June 2024

David Alpaugh

 Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d.




(In the voice of Emmeline Grangerford)




                And did young Stephen sicken,

               And did young Stephen die?

                And did the sad hearts thicken.

                And did the mourners cry?


                No, such was not the fate of

                Young Stephen Dowling Bots;

                Though sad hearts round him thickened,

                ’Twas not from sickness’ shots.


                No whooping cough did rack the frame

                Nor measles drear, with spots;

                Not these impaired the sacred name

                Of Stephen Dowling Bots.


                Despised love struck not with woe

                That head of curly knots,

                Nor stomach troubles laid him low,

                Young Stephen Dowling Bots.


                O no. Then list with tearful eye,

                Whilst I his fate do tell.

                His soul did from this cold world fly,

                By falling down a well.


                They got him out and emptied him

                Alas it was too late;

                His spirit was gone for to sport aloft

                In the realms of the good and great.



Mark Twain is best known for his novels, short stories, and essays, but he did occasionally write poems and publish some of them in newspapers and literary journals. The Twain poem that has delighted readers most, however, is unusual in that it was not published as a standalone piece but as an integral part of Chapters XVII and XVIII in Huckleberry Finn.

Removed from Twain’s novel, “Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d. is a hilarious example of what Alexander Pope, roasting mediocre poets in Peri Bathous, dubbed “the art of sinking in poetry.” Pope saw that such poets, in aspiring to achieve what Longinus called the “sublime,” often achieve nothing more than ridiculous anti-climactic effects. The poetic balloons they over-inflate—hoping to achieve sublime effects—suddenly pop and plummet to earth with hilarious thuds.

Twain’s poet prepares us for her subject’s death by listing likely causes that do not apply. Stephen didn’t sicken and die from measles, whooping cough, or stomach trouble. Nor did he die, by pining away from “despised love.” We are told to be prepared to weep as the heralded manner of the boy’s passing is at last revealed:


            Then list with tearful eye,

            Whilst I his fate do tell:

            His soul did from this cold world fly,

            By falling down a well.


Here is the ultimate realization of the art of sinking in poetry. Stephen’s “soul” flies from “this cold world” by falling into a chilly underground body of water! The seesaw effect causes us to laugh despite the sad fact that a young child has died in an unfortunate accident. Stephen’s immortal soul sits on one side of the seesaw, his corporeal body on the other. The weight of his body drives its side of the seesaw down causing his spirit to fly up to “sport aloft / In the realms of the good and great.”



If we again ignore the context the novel provides, Twain’s could, as many commentators suggest, simply be parodying the “poetry” of Julia A. Moore, whose collection The Sentimental Song Book, Wikipedia notes, “became a curious best-seller, though it is unclear whether this was due to public amusement with Moore’s poetry or genuine appreciation of the admittedly ‘sentimental’ character of her poems. It was the last gasp of that school of ‘obituary poetry’ that had been broadly popular in the U.S. throughout the mid-19th century.”

Twain, who was a great fan of awful poetry, said that Moore had a talent for making “an intentionally humorous episode pathetic and an intentionally pathetic one funny.” No doubt “Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d.” sounds a lot like Moore, and Twain did have great fun parodying her directly in one of his standalone poems.  But this poem is written by a fictional teenager, and Twain’s prose adds serious pathos, transforming it into a not quite totally comic poem.

After their raft is wrecked by a steamboat and he and Jim are separated, Huck swims ashore where he is taken in by the Grangerfords, a wealthy, aristocratic family that owned “a lot of farms” and more than 100 slaves. Huck describes them as “high-toned,” “well born,” “rich and grand.” He loves their “cooking” and admires their house which has “so much style.” They provide a new world for him culturally, and Twain devotes two chapters to Huck’s stay with the family.

Huck sleeps in the room of the Grangerfords deceased daughter, Emmeline, where he reads her poetry, views her art, and shares what he learns about her from her family and neighbors:

“This young girl kept a scrapbook when she was alive, and used to paste obituaries and accidents and cases of patient suffering in it out of the Presbyterian Observer, and write poetry after them out of her own head… Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her “tribute” before he was cold… The neighbors said it was the doctor first, then Emmeline, then the undertaker….

Huck assures us that Emmeline wrote “very good poetry” and offers “Stephen Dowling Bots Dec.d.” as proof. After we’ve had a chance to read the poem (and form our own conclusions) Huck bewails posterity’s loss of this poet: “If Emmeline Grangerford could make poetry like that before she was fourteen, he cries, “there ain’t no telling what she could a done by-and -by.” He also shares his feeling that Death has treated her unfairly:

“Poor Emmeline made poetry about all the dead people when she was
alive, and it didn’t seem right that there warn’t nobody to make some about her, now she was gone.”

Now, we know that Huck isn’t all that crazy about poetry. Exploring an anthology entitled Friendship’s Offering that belonged to Emmeline he explains that it was “full of beautiful stuff and poetry; but I didn’t read the poetry” [Italics mine.] It speaks to the generosity and sweetness of Huck that he tries to “sweat out a verse or two myself” in honor of Emmeline, “but couldn’t seem to make it go, somehow.” Huck is incapable of employing the hyperbolic language and sentiments that Emmeline so enjoyed. As he will famously say later when he refuses to turn Jim in to be sent back into slavery: “You can’t pray a lie.”



Emmeline was a visual artist as well as a poet. “These was all nice
pictures,” Huck says, “but I didn’t somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little, they always give me the fan-tods….”

“She was at work on what they said was her greatest picture when she took sick…. a picture of a young woman in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump off, with her hair all down her back, and looking up at the moon, with tears running down her face, and she had two arms folded across her breast, and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up towards the moon—and the idea was to see which pair would look best and then scratch out all the other arms… but she died before she got her mind made up.”

Our vision of this young girl, so obsessed with death; so committed to defusing its pain and ugliness by memorializing those dying all around her softens our critical faculties. We don’t expect mature poetry from a thirteen -year-old! But Emmeline is dedicated to her work and quite accomplished for her age—and who knows? Maybe Huck’s right that, had she lived, she might have put on the gloves with Emily Dickinson by the time she reached maturity (timewise, the two would have been near contemporaries).

By making Emmeline Grangerford a compelling character in a paradoxically cultured but violent Hatfield-McCoy-like family, Twain allows his poem to shimmer like those charms we used to find in cereal boxes where a dog suddenly becomes a cat, then a dog again with the slightest twist of our fingers: Comic / Tragic. Funny / Sad. Bathos / Pathos.

There’s certainly nothing funny about the death of Huck’s newfound
friend,  fourteen-year-old Buck Grangerford, brother of Emmeline. Stephen Dowling Bots does not die from metaphorical “sickness’ shots,” but Buck Grangerford dies from literal shots fired from rifles:

“The boys jumped for the river–both of them hurt–and as they swum down the current the men run along the bank shooting at them and singing out, “Kill them, kill them!” It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree…. I wished I hadn’t ever come ashore that night, to see such things. I ain’t ever going to get shut of them—lots of times I dream about them…. I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.”

Young Stephen Dowling Bots dies from via a careless accident. The girl who wrote a “tribute” to him sickens and dies, victim of an unnamed disease. And Buck Grangerford dies from a senseless feud, the origin of which most of the feuders cannot even remember.

Twain has wefted his comic poem into his novel, enriching it via his prose portrait of its author, Huck’s reaction to her, and to all that happens to Huck while he’s with this strange family. “Ode To Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d.” will always be good for a laugh, but, with Huck, we cannot but feel sympathy for Emmeline Grangerford. There is something almost valiant about her attempt to master both visual and verbal art; something deeply touching about her attempt to use both to come to terms with the reality of death.


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David Alpaugh ’s newest collection of poetry is Seeing the There There  (Word Galaxy Press, 2023). Alpaugh’s visual poems have been appearing monthly in Scene4 since February 2019. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a finalist for Poet Laureate of California. For more of his poetry, plays, and articles , check the Archives.

©2024 David Alpaugh
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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