July 10, 2014

Birth of Humphreys: wonderful at imitation

David Humphreys was born in Connecticut on July 10, 1752. A graduate of Yale, he served during the American Revolution, earning the rank of Colonel. Most notably, he also became an aide-de-camp of George Washington, who praised him for his "zeal in the cause of his country." When Washington became President of the United States, Humphreys was appointed as an overseas diplomat. He later wrote a biography of his friend Washington. In his varied career, Humphreys was also a farmer, a legislator, and an entrepreneur, as well as a poet and author. Without further ado, his poem, "The Monkey Who Shaved Himself and His Friends: A Fable" (from 1804, if not earlier):

    A man who own'd a barber's shop
At York, and shav'd full many a fop,
A monkey kept for their amusement;
He made no other kind of use on't—
This monkey took great observation,
Was wonderful at imitation,
And all he saw the barber do,
He mimic'd straight, and did it too.

    It chanc'd in shop, the dog and cat,
While friseur din'd, demurely sat,
Jacko found nought to play the knave in,
So thought he'd try his hand at shaving.
Around the shop in haste he rushes,
And gets the razors, soap, and brushes;
Now puss he fix'd (no muscle miss stirs)
And lather'd well her beard and whiskers,
Then gave a gash, as he began—
The cat cry'd "waugh!" and off she ran.

    Next Towser's beard he try'd his skill in,
Though Towser seem'd somewhat unwilling;
As badly here again succeeding,
The dog runs howling round, and bleeding.

    Nor yet was tir'd our roguish elf;
He'd seen the barber shave himself;
So by the glass, upon the table,
He rubs with soap his visage sable,
Then with left hand holds smooth his jaw,—
The razor in his dexter paw;
 Around he flourishes and slashes,
Till all his face is seam'd with gashes.
His cheeks dispatch'd—his visage thin
He cock'd, to shave beneath his chin;
 Drew razor swift as he could pull it,
 And cut, from ear to ear, his gullet.

    Who cannot write, yet handle pens,
Are apt to hurt themselves and friends.
Though others use them well, yet fools
Should never meddle with edge tools.

Humphreys's poem was obviously meant to be humorous and his comedic poems put him amidst the group called "The Hartford Wits" — a group which included other early Connecticut writers like John Trumbull and Joel Barlow. As for "The Monkey," the poem was almost certainly an inspiration to Edgar Allan Poe, who gave the razor-wielding idea a more homicidal turn in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

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