Collecting Delaware Books

Henry Brooke, Colonial Poet
by Jerry Shields

See update

Ask "Who was Delaware's first poet?" and you'll get an equivocal answer. But our first poet of true quality and substantive output was clearly Henry Brooke of Lewes.

Brooke was born in England and received a fine education there in classics and modern languages. Yet the few researchers who have tried tracing his origins come to no firm consensus on his date of birth, parentage, or other personal details. Most agree he was either a son or grandson (probably the latter) of Sir Henry Brooke, Baronet, of Norton Priory at Chester in Cheshire. But the proclivity for naming children after an illustrious paterfamilias meant that several Brookes named Henry were around in the late 1670s and early 80s, and scholars are not sure which one our Henry was.

So when Henry Brooke, Delaware's first real poet-to-be, arrived in Philadelphia in the spring of 1702, he was either in his late teens or early twenties. He carried with him a letter of introduction to James Logan, William Penn's business manager in the colony of Pennsylvania-and-the-Three-LowerCounties.

Logan was a remarkable person himself. Skilled in commerce and politics, he was also a great reader and lover of literature, and was then engaged in accumulating a considerable library which, after his death, would become the core of the Philadelphia Library Society's splendid collection of 18th - Century books. Thus he was glad to see this young man from Cheshire, since few newcomers to the Pennsylvania colony shared with him the advantage of an education in the classics.

Brooke had come with the hope of getting appointed to the post of Customs Collector for the Port of Philadelphia, but Logan, on learning Henry was Church of England, knew he would not be an acceptable candidate for the Quaker fathers who ruled the City of Brotherly Love. New Castle was another possibility, but the customs post there had recently been filled.

Yet Logan did not want to turn away such a promising young man empty-handed, so he offered a position further down the Delaware coast at the customs house in Lewes, and Henry accepted. Doubtless Logan felt some regret at sending Brooke to a community of some sixty families where he would likely find no one with whom he could discuss literature and other scholarly interests. In a letter to Penn, he described Brooke as "a young beau, otherwise well accomplished, and deserving a better society."

Henry, however, was determined to make the best of his new situation, and, after arriving in Lewes, he soon made enough friends to keep the social side of his nature occupied. But young men's social activies do not always harmonize perfectly with the dispositions of a community's older, soberer citizens. In 1703, the "Queen's Collector of the Horekills" (Henry) and three of his "bottle-friends" (as he called them) were hauled upriver to a Philadelphia court and charged by Horekills (Sussex) Sheriff John Baily with "raising a great disturbance and riot in the city at the dead of night."

The young beau and his drinking companions were let off with small fines, and Henry soon had the satisfaction of seeing Sheriff Baily replaced in office by a more tolerant official. After this incident, though, the young man seems to have settled in and taken his duties more seriously. The same year, in November, he made a gallant attempt to organize local support in order to seize a pirate vessel anchored in the Lewes harbor. Later, in 1709, a French pri vateer sailed into port and landed sixty men who plundered the town. Brooke, on seeing the ship approach, commandeered a sloop and set sail for New Castle to get help. Despite the fact that the governor was away in New York, he was able to round up men and vessels to come to Lewes's relief. But, by the time the rescuers arrived, the pirates had left.

Through such demonstrations of his courage and resourcefulness and his competence at his job, Henry apparently won the approval of townspeople and colonial officials. His career after these early incidents would lead steadily upward to positions of increasing authority and responsibilities.

In 1717, Brooke was chosen Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Three Lower Counties (which had been granted a legislature separate from Pennsylvania's in 1703.) He served as Speaker through 1726 and also sat as a member of the Governor's Council beginning in 1721. Eventually he was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court and, at the time of his death in the winter of 1735-36 was highly regarded as a distinguished public official.

But Brooke's appeal to Delawareana collectors comes from his poetry, not his public office. During the thirty-three years he was resident in Lewes, Brooke maintained an active correspondence with acquaintances of literary bent in New Castle and Philadelphia (especially James Logan) and also wrote to poets Robert Hunter and William Burnett in New York. During this era, a network of literary clubs was formed in the Mid-Atlantic colonies, and the members, including Brooke, often exchanged verses and comments by letter.

Henry also found time to sail north on occasion to spend time in New Castle and Philadelphia with his "bottle - friends" in those cities. Not all his time was spent in drinking and conversation several of Brooke's poems, including a nicely crafted lyric titled "To my Bottle-friends," are noted as being "writ at Newcastel in company." The likelihood is that many if not most of his verses were composed when he and his friends got together to socialize, drink, and scribble rhymes for each other's criticism, praise, and entertainment.

As a poet, Brooke exhibited a fine ear for rhyme and meter and a willingness to experiment both with metrics and verse forms. While, like most poets of his time, he generally wrote in iambic pentameter, he was able to sustain an anapestic meter successfully throughout one of his longest and most ambitious works, "The New Metamorphosis, or Fable of the Bald Eagle."

In content, Brooke's works are often witty, philosophical, and full of classical allusion, being frequently based either on Greek and Latin models (he was a translator as well as a poet) or on English, French, and Italian writers he and his fellow poets admired. Brooke himself seems to have been especially fond of Dryden, Gay, and several of the Cavalier and metaphysical poets including Cowley. Of the English moderns, Pope commanded his admiration.

But, while Brooke drew from contemporary and classical models, he was no slavish imitator. Many of his works sparkle with originality as well as skill and erudition. He could better than hold his own in friendly contests with fellow writers in New Castle and Philadelphia and was then, as now, regarded as the best of the colonial Pennsylvania poets.

Until recently it was hard to confirm the earlier judgment, for nearly all of Brooke's poetry had apparently been lost. But, a few years ago, a Prof. Barone at St. Joseph's College discovered a manuscript in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania collection which was cataloged as a "Commonplace Book" in the Peters Collection. This proved to be poems which were mostly by Brooke, with a few by Rev. William Becket, who was Brooke's closest friend, principal heir, and sometime collaborator.

Becket had arrived in Lewes in 1721 as a Church of England cleric and missionary. Happily, he was from Brooke's home area in Cheshire, and the two quickly became best friends and writing companions. Henry, a bachelor, in his will left all his books and writings to Becket except for some volumes in Italian, which he willed to James Logan.

After Henry's death, Becket lauded him in a poem, "Verse, to the Memory of Henry Brooke, Esq." published in The American Weekly Mercury's April 15, 1736, issue. And James Logan remembered him having "the most polite education and best natural parts" of any man in the colony.

Some thirty-six poems are now extant which were certainly or probably written by Brooke. These confirm his reputation as the best colonial poet of 'colonial Pennsylvania and probably the first of real talent to write while residing in what is now Delaware.

For much of the above information I am indebted to Dr. David S. Shields, professor of English at The Citadel and an authority on colonial writers and literature. David (no relation to me) has uncovered several other Brooke poems through his own research and kindly sent me a printout of all the Brooke works he has collected with the understanding that I not rush them into print ahead of him. He has tried to get some Delaware institution to publish Brooke's works, but none have shown interest so far, ostensibly on the rationale that Brooke wrote little about identifiable Delaware subjects and places. (See update below.)

I have also drawn facts from the late Emerson Wilson's sketch on Brooke in Forgotten Heroes of Delaware and from an April 27, 1988, article by Hazel Brittingham in The Whale.


The late Dr. Jerry Shields wrote this article in 1992. Jerry's source, Dr. David S. Shields is now with the University of South Carolina. Researchers seeking more information on Henry Brooke should start at Prof. Shields' Web site

Contacted in early 2006, Prof. Shields responded —

Brooke is a very interesting figure. I'll be publishing a selection of his poems in the Library of America's forthcoming anthology, American Poetry, the 17th & 18th centuries. But numbers of his poems remain unpublished in manuscript. I talk about him at some length in my 1997 book, Civil Tongues & Polite Letters in British America.

Dr. David S. Shields
Editor, Early American Literature
McClintock Professor of Southern Letters
Department of English
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC 29208

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