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Biography of Ethel Lynn Eliot Beers

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Ethel Lynn Eliot Beers. Goshen’s Sweet Singer, Mrs. Ethel Lynn Eliot Beers, who wrote under the nom de plume, of “Ethel Lynn,” was born at Goshen, Orange County, N. Y., in 1825 and died at Orange, N. J., in 1879. Mrs. Beers who was a woman of rare literary gifts, was a frequent contributor to the leading periodicals of her time.

Perhaps her best known poem is “All Quiet Along the Potomac,” written during the civil war, which attracted wide attention, and occupies a permanent place in standard poetical literature.

“All Quiet Along the Potomac” was first published in Harper’s Weekly of November 30, 1861. The phrase, “All Quiet Along the Potomac,” was a familiar one in the Fall of that year, and in the indifferent announcement that was one day added, “A Picket Shot,” the author found the inspiration of her poem.

This celebrated poem when first published bore only the initials “E. B.,” and as it went floating around in the great sea of journalism, numerous aspirants for literary fame, who were not over scrupulous in their methods of obtaining it, grasped the opportunity of playing the role of literary pirates in their ambitious desire to have their names handed down to posterity as poetical celebrities, in the vain hope of thus achieving enduring literary fame.

Mrs. Beers, in an explanatory note in her volume of collected poems entitled “All Quiet Along the Potomac and Other Poems,” published by Porter & Coates, Philadelphia, (1879,) gives the history of this poem along with the amusing incidents connected with its publication and the various claims of those who sought to establish themselves as its author. She says:

“In the Fall of 1861, `All Quiet Along the Potomac’ was a familiar heading of all war dispatches. So, when this poem appeared in Harper’s Weekly of Nov. 30, it was quickly republished in almost every journal in the land. As it bore only the initials `E. B.,’ the poem soon became only a nameless waif and was attributed to various pens.

“The London Times copied it as having been written by a Confederate soldier and found in his pocket after death. (It seems to have been a dangerous thing; to copy it, as it has so often been found in dead men’s pockets.) An American newspaper quoted it, saying that it was written by a private soldier in the United States service and sent home to his wife. This statement was met by another asserting that it was written by Fitz-James O’Brien. As the soul of that true poet and gallant soldier had gone out through a ragged battle rift won at Ball’s Bluff, this was un-contradicted until an editorial paragraph appeared in Harper’s Weekly, July 4, 1863, saying that it had been written for that paper by a lady contributor.

“It appeared in a volume of `War Poetry of the South,’ edited by William Gilmore Sims, as a Southern production, and was set to music by a Richmond music publisher in 1864, with `Words by Lamar Fontaine,’ on its title page. A soldier cousin, who went with Sherman to the sea, found in a deserted printing office at Fayetteville, a paper containing a two column article on the poem, with all the circumstances under which `Lamar Fontaine composed it while on picket duty.

“It appeared in the earlier editions of Bryant’s `Library of Poetry and Song,’ over Mrs. ‘Howland’s name, which was afterwards corrected by Mr. Bryant. “Within the last year a Mr. Thaddeus Oliver claims its authorship for his deceased father, being no doubt misled by a wrong date, as he fixes an earlier time than its first appearance in Harper’s Weekly.

“I have been at some pains to gather up these dates and names as one of the curiosities of newspaper waif life. To those who know me, my simple assertion that I wrote the poem is sufficient, but to set right any who may care to know, I refer to the columns of the old ledger at Harper’s, on whose pages I saw but the other day, the business form of acceptance of, and payment for, `The Picket Guard, among other publications.

“Fortunately I have two credible witnesses to the time and circumstances of its writing. A lovely lady sitting opposite me at the boarding house table, looked up from her morning paper at breakfast time to say, `All Quiet Along the Potomac, as usual,’ and I, taking up the next line, answered, `except a poor picket shot.’

“After breakfast it still haunted me, and with my paper across the end of my sewing machine, I wrote the whole poem before noon, making but one change in copying it, reading it aloud to ask a boy’s judgment in referring to two different endings, and adopting the one he chose. Nothing was ever more vivid or real to me than the pictures I had conjured up of the picket’s lonely walk and swift summons, or the waiting wife and children. A short sojourn in Washington had made me quite familiar with the routine of war time and soldier life. The popularity of the poem was, perhaps, due more to the pathos of the subject than to any inherent quality.


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