“Could I But Hear Thy Voice”: Edwin Booth’s Poems to Mary Devlin

From the death of his father due to his missing guardianship, the murder of the President at the hand of his younger brother, and the financial loss of his opulent theater in New York City, Edwin Booth lived a life of unimaginable tragedy. Though incredibly successful and praised for his histrionic talents on the stage, the unlucky circumstances of Edwin’s life plagued him with constant melancholy and sorrow. Aside from his darling daughter, Edwina, it appears that the only source of true comfort and happiness that Edwin Booth ever felt was his treasured wife, Mary Devlin.

Mary Devlin and Edwin Booth first met on the stage in 1856. While it seems that both became interested in each other, young Mary was hesitant to engage with an actor of Edwin’s reputation. He was six years her senior and recently returned from several years on the rowdy west coast. When Edwin traveled on from their shared engagement as Romeo and Juliet in 1856, nothing developed further. When they reunited for a couple of engagements in 1858, however, it appears that a relationship began to form. In the end, Edwin proposed to Mary in 1859 and the two were married on July 7, 1860.

Mary Devlin Booth, possibly in her wedding gown

At some point during their 1858-1859 courtship, Edwin Booth composed two poems for Mary Devlin. He recorded them in an autograph album that Mary owned. The album is currently in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library as part of the noted Taper collection. The state of Illinois has done a wonderful job digitizing many of the documents, letters, and images associated with the Taper collection, the album being among them.

In the available images of the autograph album, we can see that there are a total of four poems, two of which are written by others. Of the two Edwin poems, only one of them bears Edwin’s name at the end. While the second one is anonymous, it is clearly written in Edwin’s handwriting (whose chicken scratch is incredibly difficult to transcribe at times). As far as I can tell, these poems have never been in print before and I’m not sure if they have even been transcribed before now.

Here is Edwin’s first poem to Mary Devlin:

Amid the many gloomy scenes
The tragic Muse doth revel in
To cheer my path, she found the means
To place a merry (Mary) Dev’lin

The name’s too harsh for her dear self,
Where dwells us thought of evil in –
A merry, laughing, loving elf
I found but good this Dev’lin.

And she will prove in after age
A star – at least of spotless truth,
T’illume the darkness of our stage,
Or I’m a dutchman, Edwin Booth

This poem strikes a silly tone, playing off of Mary’s last name. And yet it also compliments Mary’s talents on the stage which Edwin is also known to have done in letters to his peers. He truly felt that Mary Devlin was a talented actress. Unfortunately however, since the reputations of actresses were so low in Booth’s day, the noted actor could not even bring himself to marry one. Edwin essentially made Mary Devlin retire from acting before he agreed to marry her. She spent much of 1859 into 1860, in semi-seclusion studying and learning how to be a high society woman.

Edwin’s second poem is a far more romantic composition. In it, Booth demonstrates his growing affection for Mary.

Could I my life begin anew
And o’er my fate might have the choice,
I’d be some object dear to you
Content – could I but hear thy voice.

I would not be a throne’d king
If from thy blessed sight removed,
But rather the most abject thing
With but the sense to know you loved.*

Free from glory’s empty strife
Your little caged bird I’d be,
A happy pris’ner all my life
If loved and petted, sweet, by thee.

This touching poem demonstrates the true feelings Edwin Booth had for his beloved. In the cruelest of fates, however, Edwin would suffer his greatest loss of all less than three years into their marriage. On February 21, 1863, Mary Devlin Booth died at the age of 22. She had been ill with abdominal pains for some time since the birth of their daughter Edwina a year before. To help with her recuperation, Edwin had rented a house in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Under the impression that Mary was recovering from her more recent bout, Edwin was performing in New York when she took a bad turn. He made it back to their home several hours too late and locked himself in the room with Mary’s body for hours. From these poems in particular, one can easily imagine the deep and heavy grief he bore with her unexpected passing at so young an age. While Edwin Booth would later remarry, he never got over the loss of “Mollie” – his one true love.


*Now, if you’re like me, the middle stanza bothers you. While the words “removed” and “loved” have the same endings, the words themselves do not rhyme. Since Edwin Booth was a very eloquent man, I kept second guessing myself as to this transcription. I even wanted to change the word “loved” to “true” so at least the line would partially rhyme with “removed”. However, after doing a little research I discovered that, in Shakespeare’s time, the words “removed” and “loved” DID rhyme. Our pronunciation of words like “remove” has changed over time into the oo sound (as in food) rather than the original short u sound as it makes in love. In Shakespeare’s day words like “remove” and “prove” both rhymed with “love” even though they do not match our modern pronunciations. It’s likely that Edwin wrote his poem using a bit of Original Pronunciation. Here’s a short video demonstrating the original pronunciation of Shakespeare ‘s Sonnet 116 which ends with a now nonexistent “love” rhyme.

Categories: History | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on ““Could I But Hear Thy Voice”: Edwin Booth’s Poems to Mary Devlin

  1. Carol VG

    I’d not heard the phrase “I’m a Dutchman”. A quick internet search reveals it’s been around a long time, has historic roots, and means the same thing now as back then.

  2. davg2000

    Hi, David,

    I was an English teacher for thirty-three years. Edwin Booth employed in that poem you discussed “eye rhyme,” “false rhyme,” or “slant rhyme,” all names for the same thing. Many poets have used the technique. Of course Shakespeare, as you mentioned, but also Emily Dickinson comes to mind. I loved the piece about Edwin Booth, and it doesn’t surprise me that he wrote poetry.

    Sincerely,

    David Grimm

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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