admirer has seen Charles Capen and his wife Lucy together and their happiness towards one another is obvious. There is even an admission of how the admirer “Would hate her” if Lucy did not love Charles.

Away! Away! my fondest dream,

Remembrance never must awake:

Rough syllable alignment here, should read (“ne’er must awake:”). Is this an attempt by the admirer to squelch her feelings towards Charles Capen?

Oh! Where is Lethe’s fabled stream?

(Repetition of “Oh!,” should use  “Ah!” instead)

My foolish heart, be still or break.

According to Greek mythology “Lethe’s fabled stream” refers to a river in Hades that caused forgetfulness to those who drank its waters. Is the admirer attempting to wish away or forget her affection toward Charles? The origin of the word Lethe is Greek, but it was a staple of Latin as well. Remember Charles Capen spent much of his professional life teaching and working at the Public Latin School of Boston.

In Shakespearean sonnets, the closing couplet is the portion where the author attempts to conclude all the meaning into one final conclusion.  Here, however, the double meaning of the message is evident, perhaps in more than one way. To the author, the sad tragedy of unrequited love is mixed with the reluctant acknowledgement by the admirer that her love for Charles will never happen and that his love and affection clearly lies only with his wife Lucy.

Peace to that heart, tho’ another’s it be

and bloom to that cheek tho’ it bloom not for me

(“and” should be “And”, but she was understandably emotional)

For many, Valentine’s Day is time to spend with the love of your life, your best friend, your soul mate. For others however, Valentine’s Day can be a day of longing and of sadness for those who have passed or for those who have given their heart to another. This poem reminds us that not all battles are fought on the battlefield. Many battles of the heart are won or lost on Valentine’s Day.

 


Contributors

Jason Martz – Visual Information Specialist

Bert Barnett – Park Ranger and Staff Poet

Greg Goodell – Museum Curator

Ela Thompson – Intern

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About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
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