The Poetry of J.A. Alexander

Previously we have taken note of both the devotional mediations and poetry of James Waddell Alexander (1804-1859). Today, we consider the poetic compositions of his brother, Joseph Addison Alexander (1809-1860). Best known for his commentaries on Isaiah and other portions of Scripture, Joseph was a man of many gifts, particularly in the theological, linguistic and literary realms. The great Biblical commentator was equally as keen in his insights into the prose history of Acts as the Hebrew poetry of the Psalms. In his personal life, we know that he corresponded in both prose and poetry himself. He often entertained himself by composing poems while traveling. Only a little of his poetry saw the light of day during his lifetime. We can thank his nephew and biographer, Henry Carrington Alexander (1835-1894) for the window we have into what was clearly, not just an academic, but a poetic soul.

H.C. Alexander wrote: “Dr. [J.A.] Alexander had all the qualities of the rhapsodist as well as the chronicler. He could play the part of an improvisatore as well as that of a raconteur or annalist. His powers were of an order and degree that fitted him as well for the domain of poetry as for that of history and eloquence. An eminent physician once remarked to me, ‘Dr. Addison Alexander was a born poet’” (Life of J.A. Alexander 2:539)

The labor of extracting and assembling the poetic compositions of J.A. Alexander is one that is worthy of a full and thorough undertaking, which is not possible here. This writer has only just begun the process by identifying and highlighting a few of his compositions, chiefly from H.C. Alexander’s biography. And this introduction to his poetry is meant to whet the appetite for further study.

His most famous poem was published in 1837 under the title “The Doomed Man,” and it is better known as an hymn, although the author never intended it to be such. The story is given in Life 1:415-417, with additional elaboration about a stanza omitted from the original publication found in J.W. Alexander’s Forty Years’ Familiar Letters 2:285. A friend (Theodore Ledyard Cuyler, Heart Thoughts, pp. 114-115) wrote this about “The Doomed Man”:

Of one more American hymn we must speak before closing this paragraph. Its author was my beloved friend and teacher the late Dr. Joseph Addison Alexander. He certainly never dreamed that it would find its way into any collection for public worship when he threw it off one evening rapidly from his versatile pen. The day after its composition he mailed it to Rev. Dr. Hall, then the editor of the Sunday School Journal. The lines were published under the title of "The Doomed Man," and they describe with solemn and terrible energy the fate of a sinner who has "crossed the hidden boundary between God's patience and His wrath." These fearful lines are not so much a hymn as a thrilling appeal to the impenitent, in metre. They were at first circulated in small hand-bills through prayer-meetings, in seasons of revival. They went the rounds of religious journals, and finally lodged in Dr. Robinson's Hymn-book, and in one or two others. As originally written, the opening verse was—

"There is a time, we know not when,
A point, we know not where,
That marks the destiny of men
To glory or despair."

If Hillhouse's hymn is a prelude to the minstrelsy of heaven, these solemn lines of Alexander may be styled the dirge of a lost soul against whom the gates of heaven are closed for ever!”

As a young boy, J.A. Alexander wrote “The Parricide” (Life 1:32-33); “Solitude” (Life 1:33); and “The Pleasures of Study” (Life 1:33-34). These remarkable compositions bely the youth of the writer.

Well-studied in Persian poetry, J.A. Alexander composed lines in English concerning an epic event that occurred in 1722: “The Fall of Ispahan” (Life 1:140-142). Isfahan was the capital of Persia (Iran) at the time, when it fell to the Afghans. He turned his attention to the famous rival of Persia in “A Vision of Greece” (Life 1:142-144). While traveling in Italy, he composed his “Verses Written at Turin” (Life 1:304-305).

This writer’s favorite poem by J.A. Alexander is a four-stanza composition titled “Be Still and Know That I am God” (Life 1:306-107). It is introduced by H.C. Alexander thus: “As this has been thought one of his noblest productions in metre, I make no scruple to give it without abridgment. For solemn grandeur of meaning, and for nervous diction and sonorous music he has perhaps not written anything that exceeds it.” Here is given the first stanza:

When fortune smiles and friends abound;
When all thy fondest hopes are crowned;
When earth with her exhaustless store,
Seems still intent to give thee more;
When every wind and every tide
Contribute to exalt thy pride;
To feed thy covetous desire;
When foes submit and envy stands
Pale and abashed with folded hands;
While fame’s unnumbered tongues prolong
The swell of thy triumphal song;
When crowds admire and worlds applaud
“Be still and know that I am God.”

He wrote an unfinished but beautiful “A Poem in the Night” about the Resurrection (Life 1:307-308).

It was not uncommon for him to mix poetry with prose in his correspondence, as evidenced in the closing lines of his “Rhyming Epistle” to a little girl (Life 2:558):

“Of enjoyments below, and of gifts from above,
In the beautiful City of Brotherly Love;
(And thus I reveal to you for the first time,
That what you are reading is written in rhyme)
And with a regard which I feel for but few,
I bid you, dear Nannie, a final

To another young girl named Lucy (titled “Medicine for Lucy” on the envelope, but “Lines ‘To a Fatherless Girl’” within (Life 2:687-689), he sent encouragement based on the Scripture: “He will not leave thee fatherless.”

Among his many travels, on a return trip from Europe in 1853, J.A. Alexander met some Canadian travelers, and began a poetic correspondence with one particular young lady. A sonnet, “Thrice Transplanted” (Life 2:860), is one of the fruits. Alexander’s prose account of this particular correspondence makes for a fascinating biographical read as well.

This introduction must come to a close, but more remains to be explored concerning the poetry of J.A. Alexander. Take up and read for yourself, dear reader.