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Rhymes With Reason & Without

BP Shillaber

BP Shillaber was born in Portsmouth and went on to become one of the nation's most beloved writers in the guise of the comic Mrs. Partington. Here are bits from his first book of poetry -- An old printing press found in the basement begins to talk. A parody of Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven. The tale of "Bloody Nck" on the Piscataqua. And the tale of a dying "consumptive".



FOUR POEMS from Rhymes With Reason & Without (1854)
(Click for quick access)

The Old Printer
Mysterious Rappings
Ballad of the Piscataqua (Bloody Point)
The Consumptive

Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber (1814-1890) consistently appears in early anthologies of American humor. "BP" was best known for his creation of the lovable, ditzy literary character Mrs. Partington, prone to Malapropisms. Examining her first daguerreotype, Mrs. Partington noted, for example, that the "phismahogany" in the portrait had excellent "cemetery". Shillaber published the collected writings and sayings of Mrs. Partington in 1854 and listed himself as her editor. Mrs. P’s mischievous grandson Ike is considered by some, the forerunner to bad boy Tom Bailey, by another Portsmouth writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich . His "Story of a Bad Boy" was then a prototype for Mark Twain’s "Tom Sawyer ".

Mrs. P was among the most quoted "women" of the 19th century. Mark Twain was so taken by her, that he copied her likeness exactly when portraying Aunt Polly in his "Adventures of Mark Twain." I’m convinced, after staring at the picture, that BP Shillaber actually posed for the famous illustration of Mrs. Partington – but that’s another story.

Shillaber lived in Portsmouth for only 16 years, then worked on a newspaper in Dover before moving to Boston at age 18. In a way, Mrs. Partington’s humor was a reflection of Shillaber’s early New Hampshire country innocence which he managed to retain while living and working the rest of his life in the big city. Asked how she liked the bustle of Boston, Mrs. Partington once replied that they were hard to wear and kept slipping out of place. Shillaber published five books in which Mrs. Partington appears. Details of his life in Portsmouth are scarce, but Shillaber often wrote about Portsmouth in his poetry.

Shillaber’s boyhood home no longer stands in Portsmouth, It was a little shack of a building that, according to an 1850 map of Portsmouth was just off McDonough Street down by the old Steam Factory near the railroad track on the North Mill Pond. It is gone now. Another historic house lost to progress, we assume.

Gone too is the reputation of old BP, except in scholarly journals on the study of early vernacular writing. Shillaber was editor of a Boston weekly newspaper called The Carpet Bag and was among the first to publish and encourage Twain’s comic writing.

Admittedly, Shillaber was no Twain, but he had a comic view that might, in another time, have made him a writer on Saturday Night Live. Among the following poems is Shillaber’s clever parody of "The Raven" published just a few years after it was released by Edgar Allan Poe. – JDR

Sources: Rhymes With Reason and Without by BP Shillaber, 1854 and Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber by John Q. Reed, Twayne’s United States Author Series, 1972.

READ ALSO: Blood on the Snow in Portsmouth
READ ALSO: The Ballad of Frenchman's Lane


Photo of BP courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum/
Introduction copyright © 2003 All rights reserved

CONTINUE TO "The Old Printer" & More Poems

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