There has never been an official Massachusetts poet laureate, but there certainly was an unofficial one. Jonathan Plummer of Newburyport, while not anyone’s idea of a master poet, nevertheless managed a partial living off his tales and verses.
Though he wore many hats – peddler, preacher, odd-jobs man – he ultimately chose poet laureate to the people as his crowning achievement.
Born in 1761, oldest of eight children, his biographers described him as, ”mentally weak and easily imposed upon.” His parents schooled him at home. They sent their other children to school, however – a slight that troubled him until the end.
He was not a handsome man. One biographer described him: HIs feet were long and clumsy, his legs were thick, his chest broad and strong, his face was long, with a prominent nose, wide mouth, and thick lips. His voice was deep-toned and solemn, and of great compass. He is remembered by thousands who retain a recollection of his air and manner as well as the tones of his stentorian voice.
Plummer’s own description of himself was hardly any kinder. He was, he noted, “Persecuted, despised, hated, slandered and defamed with one gloomy, real distressing and uncommon infirmity in the bargain, viz. an offensive breath, occasioned by a catarrh of the nose.”
As a teenager, Plummer began selling halibut in Market Square in Newburyport. He was unmercifully taunted and became the butt of jokes, invited to non-existent parties.
Privateer, Peddler, Poet
According to his autobiography, in 1776, just 15, Plummer enlisted in the Continental militia. But he saw no battlefield action, serving at a garrison in Dorchester, Mass. He reenlisted in 1777, but again saw no action before his discharge.
Plummer also made an abortive attempt at becoming a privateer, an experience that nearly ended his life. He said he signed on in 1777 with a ship, The Hero, but deserted before it sailed. He soon learned that the Hero was lost at sea.
Next he became a common peddler, selling spectacles, scissors, thimbles, combs, needles, pins and verses. Basket and books in hand, he worked the marketplace in Newburyport as well as travelling door-to-door,
Still, Plummer did possess talents. He had a remarkable memory and could recite poetry when asked, his loud voice booming through the marketplace.
He obtained, and quickly lost, teaching jobs. A fan of religious revivals, Plummer took to searching for a congregation to minister to. He identified himself as “lay bishop extraordinaire.” But he could find no congregation that agreed with him.
All the while, Plummer continued his house-to-house peddling. Along with the necessities of life, he began to offer broadsides and books he wrote and printed himself.
He initially turned to poetry as a way to woo women. He titled his first effort To Florella of Deerfield. But he failed to win Flora’s or any woman’s heart.
He soon found that storytelling captured a broader audience.
Boating accidents, smallpox outbeaks, hurricanes, fires, and murders all were fodder for his one-man publishing empire.
A sampling of his verse from a poem about a girl he feared died in a smallpox outbreak:
“She’s gone! her matchless soul has fled!
Her body’s number’d with the dead!
Relentless death has with his dart
Pierc’d lovely Katy to the heart!
Plummer’s caustic side also found an outlet in his publishing. In 1793 he produced Plumer’s Declaration of War with the Fair Ladies of the Five Northern States. He swore off young women, turning his attention to a succession of spinsters, courting in turn nine “vigorous and antiquated virgins.” But he found no takers.
They thought a ballad feller too mean to associate with, and often insulted me on account of my offensive breath, cruelly despisin me because I was unwell.
Among Plummer’s customers was the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who recalled him in his book, Yankee Gypsies.
“Twice a year, usually in the spring and autumn, we were honored with a call from Jonathan Plummer, maker of verses, pedler and poet, physician and parson,—a Yankee troubadour,” wrote Whittier.
“[F]irst and last minstrel of the valley of the Merrimac, encircled, to my wondering young eyes, with the very nimbus of immortality,” Whittier recalled.
Whittier remembered how Plummer brought with him pins, needles, tape and cotton-thread for his mother. He brought jack-knives, razors and soap for his father. And he brought verses of his own composing, “coarsely printed and illustrated with rude wood-cuts” for the younger members of the family.
“No love-sick youth could drown himself, no deserted maiden bewail the moon, no rogue mount the gallows, without fitting memorial in Plummer’s verses,” he wrote. “Earthquakes, fires, fevers, and shipwrecks he regarded as personal favors from Providence, furnishing the raw material of song and ballad.”
Whittier recalled Plummer’s welcome appearance in his family’s country seclusion. “We listened with infinite satisfaction to his reading of his own verses, or to his ready improvisation upon some domestic incident or topic suggested by his auditors,” he wrote.
At first Plummer stumbled when he started a new subject, but then his rhymes flowed freely. “His productions answered, as nearly as I can remember, to Shakespeare’s description of a proper ballad,—”doleful matter merrily set down, or a very pleasant theme sung lamentably.
“He was scrupulously conscientious, devout, inclined to theological disquisitions, and withal mighty in Scripture. He was thoroughly independent; flattered nobody, cared for nobody, trusted nobody. When invited to sit down at our dinner-table he invariably took the precaution to place his basket of valuables between his legs for safe keeping. “Never mind they basket, Jonathan,” said my father; “we shan’t steal thy verses.” “I ‘m not sure of that,” returned the suspicious guest. “It is written, ‘Trust ye not in any brother.'”
Lord Timothy Dexter
In the mid-1790s, Plummer finally found a patron. Newburyport’s quixotic Lord Timothy Dexter took him on as a sort of protégé. Dexter provided Plummer with a small stipend. In return Plummer recounted Dexter’s exploits in flattering poetry.
In 1806, Dexter died and left no money for Plummer, though it did nothing to dampen Plummer’s praise for his former patron. He then published two accounts of Dexter’s life.
Bitterness eventually consumed Plummer, however. He lived with several of his cousins. He took to self-harming and mutilated himself. Plummer eventually died, apparently of self-starvation, in 1819.
The newspaper announced the death of “Mr. Jonathan Plummer, aged 58, Massachusetts poet laureate to their majesties the sovereign people.”
Bequests of Jonathan Plummer
Plummer left a considerable estate of more than $1,500. He left several wills that revealed his bitterness.
One will directed: “Should my father or any of either my brothers have hypocrisy to follow me in mourning, or to walk between my coffin and the other people who happen to attend my funeral, I desire my executor to endeavor to prevent their so dong.”
In his final will, Plummer directed his estate to publish 600 copies of his memoirs. The remainder of his money was to be given to the Methodist church in Greenland, N.H. His money, instead, went to his surviving brothers and sisters as the court judged him not of sound mind when he drew up his will.
Thanks to: The Life of Lord Timothy Dexter by Samuel L. Knapp; History of Newburyport, Mass., by John Currier and The Memoirs of Jonathan Plummer, Jr. 1761-1819 by Roger Wolcott Higgins and Jonathan Plummer, Jr. This story updated in 2022.