March 17, 2010

Draw up the papers, lawyers

The top of the first column of the fourth page of the Toledo Daily Blade for March 17, 1871 was dedicated to the poem "Betsey and I Are Out." The author, Will Carleton, probably never knew that it almost wasn't published at all.

He was 25 years old and, though a newspaper reporter in Michigan, had never published anything particularly literary. He based his poem on a true story and wrote it in one sitting. He then sent it off to the Toledo Daily Blade, hoping to get the attention of the editor. Instead, it fell into the hands of an assistant, who promptly threw it away. Later, the editor accidentally dropped something in the trash and, retrieving it, found Carleton's poem. "What's this?" he asked his assistant. "Oh, some fellow who thinks he can write poetry, but can't even spell." Or so they say.

"Betsey and I Are Out" was published, either way. It turned out to be popular, and was soon republished (with illustrations!) in Harper's Weekly, bringing Carleton national attention. In 1919, in fact, the state of Michigan passed a law which required at least one of his poems in the school curriculum. This is, perhaps, surprising; the poem was about divorce.

Draw up the papers, lawyers, and make 'em good and stout;
For things at home are crossways, and Betsey and I are out.
We, have worked together so long as man and wife,
Must pull in single harness for the rest of our nat'ral life.

The narrator admits neither are guilty of infidelity but that they simply can't live together any more. Together, they agree that they can't agree. Still, the narrator is happy to give her half of what they owned ("For she has helped to earn it, through many a weary day"). Yet, as he explains to his lawyer his need for divorce, he starts to reminisce about the good ol' days. So, he concludes by asking the lawyer to make sure the hapless couple can still be buried side-by-side:

And when she dies I wish that she would be laid by me,
And, lying' together in silence, perhaps we will agree;
And, if ever we meet in heaven, I wouldn't think it queer
If we loved each other the better because we quarrelled here.


  1. What a fantastic story about getting published. And a great poem, too. I wonder how true to his life this was?


  2. His wife's name was Anne Goodell. I didn't find anything about a divorce.

  3. This poem is not at all autobiographical and has nothing to do with Carleton's wife Goodell. In fact, the poet was unmarried at the time this poem was published.