Poetry and Poets


Philadelphia boasts a rich history of poetry—poetry that describes intimate life experiences as well as an evolving history of immigration and colonization, urban growth and decline. Indeed, from the colonial era to the twenty-first century, poetry often stood at the center of civic life, fully engaged with the public sphere. The poetry of Philadelphia, reflecting in many ways the country’s larger currents, documents in detail the fate of the city and its shifting cultural politics.

Daniel Pastorius depicted in a bas relief sculpture
Francis Daniel Pastorius, pictured here in bas relief, has been called Pennsylvania’s first poet. A Quaker and founder of Germantown, Pennsylvania, he wrote works in German, Latin, and English. (Library of Congress)

Shortly after William Penn (1644-1718) founded the city of Philadelphia in 1682, Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-c. 1720), often referred to as Pennsylvania’s first poet, arrived in Philadelphia in 1683. The founder of Germantown, Pastorius, whose poetry mostly survived only in manuscript, wrote of his emigration to Philadelphia and settlement on land bought from Penn in a poem titled “A Token of Love and Gratitude” that looked back on his years “In this then uncouth land, & howling Wilderness.” In another of his poems, he again recalled the city’s humble origins, remembering in heroic couplets a time “When the Metropolis (which Brother-Love they call,) / Three houses, & no more, could number up in all.”

Other poems from these early years actively sought to promote the city and its native resources. William Bradford (1590-1657), the first printer of the middle colonies, published a boosterish pamphlet poem by Richard Frame (“A Short Description of Pennsylvania”) in 1692 and another by John Holmes (“A True Relation of the Flourishing State of Pennsylvania”) in 1696. Before moving to New York in 1693, Bradford played a crucial role in founding the literary culture of Philadelphia. In 1685 he published one of the first American almanacs—America’s Messenger—with verse as a staple ingredient. When Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) started Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732-58), it was chock full of witty, proverbial poetry. Franklin even wrote some of it himself.

This poetry of self-improvement stood beside a poetry of praise in colonial Philadelphia. “A Memorial to William Penn” (1729), a declaration of cultural independence written by George Webb a little more than a decade after Penn’s death, appeared in the form of stanza headers for the months of the year in The Genuine Leeds Almanack for the Year of Christian Account 1730, published by Franklin’s rival Titan Leeds (1699-1738). Webb’s poem paid tribute to the city’s founder and the city’s civilized success, forecasting that “Europe shall mourn her ancient Fame declin’d / And Philadelphia be the Athens of Mankind”; in much the same way, so did Thomas Makin’s A Discription of Pennsylvania” (1728) and Jacob Duché’s (1737-98) “Pennsylvania: A Poem” (1756).

When not singing the praises of the city or its citizens, poetry of the period commemorated those who had died. The printer-poet Samuel Keimer (1689-1742), who employed Franklin, wrote an elegy for another successful printer-poet, Aquila Rose (1695-1723), who worked in Bradford’s printing office and died at the age of 28. His 1723 broadside Elegy on the Death of Aquila Rose was Franklin’s first known printing job, and Franklin described the circumstances of its publication in his Autobiography, where he commends Rose as “a very tolerable poet.” (Rose’s posthumous Poems on Several Occasions—published in 1740 and known as the first American poetry anthology—includes elegies by and about him.)

The merchant and scrivener Joseph Breintnall (c. 1695-1746), an original member of the Junto, Franklin’s club for mutual improvement, also paid tribute to Rose before his untimely death; in “An Encomium to Aquila Rose, On His Art in Praising,” he wrote of Rose’s importance in elevating Philadelphia, claiming that “Strangers far remote will come” to Philadelphia, “And visit us as ancient Greece or Rome.” In another poem, “A plain Description of one single Street in this City” (1729), written as part of Franklin’s Busy-Body essay series, Breintnall described a walk on Market Street from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill, effectively mapping the geographical coordinates of the expanding commercial city.

Another member of Franklin’s Junto, George Webb, to whom Franklin taught the art of printing, wrote “Batchelor’s Hall: A Poem,” published by Franklin in 1731. Batchelor’s Hall, near Allen and Shackamaxon Streets in Kensington, was a learned society similar the Junto, but it had a reputation for licentiousness. In the poem, Webb, a member of the society, celebrated it (“the proud dome on Delaware’s stream”) and defended it against such charges, insisting that it was designed to allow men to be sociable and to train their minds on “nobler thoughts” in “the sweets of country air.” Philadelphia astronomer, mathematician, surveyor, and poet Jacob Taylor’s (?-1746) praise poem “To George Webb” hailed Webb as a powerful intellectual force, and contended, along with Webb, that the Muses had fled the Old World for Philadelphia.

Portrait of Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine, pictured in this 1851 lithograph holding his most famous works, Common Sense and Rights of Man, also wrote poetry envisioning democratic ideals worldwide. (Library of Congress)

In 1775, fire reduced Batchelor’s Hall to rubble. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) wrote about the loss in a poem titled “Impromptu on Bachelor’s Hall, at Philadelphia, being destroyed by Lightning, 1775.” Webb’s earlier defense of the activities in the building did not stop Paine from asserting that it was a place where “Venus disclosed every fun she could think of, / And Bacchus made nectar for mortals to drink of,” and he interpreted the destruction of the building as divine punishment.

Other poets of the day also wrote about the evolving social sphere in the city and its environs. Notably, Henry Brooke (1678-1736) became the unofficial laureate of a group of gentry youth (his so-called “bottle-friends” as he termed them in a poem “writ at Newcastel in company”) who gathered often at Story’s Tavern at Front and Market Streets.

Another collective of poets and playwrights, the Swains of the Schuylkill, gathered at Philadelphia College (later the University of Pennsylvania) and were led by provost William Smith (1727-1803), who edited the American Magazine. This group included Francis Hopkinson (1737-91), Thomas Godfrey (1736-63), Nathaniel Evans (1742-67), and Jacob Duché (1737-98), who couched much of their poetry in the pastoral tradition; they met regularly on the banks of the Schuylkill at the “Baptisterion” (the Oak Grove at the end of Spruce Street).

Portrait of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson
Poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, portrayed here in an eighteenth-century engraving, often worked under the pseudonym “Laura.” She is known for her poem “Il Penseroso” or “The Deserted Wife,” as well as for her connections with other Philadelphia female poets. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

The Swains participated in the salons of poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson (1737-1801), who wrote under the pseudonym Laura, at Graeme Park, seventeen miles north of Philadelphia in Horsham, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Fergusson described Philadelphia as “the Athens of North America” and wrote on enlightenment themes; she cultivated a social network of female poets, including Susanna Wright (1697-1784), Annis Boudinot Stockton (born in Darby, Pennsylvania, 1736-1801), and Hannah Griffitts (1727-1817), who shared their poetry with each other in manuscript. Fergusson’s niece, Anna Young Smith (1756-1780), also a Philadelphia poet, wrote frequently on gender and politics as well as on the more conventional subjects of courtship, sensibility, and grief.

The Revolutionary War and the Early National Period

In addition to his proverbial almanac verse, in the years prior to the War for Independence Franklin wrote propagandistic political poetry. In “On the Freedom of the Press,” included in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1757, he reminded that “The Press from her fecundous Womb / Brought forth the Arts of Greece and Rome.” Paine’s rousing song “Liberty Tree,” published in Pennsylvania Magazine in July 1775 under the pseudonym “Atlanticus,” also sounded the note of freedom: “From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms, / Thro’ the land let the sound of it flee, / Let the far and the near,—all unite with a cheer, / In defence of our Liberty tree.”

The Quaker poet Hannah Griffitts, whose nom de plume was “Fidelia,” also wrote political poetry (as did Fergusson), emphasizing the role women could and must play in the defense of freedom. In “The Female Patriots” (1768) she called on “the Daughters of Liberty” to “nobly arise, / And though we’ve no voice, but a negative here,” vigorously oppose the Stamp Act of 1765 and Townshend Duties of 1767 and boycott British goods: “rather than Freedom, we’ll part with out Tea.” One of the Swains, Francis Hopkinson, penned “The Battle of the Kegs,” a propaganda ballad describing an attack in the harbor of Philadelphia upon a British fleet during the war. His son Joseph Hopkinson (1770-1842) composed “Hail Columbia” (1798), which became one of the nation’s favorite patriotic songs.

In addition to this politically inspired poetry, Philadelphia was flush with verse that described and often lampooned the character of its citizens, as growing wealth led to a perceived putting on of airs and attendant foolishness. “The Manners of the Times: A Satire in Two Parts” (1762), by “Philadelphiensis,” and the anonymous “The Philadelphiad” (1784), both in heroic couplets, satirized such stereotyped figures as the “Country Clown,” the “Quaker,” the “Emigrant,” and “Miss Kitty Cut-a-Dash; Or the Arch-street Flirt.” The Country Clown, for one, cautions: “Keep from the city and secure thy fame”; lurking in the city, he contends, are temptations steadfastly to be avoided.

Another poet of the Revolution, Philip Freneau (1752-1832), lived and worked in Philadelphia off and on, including during the 1790s, when he edited a partisan newspaper while the city served as the nation’s capital. He penned “On The Death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin” to commemorate Franklin’s passing in 1790, holding him up as an exemplar in all ways:

When monarchs tumble to the ground,
Successors easily are found:
But, matchless FRANKLIN! what a few
Can hope to rival such as YOU,
Who seized from kings their sceptered pride,
And turned the lightning darts aside.

In 1793, when yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia, killing a quarter of its residents, Freneau’s poem “Pestilence: Written During the Prevalence of a Yellow Fever” (1793) mourned the casualties of the epidemic:

Hot, dry winds forever blowing,
Dead men to the grave-yards going:
Constant hearses,
Funeral verses;
Oh! what plagues–there is no knowing!

The poem went on to decry “O, what a pity, / Such a City, / Was in such a place erected!” as the outbreak of yellow fever brought home the dangers of high-density city living.

The Nineteenth Century

The continuing expansion of Philadelphia and increases in its citizens’ wealth, and with it the breeding of waste, pretension, and extravagance, remained a target of verse satirists into the nineteenth century. In “Philadelphia: A Satire” (1821), John Cadwalader McCall (1793-1846) poked fun at the newest generation of city dwellers. In contrast to the esteemed origins of the city (“Thee, city of sonorous name, I sing, / The western Athens, and fair Fashion’s spring”), it now teemed with corrupt lawyers and dandies, “With fashions, scandal, and with folly fraught.”

Photograph of house where Poe lived
While living at 530 N. Seventh Street, in the house shown here in a c. 1920 photograph, Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Raven” and “The Black Cat” and published his contest-winning piece “The Golden Bug” and short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), who lived in Philadelphia from 1838 to 1844, tapped into the underworld of the industrial city—imagined as a zone of danger and terror—and, along with short stories, published several gothic poems during this period, including “Ligeia”(1839), about the death of a young woman, and “The Haunted Palace” (1843). He also conceived of “The Raven,” published in January 1845, in Philadelphia.

Poetry documented racial tensions during this period as well. In May 1838 an anti-abolitionist mob burned down Pennsylvania Hall, a large building on Sixth Street in Philadelphia constructed to serve as a headquarters for the antislavery movement, the same weekend it opened. Well-known abolitionist poet and Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92) delivered the dedicatory poem, reminding the audience of the glory of the occasion, that although “loftier Halls, ’neath brighter skies than these,” once stood in Athens, “Yet in the porches of Athena’s halls, / And in the shadow of her stately walls, / Lurked the sad bondsman, and his tears of woe.” After the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, Whittier responded in his poem “The Relic,” written in 1839 when he received a cane made from a fragment of the building’s woodwork:

Portrait of John Greenleaf Whittier
John Greenleaf Whittier, pictured here c. 1840-1860, edited the Pennsylvania Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper published in Philadelphia. Deeply moved by the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, Whittier wrote “The Relic” (1839) in response to the fire. (Boston Public Library)

The fire-scorched stones themselves are crying,
And from their ashes white and cold
Its timbers are replying!
A voice which slavery cannot kill
Speaks from the crumbling arches still!

Although abolitionism was controversial in Philadelphia, the city produced much poetry supporting the cause. In 1831, a group of African American women formed the Female Literary Association, a self-improvement society where writing, including poems, addressing contemporary social and political issues were read without author attribution at weekly meetings and later published anonymously in such outlets as the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator published in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79).

John Collins (1814-1902) wrote a long poem about a fugitive-slave mother that was published for the 1855 Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Fair in Philadelphia. The Anti-Slavery Alphabet had been produced for the same fair in 1846: “A is an Abolitionist— / A man who wants to free / The wretched slave—and give to all / An equal liberty.” Famed African American poet Frances E.W. Harper (1825-1911) lived in Philadelphia throughout much of the 1850s and aided William Still on the Underground Railroad. She settled again in Philadelphia in 1870. One of her best-known poems, “The Slave Mother,” written in Philadelphia in 1854, made a strong sentimental case against slavery by depicting in ballad stanzas the heartbreak of a mother whose son is ripped from her and sold to another master.

When the Civil War broke out, Philadelphia had its share of poets documenting that convulsive event and beating the drum for the Union cause. Perhaps the two leading poets in the city were Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-72) and George Henry Boker (1823-90). Read, born in Chester County, joined the Union army and penned one of the most popular poems of the war, the martial ballad “Sheridan’s Ride.” Boker, a leading spirit behind the city’s Union League Club, published Poems of the War in 1864. A good friend of Boker, Bayard Taylor (1825-78), born in the village of Kennett Square in Chester County, also composed Civil War verse, and to commemorate the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Monument at Gettysburg in 1869 produced “Gettysburg Ode,” a setting of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to rhyme.

Poetry also marked the nation’s centennial in 1876, when Taylor was chosen over Walt Whitman (1819-92) to write and perform the poem for the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia. A crowd gathered in Independence Square to hear him recite his poem, “Centennial Ode”:

Photograph of Walt Whitman
The American poet Walt Whitman, known for his free verse style of poetry and his renowned and controversial collection of poems knowns as Leaves of Grass, spent many years in Camden. (Library of Congress)

Transmute into good the gold of Gain,
Compel to beauty thy ruder powers,
Till the bounty of coming hours
Shall plant, on thy fields apart,
With the oak of Toil, the rose of Art!

Walt Whitman had arrived in Camden, New Jersey, in 1873 from Washington, D.C., and, while in Camden produced several editions of his monumental, ever-evolving book Leaves of Grass in addition to several other timely books of poetry and prose, as his reputation as one of the greatest American poets began to be cemented. In his 1876 book Two Rivulets (the second volume of his Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass), published in Camden, Whitman included his Centennial Exhibition poem, “Song of the Exposition,” wherein he bids the Muse to “migrate from Greece and Ionia” to Philadelphia.

Upon his death in 1892, poets feted Whitman in verse much as Penn and Franklin had been before him. As native Philadelphian Francis Howard Williams (1844-1922) remarked in his commemorative sonnet “Walt Whitman” (March 26, 1892), “Darkness and death? Nay, Pioneer, for thee, / The day of deeper vision has begun; / There is no darkness for the central sun / Nor any death for immortality.”

The Twentieth Century to the Twenty-First Century

By the twentieth century, the poetic capital of the East Coast in many ways moved to New York City, at least in part due to the shift of the publishing industry. However, Philadelphia continued to host poets who weighed in on important matters of the day.

One of Whitman’s ardent disciples, socialist poet Horace Traubel (1858-1919), lived in Camden and worked as a publisher on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. His journal The Conservator sought to keep Whitman’s legacy alive and included Traubel’s socialist free verse in the Whitmanian tradition. Traubel also wrote poetry staunchly opposing American involvement in World War I. Another poet well-known at the time, Germantown resident Florence Earle Coates (1850-1927), took the opposite view, describing the selfless sacrifices made by soldiers and citizens for the cause of freedom and liberty in a pamphlet of poetry called Pro Patria (1917). In 1915, Florence was unanimously elected Poet Laureate of Pennsylvania by the state’s Federation of Women’s Clubs.

In addition, some of the most important avant-garde poets of the period lived in and around Philadelphia, if only for a short while—notably, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) (1886-1961), Ezra Pound (1885-1972), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), all of whom were friends, and Marianne Moore (1887-1972).

African American poets also gained prominence as migration from the South added to the black population of northern cities, including Philadelphia, which had the second-largest African American population in the country by 1924. Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954), a native of Philadelphia, moved on to Harlem and became instrumental in leading the New Negro Movement, which lay at the core of the Harlem Renaissance. Another Philadelphia native, Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961), worked on Black Opals (1927-28), a Philadelphia literary journal and club for young black writers, as did the poets Idabelle Yeiser (1897-?) and Mae Virginia Cowdery (1909-53).

Photograph of Sonia Sanchez
Alabama-born poet Sonia Sanchez, pictured here in 1972, made Philadelphia her home and went on to become chairperson of the English Department at Temple University and Philadelphia’s first Poet Laureate in 2011. (New York Public Library)

The same spirit, but in more brazen language, characterized the poetry of Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934), a native of Alabama who moved to New York with her family during the 1940s and then taught in San Francisco before settling in Philadelphia in 1976. She became chairperson of the Department of English at Temple University the following year and served as Philadelphia’s first Poet Laureate in 2012-13. In “Elegy: For MOVE and Philadelphia” (1987), she mourned the casualties of the 1985 city bombing of MOVE, a black liberation group, in West Philadelphia.

Sanchez wrote poems about bleak cityscapes, and her words sometimes were written onto them. The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, working with Sanchez in collaboration with Philadelphia’s third Poet Laureate, Yolanda Wisher (b. 1976), in 2012 launched a project titled Peace is a Haiku Song, to engage the Philadelphia community in exploring haiku as a vehicle for peace and urban transformation. Her haiku, included in a mural on the side of a building at 1425 Christian Street, reads:

The sprawling sound
of peace sails on the wind
A white butterfly

Her 1969 poem “Ballad” was scrawled across the façade of an abandoned house at Broadway and Ferry Avenues in Camden.

The power of poetry to comment on and entangle itself in the fabric of the urban experience also infused the work of Camden resident Nick Virgilio (1928-89), who produced radically remodeled urban haiku, often vividly set in the deindustrialized landscape of Camden:

moonlit city lot
strewn with sticks and broken bricks:
stray kitten licks wound.

Photograph of Daniel Hoffman
Daniel Hoffman, one of Philadelphia’s most distinguished poets of the twentieth century, held the title of 22nd Consultant of Poetry for the Library of Congress from 1973-74, later referred to as the Poet Laureate. In one of his most acclaimed works, Brotherly Love, Hoffman wrote a collection of 61 poems based on his interest in the life of William Penn. (Library of Congress)

Other poets examined Philadelphia’s past and its legacies. One of its most famous recent poets, the 1973-74 Poet Laureate of the United States Daniel Hoffman (1923-2013), wrote a book-length historical poem about William Penn titled Brotherly Love (1981), a finalist for the National Book Award in 1982. In its sixty-one poems, all in different styles, Hoffman relied on a range of primary sources to probe William Penn’s identity, putting into context his attempt to found a New Jerusalem in the wilderness. As a recurring theme, the book explored ways of knowing the past. Another poet associated with the University of Pennsylvania, C.K. Williams (1936-2015), in “The United States” (2007) spins an allegory about globalization and the decay of the American dream, as he attends to the “rusting, decomposing hulk” of the SS United States “moored across Columbus Boulevard from Ikea, / rearing weirdly over the old municipal pier / on the mostly derelict docks in Philadelphia.” In the poem, Whitman even makes a cameo appearance.

The work of African American poet Major Jackson (b. 1968), a native of North Philadelphia, also centered on this theme by exploring the politics of identity, specifically what it means to be a young poet of color in the city in the twenty-first century. His first book, Leaving Saturn (2002), winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, was firmly rooted in Philadelphia: “I pledged / my life right then … / to anointing streets I love with all my mind’s wit.” In “Urban Renewal” he extends Hoffman’s critique by invoking “Penn’s GREEN COUNTRIE TOWN” only to show how that pastoral ideal has faded from view, leaving a “cracked republic.”

Issues of industrialization and racism, of the consequences of urban renewal and decline, also shaped David Livewell’s Shackamaxon (2012). Set in North Philadelphia, the book received the T.S. Eliot Prize. With similar concerns, that same year Lamont Steptoe (b. 1949) published Meditations in Congo Square (2012), focused on Washington Square, where African Americans were buried in unmarked graves in the eighteenth century, showing how the city is still haunted by its history.Other contemporary poets who have imagined the city and its pain and promise include Frank Sherlock (b. 1969), former Poet Laureate of Philadelphia (2014-15), and co-writer CAConrad (b. 1966), who penned the book-length poem The City Real and Imagined (2010) based on their walks through Philadelphia; Ryan Eckes (b. 1979), whose Old News (2011) looked into Philadelphia’s past through the lens of old news articles from The Evening Bulletin and The Philadelphia Inquirer; Jena Osman, whose Public Figures is a poem-essay that tracks the gaze of a number of statues in Philadelphia; and Yolanda Wisher, who in Monk Eats an Afro (2014) summoned “the hot breath of West Philly.”

In the early twenty-first century Philadelphia supported a vibrant spoken word scene as well as an epicenter of avant-garde poetry writing at the University of Pennsylvania. In its many forms, the poetry of Philadelphia has taken account of the social and political life of the city and its cultural memory, testifying to the importance of poetry to public life. Reading it, we get a keen sense of the evolution of the city and its place in a changing nation.

Tyler Hoffman (Ph.D., English, University of Virginia) is Professor of English at Rutgers University-Camden. He is the author of Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (2001), Teaching with The Norton Anthology of Poetry: A Guide for Instructors, 5th and 6th editions (2005; 2018), American Poetry in Performance: From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop (2011); co-editor of “This Mighty Convulsion”: Whitman and Melville Write the Civil War (2019); and numerous articles on modern American poetry and culture.

Copyright 2019, Rutgers University


Francis Daniel Pastorius

Library of Congress

Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-c. 1720), pictured here in bas relief, was a Quaker and founder of Germantown, Pennsylvania. A true Renaissance man, educated in a variety of fields, he wrote works in German, Latin, and English. Influenced by his father, his faith, and settling in the New World, he was often referred to as Pennsylvania's first poet.

He was born in Sommerhausen, Bavaria, then Germany, in 1651 to Melchoir Adam Pastorius (1624-1702), who influenced his desire to learn and write. He tutored a German nobleman before purchasing 15,000 acres of Pennsylvania from William Penn and founding Germantown, Pennsylvania. Pastorius served Germantown and the province of Pennsylvania throughout his life. He was the first mayor of Germantown and a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1687 and 1691. Pastorius also taught throughout his life. First, he taught in Philadelphia at Friends School from 1698 to 1700. He then founded his own school in Germantown and taught there for seventeen years.

Showing his love of language, Pastorius wrote A New Primmer or Methodical Directions to Attain the True Spelling, Reading, and Writing of English, which first sold in 1698. Published by William Bradford (1590-1657), it may have been the first schoolbook written in Pennsylvania. For the most part however, his work survived only in manuscript form. His poetry included "Epigram," "A Token of Love and Gratitude," and "In these Seven Languages I This My Book Do Own." Usually using pastoral themes, his poetry covers topics including faith, learning, love, and gratitude. "A Token of Love and Gratitude," written first in Latin and then in English, is a poem of friendship and his emigration and settlement in Pennsylvania.

Between December 26, 1719, and January 13, 1720, Francis Daniel Pastorius grew ill and died in the settlement he founded, Germantown. Although the exact day is unknown, January 1, 1720, has been commonly accepted as the date of his death. His legacy lived on, both in the United States and in Europe. Biographers and poets have celebrated Pastorius as an intellectual, a liberal, and a Renaissance man spanning many fields from his poetry and love of language to his stance against slavery.

--Text by Georgette Birmelin

Thomas Paine

Library of Congress

Thomas Paine, seen here in an 1851 lithograph by Peter Kramer, shaped American political consciousness during the Revolution with his writings and pamphlets. Born January 29, 1737, to Quaker and Anglican parents, he lived the first part of his life in England, where he worked as a corset maker and, later, an officer of the excise. He was fired from the latter occupation, and after meeting and receiving some guidance from Benjamin Franklin in London, he decided to start fresh in America. He landed in Philadelphia in 1774. There, he helped to establish and edit Pennsylvania Magazine.

Paine made his most significant contribution to American history in January 1776, when he published Common Sense. The pamphlet, which urged colonists to fight against British rule rather than simply British taxation, found commercial success and inspired the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence. In the illustration, he is depicted holding a copy of Common Sense (and his other major work, Rights of Man).

His passion for freedom was not exclusive to America, however: Paine advocated democracy worldwide. He expressed his transnational sentiments in his poem “Contentment; Or, If You Please, Confession,” which denied commitment to a single nation. After serving as secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs and then as clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, he returned to Europe in 1787.

In support of the French Revolution, Paine published Rights of Man (1791). His strong opinions against monarchies earned him an arrest warrant from the British government, but he evaded the order by moving to France. Although he was celebrated at first, Paine ended up in a French prison from 1793 to 1794 for arguing against the execution of King Louis XVI. Holding to his moral code and political savvy, he believed that killing the king would cause the United States to turn its back on the revolutionary cause in France.

Paine returned to the United States in 1802 and died in New York City on June 8, 1809. His body was exhumed a decade later to be reburied in England, but the bones were lost en route.

--Text by Victoria Cicalese

Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, shown here in an eighteenth-century engraving, often wrote poetry under the pseudonym “Laura.” Born on February 3, 1737, to Dr. Thomas Graeme and Anne Diggs Graeme in Philadelphia, Fergusson grew up with greater access to education than most of her female peers. Her father served as head of the Naval Office, a member of the Proprietary Council, and a Master of Chancery, and her mother was the daughter of a wealthy councilor in St. Albans.

Fergusson spent a majority of her life going between her family’s winter home in Philadelphia to their summer estate, Graeme Park, thirty miles away in Horsham, Pennsylvania. At Graeme Park, Fergusson began to hold meetings for prominent literary and artistic figures from the Philadelphia region. Fergusson hosted the likes of Francis Hopkinson, Jacob Duché, Nathaniel Evans, Thomas Godfrey Jr., and John Morgan, all associated with the College of Philadelphia.

Fergusson’s ill-fated engagement to Benjamin Franklin’s son, William Franklin, may have helped start her literary career. After her engagement disintegrated, she began writing poetry and translated Abbe Francois Fénelon’s The Adventures of Télémachus from French to English. Twenty-seven of Fergusson’s poems appeared in Philadelphia journals and newspapers over the course of her career.

Fergusson also had connections with numerous women renowned within the Philadelphia literary circle. She often gave them a voice in the salon gatherings that she hosted at her family’s estate. Colonial poets such as Susanna Wright, Annis Boudinot Stockton, and Hannah Griffitts are linked to Fergusson.

Fergusson died from a long and painful illness in 1801. She was subsequently buried with her parents at Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia.

--Text by Laurene Munyan

Edgar Allan Poe

Library Company of Philadelphia

While living in Philadelphia from 1838 to 1844, Edgar Allen Poe worked as a magazine editor while writing fiction and poetry. He began as an editor for William Evans Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1839. The position provided a steady income, but Poe and Burton appeared to not get along and the magazine’s focus on comedic and sports topics did not suit the writer. With a large amount of editing assigned, Poe was not comfortable with the pay. He left after about a year although he returned after Burton sold the magazine to George Rex Graham, who continued it as Graham’s Lady’s and Gentlemen’s Magazine. Poe did little editorial work for Graham. Instead, he checked over the final proofs and wrote reviews while Graham tackled most of the editorial work. Poe aspired to start his own magazine, but by April 1842 he gave up on the idea and dedicated his free time to freelance writing. His work included composing “The Raven,” begun in Philadelphia around 1843 although not published until 1845.

Poe moved into 530 N. Seventh Street in the spring of 1843 and lived there until April 6, 1844, when he left for New York after a failed attempt to publish “The Raven.” Over the years, the house was sold to owner to owner, and by c. 1920 it had the run-down appearance documented in this photograph by Alfred Hand. By the 1930s, however, Poe’s former home attracted the attention of book and manuscript collector Richard Gimbel, a member of the Gimbel’s department store family. On December 1, 1933, the Richard Gimbel Foundation purchased 530 N. Seventh Street for literary research, adding adjacent house 532 in 1939 and adjacent lots in 1960. After a refurbishing in 1963, the National Park Service designated the Poe House a National Landmark. For a time after Richard Gimbel’s death in 1970, the Free Library of Philadelphia administered the site, but in 1978 Congress established the Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site and two years later the National Park Service acquired the property. The house does not retain any of Poe’s original furniture, but it is open to the public on designated days of the week. The site opened new exhibits about the writer and his legacy on the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth in 2009.

Text by Michael Doran

John Greenleaf Whittier

Boston Public Library

John Greenleaf Whittier was born on December 17, 1807, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on the farm built in 1638 by the first Whittier Quakers to arrive in America. He was regarded as an exceptional poet, best known for “Snow-Bound” (1866), his nostalgic homage to Haverhill. Whittier gained popularity as a poet and writer and attracted the attention of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator. Whittier became so prominent that he was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature.

Whittier wrote poetry aimed at the evils of slavery, among other contentious topics. He spent much of his time between 1837 and 1840 working with abolitionist groups in New York and Philadelphia. He edited the Pennsylvania Freeman newspaper during this time. In 1838, his poetry was recited at the dedication of Pennsylvania Hall, which had been built to provide abolitionists a place to discuss the issues of the day. The building, located on Sixth Street about two blocks north of Independence Hall, was burnt to the ground by a riotous mob four days after its dedication. After its destruction, upon receiving a cane that had been carved from remnants of the hall’s interior woodwork, Whittier wrote the poem “The Relic” (1839) to express the solidarity of the abolitionists.

After 1840, Whittier situated himself as the aging, wizened New England poet whose verses no longer urged dismantling slavery, but rather evoked a quieter, simpler time in New England’s past. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law by Harvard University in 1886. Whittier passed away on September 7, 1892, in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, and was buried in a family in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

--Text by Keith Kelley

Walt Whitman

Library of Congress

The American poet Walt Whitman, known for his free-verse style of poetry and his renowned and controversial collection of poems knowns as Leaves of Grass, spent many years in Camden. Following his experience in Civil War hospitals in Washington, D.C., Whitman moved in with his brother in Camden. Within a few months Whitman moved into a house on Mickle Street (now known as Martin Luther King Drive), the only house he would own. Whitman lived in Camden for the rest of his life.

Sonia Sanchez

New York Public Library

Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver, in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 9, 1934. Her mother died when she was very young, then she lived with her grandmother until the age of six, when her grandmother also died. She later moved with her father to Harlem in New York City and graduated from Hunter College in Manhattan with a B.A. in political science. She taught in San Francisco before settling in Philadelphia as an English professor at Temple University in 1975. After a brief marriage to Albert Sanchez (whose last name she kept), the poet, publisher and activist Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) "named" her by calling out to her, "Sanchez, I hear you're a poet" and encouraged her to send him poems for an anthology he was editing and to participate in poetry readings.

Sanchez published her first collection of poetry, Homecoming, in 1969. She became known as an activist concerned with sexism, African American rights, and class struggles. Her collection of poems Homegirls & Handgrenades won the American Book Award in 1984, and her 1995 work Does your house have lions too? was nominated for an NAACP Image Award as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award. She wrote more than a dozen books of poetry, published several plays, wrote children’s books, and edited two anthologies. She lectured at hundreds of universities in the United States and read her poetry in countries from as far as Australia to China.

Sanchez retired as professor emeritus from Temple University in 1999. She received numerous honors such as the Frost Medal, the Community Service Award from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. On December 29, 2011, she was sworn in as Philadelphia’s first poet laureate. “I want to promote art and peace at the same time,” Sanchez said. “We’ve got to move this city from a city of violence to a city of peace, and children who walk on sidewalks of peace.”

--Text by George Tillman

Daniel Hoffman

Library of Congress

Daniel Hoffman, one of Philadelphia’s most distinguished poets of the twentieth century, wrote nine books of poetry and received numerous awards throughout his lifetime. Born in New York City in 1923, Hoffman received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Columbia University. After completing An Armada of Thirty Whales in 1954, Hoffman was selected by Yale Series of Younger Poets by W.H. Auden. A resident of Philadelphia from 1948 onward, Hoffman wrote for the Drexel University journal Per Contra and held faculty appointments at Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania.

Along with poetry, Hoffman also wrote critical literary studies. His most well-known work was about one of his favorite writers and inspirations, Edgar Allan Poe. Published in 1971, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe was nominated for the National Book Award and has been regarded as an authoritative analysis of Poe’s writings.

While living in Philadelphia and serving as Poet Laureate in the United States during 1973-74, Hoffman wrote a collection of poetry about William Penn’s life, titled Brotherly Love. Encompassing themes of conflict and power, the collection received nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as the National Book Award in 1981. In March 2000, the Philadelphia Singers premiered an adaptation of the work in an oratorio set to music by Ezra Laderman also titled Brotherly Love.

In addition to writing, Hoffman taught as a professor at Columbia University, Swarthmore College, and the University of Pennsylvania at different points in his career. He encouraged his students as well as other local poets in their writing. He married Elizabeth McFarland, a poet and editor, in 1948 and they were together for 57 years. She died in 2005, and he followed in 2013. (Photograph by Elizabeth McFarland)

--Text by Megan Walter

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Time Periods


Related Reading

Jackson, Joseph. Literary Landmarks of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1939.

Nickels, Thom. Literary Philadelphia: A History of Poetry and Prose in the City of Brotherly Love. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2015.

Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson. The Literary History of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Company, 1906.

Scharf, J. Thomas, and Thompson Westcott. History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884. 3 vols. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts & Company, 1884.

Shields, David S. “The Wits and Poets of Pennsylvania: New Light on the Rise of Belles Lettres in Provincial Pennsylvania, 1720-1740.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 109, No. 2 (April 1985): 99-143.

Young, John Russell, Howard M. Jenkins, and George O. Seilhamer. Memorial History of the City of Philadelphia, from Its First Settlement to the Year 1895. New York: New York History Company, 1895-1898.

Related Collections

Related Places

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, 532 N. Seventh Street, Philadelphia.

Graeme Park, 859 County Line Road, Horsham, Pa.

Walt Whitman House, 328 Mickle Boulevard, Camden, N.J.



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