Falvey Library’s Distinctive Collections has a new acquisition to our Dime Novel and Popular Literature Collection just in time for Halloween! Vanity fair, v. 1, no. 1, December 31, 1859 contains a spooky poem about poison and pharmacies.
“The Modern Mithridates.”
The poem opens with a plea for breakfast. It quickly becomes apparent that it is not sustenance that the narrator requires, but poison.
O! bring my breakfast—give to me
Bread that is snowy and light of weight—
Of alum and bone-dust let it be,
Chalk, and ammonia’s carbonate :
Within the poem, the narrator references Hydromel, the ancient Roman word for mead from the Latin hydro (meaning water) and mel (honey, the main ingredient of mead). The following line calls for assistance from the ancient pharmacologist Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus (fl. 1st century BCE) who was known for his mythical remedy Mithridate, which was thought to be a powerful antidote to many illnesses.
Bring sugar, and sweeten the potion well—
Sugar of lead, and iron, and sand,
Sweet as honey of Hydromel
Or the Pressure of Mithridates’ hand!
The poem concludes with a witty twist—that all of the poisonous chemicals and minerals named in the poem can be found at your local grocery store.
Ha! you start! you think that I
Being a man of mortal clay,
After my meal will surely die,
For these are deadly poisons, you say :
Poisons? yes! Yet one and all
Are found on every grocer’s shelves
Our bills of mortality are not small,
—But how can we help ourselves?
The author, George Arnold (d. 1834 – 1865) was an American poet and regular contributor to Vanity Fair. A contemporary of Walt Whitman, Arnold was born in New York City and was known to frequent one of Whitman’s local haunts—Pfaff’s beer cellar.
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