The Iron Pen

May 01, 2013 Posted by: David Daly

 A pen made with wood from the USS Constitution and semiprecious stones from Maine, Russia and Sri Lanka, given to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1879.

On the center table in Henry W. Longfellow's study is a pen, presented to him in 1879 by a young woman from Bangor, Maine. The pen is remarkable not only for the materials with which it was constructed, but also for the fact that it inspired Longfellow to compose a poem about it.

The pen consists of a wooden shaft, and a gold nib holder with three stones set into it. The wood is from a piece of the USS Constitution, on which Longfellow's uncles Henry Wadsworth and Alexander S. Wadsworth both served. The gold nib holder incorporates a piece of iron alleged to be from a castle prison at Chillon, Switzerland, made famous by Lord Byron's 1816 poem The Prisoner of Chillon. The three stones set into the gold are a phenakite crystal from Russia, a yellow zircon from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and a red tourmaline from Maine. 

The pen was presented to Longfellow by then eighteen-year old Helen Hamlin of Bangor, Maine. Helen was the grand-niece of former U.S. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, and her grandfather Elijah was credited with discovering the mineral tourmaline in Maine in 1820. Henry W. Longfellow had a connection to the Hamlin family that long predated the presentation of this pen though; in the 1830s Hannibal Hamlin's son Cyrus was one of Longfellow's students while Henry was a professor at Bowdoin College.  

Longfellow's appreciation of the gift, and its giver, led him to write a poem titled The Iron Pen, in which Ms. Hamlin was referred to as "the beautiful Helen of Maine". Longfellow sent the poem along with a letter of thanks to Ms. Hamlin. A longer version of the poem was published in the December 1879 issue of Harper's magazine, and in 1880 it was included in Ultima Thule, the last of Longfellow's works to be published during his life.


Last updated: February 6, 2015

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