Parsons, Thomas William, 1819-1892

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Parsons was an American poet and translator of Dante's works.

From the description of Papers, 1836-1942. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 122505741

American poet and translator of Dante.

From the description of Papers of Thomas William Parsons [manuscript] 1854-1873. (University of Virginia). WorldCat record id: 647934406

Thomas William Parsons was born and lived his life in Boston, with the exception of time spent on extended journeys to Italy and England. After studying Italian literature in Italy, he returned to Boston and became a dentist. He published several books of poetry, and translations of Dante.

From the description of Thomas William Parsons letter and poem, ca. 1850. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 52159143

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873, APS 1843) was a zoologist and geologist. A student of Georges Cuvier, Agassiz was renown for his six-volume work Poissons fossils, a study of more than 1,700 ancient fish. Equally important was his Ètudes sur les glaciers (1840). In 1845 Agassiz moved to the United States on a two-year study grant from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to compare the flora and fauna of the United States and Europe. While in the United States he was invited to deliver a course of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston. He took America and New England by storm and as a result in 1847 was appointed professor of zoology and geology at Harvard’s new Lawrence Scientific School.

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in Motier, Switzerland on May 26, 1807, the son of a Protestant minister Rodolphe Agassiz and his wife Rose Mayor. Despite family pressure to enter business, Agassiz early decided to devote himself to the study of nature. At the age of twenty-one he predicted that he would become “the first naturalist of his time, a good citizen and a good son.” His determination gained Agassiz an excellent education in the natural sciences at the Universities of Heidelberg and Munich. He also made important contacts in early life that formed his outlook and provided the basis for his early career. The naturalist Johann B. Spix allowed him to publish on a collection of fish from Brazil that Spix had gathered, while the anatomist Ignaz Döllinger trained him to use the microscope and introduced him to the field of embryology. Philosophically, Agassiz was influenced by the German idealism of Lorenz Okenfuss, who built a system of biological classification based upon increasing complexity of sense organs. Agassiz’s scientific thought and practice was characterized by two separate and often contradictory outlooks. One was exact and pragmatic; the other was transcendental. His approach was clearly influenced by French zoologist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier, who passed on to Agassiz his remarkable collection of fossil fish illustrations. He also impressed the geographer Alexander Humboldt, an adviser to the king of Prussia who arranged an appointment for him at the Collège de Neuchâtel in 1832, where he taught natural history for more than ten years. During these years (1832-42) he studied fossil fish in museums and private collections throughout Europe, resulting in his six-volume Poissons fossils that described more than 1,700 primeval fish, that he analyzed according to Cuvier’s comparative method. The work, which won high praise from major Bristish naturalists Sir Charles Lyell and Richard Owen, provided the basis for Agassiz’s scientific fame and fortune. His natural philosophy was infused with the belief in an all-powerful diety, who planned and created every single living being, plant and animal, undercutting any genetic connection between ancient and modern creatures.

In addition to his work on fish, between 1837 and 1843 Agassiz did ground breaking work on glacial geology, presented in a paper presented to the Sociètè Helvétique des Sciences naturelles (July 1837) and in his book Etudes sur les glaciers in which he theorized that a massive glacier had once covered all of Europe. Although the idea had first been suggested by Swiss naturalist Jean de Charpentier, Agassiz was the first to publicize the idea and to apply it to all of Europe. A prolific writer, who wished to be personally involved with the production of his works, Agassiz developed a publishing house in Neuchâtel, that employed the latest technology in photo duplication and produced bibliographies, dictionaries and monographs by Agassiz and his assistants. In the spring of 1845 Agassiz’s fortunes abruptly shifted. His wife Cécile Braun Agassiz left her husband and Neuchâtel, his printing business closed due to accumulated debts, and he was forced to leave the Collège de Neuchâtel. Just as his luck seemed to run out, he received word of a 2-year grant secured for him by Humboldt from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia for $3,000 to do a comparative study of the flora and fauna of the United States and Europe.

Shortly after the arrival of Agassiz in the United States, John Amory Lowell, manufacturer and head of the Lowell Institute in Boston, invited him to deliver a course of public lectures. New Englanders found the Swiss naturalist, who spoke enthusiastically about primitive fish and prehistoric glaciers, intriguing. New England scientific luminaries such as Harvard botanist Asa Gray and Yale chemist Benjamin Silliman lauded Agassiz as “full of knowledge on all subjects of science.” His lectures created such a demand for speaking engagements, that within less than two years Agassiz was able to repay $20,000 in European debt. In the fall of 1847 Harvard University offered him a chair of zoology and geology at its newly established Lawrence Scientic School. In July 1848, after his wife’s death, he arranged for his children to join him in the United States. These events, together with his 1850 marriage to a bright well-connected Bostonian Elizabeth Cabot Carey, sixteen years Agassiz’s junior, permanently anchored the Swiss scientist in America. Soon afterward Agassiz’s home in Cambridge became a center of intellectual life. As a Harvard professor he badgered the University continually for funds to build a major natural history museum to instruct the public and help to train advanced students. His efforts paid off in November 1859, when the Museum of Comparative Zoology opened its doors. The Museum provided a unique resource for American students to gain unrestricted, first hand access to natural specimens. Many practicing American naturalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were trained by Agassiz and worked in his museum. The Museum testified to Agassiz’s passion for collecting and identifying the “entire natural kingdom all at once,” a desire that quickly filled the repository to overflowing with specimens. From a philosophical perspective Agassiz planned the Museum as a demonstration of the “master plan” that the diety had executed in the creation of the natural world, displaying the “type plan” of different classes and stressing the separate creation of each species. Agassiz’s core belief in the special creation of species by God undergirded his quest to locate new species. However, some colleagues criticized him as “species mad,” arguing that his museum and his methods added little to the conceptual understanding of natural history.

Agassiz’s reputation took a major hit in a series of Boston debates on evolution, after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Agassiz made a poor defense of special creation against Darwin’s defenders Asa Gray and William Barton Rogers. Furthermore, Agassiz’s understanding of special creationism as applied to human beings led him to view various races as distinct species, a rationale quickly adopted by the proponents slavery, who asserted a scientific basis to white supremecy.

Concerned about the decline of his professional reputation in the 1850s, in 1855 Agassiz announced the forthcoming publication of a projected ten-volume entitled Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of America. A total of 2,500 subscribers made advanced purchases at $12.00 each. The initial volume entitled Essay on Classification elaborated Agassiz’s views on classification, the philosophy of nature and the species concept. Appearing two years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, the work drew mixed reviews. Many were put off by the author’s dogmatism, others thought his views dated and moribund. Three more volumes appeared, but the publication of the projected set was never completed.

Many years later in 1872 Agassiz did reconsider evolution, trying to understand Darwin’s views by making a trip around South America, retracing Darwin’s voyage. However, he only became more convinced that the concept of evolution was “a scientific mistake, untrue to the facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency.” To the dismay of the scientific community Agassiz authored strident attacks on Darwinism in the popular press, infuriating Asa Gray and James Dana. Consequently, Agassiz was increasingly excluded from the politics of American science.

Agassiz remained at Harvard University until the end of his life. When he died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was deeply mourned by his adopted country.

From the guide to the Louis Jean Rodolph Agassiz papers, 1833-1873, 1833-1873 1833-1873, (American Philosophical Society)

Thomas William Parsons (1819-1892) was a dentist, a poet, and translator of Dante's works. His early education was at the Boston Latin School though he did not graduate. In 1836 he visited Italy where he studied Italian literature and translated the first ten cantos of Dante's Inferno . He returned to Boston in 1837 and studied dentistry at the Harvard Medical School (though he did not receive a degree) and then practiced dentistry in Boston. In 1853 Harvard College granted him an honorary A.M. degree. In 1857 he married Anna (or Hannah) M. Allen (1821-1881). After 1872 he engaged in only literary pursuits chiefly in Boston, Scituate, and Wayland.

Parsons is known especially for his translation of Dante. In 1843 he printed anonymously the earliest published American translation of any considerable portion of Dante: The first ten cantos of the Inferno of Dante Alighieri: Newly translated into English verse. Boston: W.D. Ticknor (private printing), 1843. In later years he published the entire Inferno (1867), about two-thirds of the Purgatorio, and others. His most frequently quoted poem is "On a bust of Dante." It is said that Parsons served as the model for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "the Poet" in his Tales of a Wayside Inn .

From the guide to the Papers, 1836-1942., (Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Wendell Phillips papers, 1555-1882 (inclusive) 1833-1881 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn James Russell Lowell papers, 1835-1919. Houghton Library
referencedIn Oliver Wendell Holmes letters from various correspondents, 1891-1892. Houghton Library
creatorOf Parsons, Thomas William, 1819-1892. Newspaper clippings on Daniel Webster [184-?-1882?, n.p.]. Dartmouth College Library
referencedIn Ralph Waldo Emerson letters from various correspondents, ca. 1814-1882. Houghton Library
referencedIn Charles Sumner correspondence, 1829-1874. Houghton Library
referencedIn Oliver Wendell Holmes letters from various correspondents, 1820-1894 Houghton Library
referencedIn Charles Eliot Norton papers, ca.1845-1908. Houghton Library
referencedIn Parsons, Anna. Letter of Anna Parsons, to "Miss Rotch" [manuscript] ca. 1875 Dec. 24. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Letters to Charles Eliot Norton and other papers, 1702-1952. Houghton Library
creatorOf Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321. The first ten cantos of the Inferno of Dante Alighieri : manuscript, 1864. Harvard University, Houghton Library
creatorOf Parsons, Thomas William, 1819-1892. Papers of Thomas William Parsons [manuscript] 1854-1873. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Parsons, Thomas William, 1819-1892. Letter, 1854 April 18 [n.p.], to George Ticknor [n.p.]. Dartmouth College Library
referencedIn Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873. Papers, 1833-1873. American Philosophical Society Library
creatorOf Keach, Leon, b. 1854. Martial ode : written for the Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company by Thomas William Parsons : music by Leon Keach : manuscript, 1888. Harvard University, Houghton Library
referencedIn William Warland Clapp correspondence, 1790-1891 (inclusive), 1840-1891 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn Autograph File, M, 1648-1985. Houghton Library
creatorOf Keach, Leon, b. 1854. Ode, Ancient of days : by Thomas W. Parsons : music by Leon Keach : manuscript, [1888] Harvard University, Houghton Library
creatorOf Parsons, Thomas William, 1819-1892,. Autograph letter signed from T.W. Parsons, Boston, to Mr. Ball [manuscript], 1891 February 9. Folger Shakespeare Library
creatorOf Parsons, Thomas William, 1819-1892. The Willey house : poem, [n.d.], [New Hampshire?]. Brown University, John Hay Library
referencedIn James Russell Lowell additional papers, 1736-1951. Houghton Library
referencedIn James Russell Lowell miscellaneous correspondence, 1839-1891. Houghton Library
referencedIn Houghton Library. Houghton Library printed book provenance file, L-Q. 1942. Houghton Library
referencedIn Autograph File, P, 1554-2005. Houghton Library
referencedIn William Dean Howells additional papers, 1874-1943. Houghton Library
creatorOf Parsons, Thomas William, 1819-1892. Dirge for one who fell in battle : autograph copy of the poem. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn Portrait file: Guide. Houghton Library
creatorOf Burnett, Frances Hodgson, 1849-1924. Manuscript poems by Longfellow, Lowell, Emerson, Holmes, Thoreau, Whittier Bryant, Aldrich and other famous American poets [manuscript], 1857-1905. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Parsons, Thomas William, 1819-1892. Papers, 1836-1942. Harvard University, Houghton Library
creatorOf Henry, O., 1862-1910. Autograph file, P, 1554-2005. Harvard University, Houghton Library
referencedIn Fields, James Thomas, 1817-1881. Yesterdays with authors, extra-illustrated. Houghton Library
referencedIn Papers, 1836-1942. Houghton Library
creatorOf Sigourney, L. H. (Lydia Howard), 1791-1865. Permit the fleeting thoughts that grow, Return of the parents, The loss of the Birkenhead, My country, 4 holograph poems : and letters to Mr. O. Sullivan, ed. of Democratic review, Messrs. Carey & Hart, Mr. Griswold, Professor Silliman, Hartford, May 29, 1834, Mr. Wadsworth, March 3, 1848, Ticknor & Fields, publishers, Hartford, Oct. 16, 1854, Mrs. S. C. Hall, and Messrs. Carey, Lea, and Carey, Hartford, March 15, 1828, Sarah Josepha Hale, at Sea, Aug. 10, 1840, and Mr. Burgess, Sept. 27, letter from Dr. Tyler, East Windsor Hill, Dec. 3, 1857, Miss Harriet Jane Grey, Hartford, Conn., 1833, engraved portrait. University of Wisconsin - Madison, General Library System
referencedIn Aeger, William L. Letter, 1885 May 12, Boston. Brown University, John Hay Library
referencedIn Thomas Bailey Aldrich papers, 1837-1926. Houghton Library
creatorOf Louis Jean Rodolph Agassiz papers, 1833-1873, 1833-1873 1833-1873 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Mark Anthony De Wolfe Howe additional papers, 1880-1959 Houghton Library
referencedIn Monti, Luigi. Thomas William Parsons death mask [art original], 1892. Harvard University, Houghton Library
referencedIn Letters from various correspondents, 1871-1940. Houghton Library
creatorOf Papers, 1836-1942. Houghton Library
creatorOf Parsons, Thomas William, 1819-1892. Thomas William Parsons letter and poem, ca. 1850. Pennsylvania State University Libraries
referencedIn Dana, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1881-1950. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana letters [manuscript], 1940, n.d. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Letters to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 1761-1904. Harvard University, Houghton Library
referencedIn Miscellaneous compositions, 1848-1891. Houghton Library
creatorOf Lowell, James Russell, 1819-1891. James Russell Lowell papers, 1835-1919. Harvard University, Houghton Library
referencedIn Houghton Mifflin Company contracts, 1831-1979 (inclusive) 1880-1940 (bulk). Houghton Library
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Place Name Admin Code Country
Mineralogy--Research--United States
Poets, American--19th century--Correspondence
American poetry--19th century
Geology--Research--United States
Science and technology
Fossils--Collection and preservation
Natural history
American literature--19th century
Authors and publishers
Scientific expeditions
Zoological museums--Massachusetts
Natural history museums--Massachusetts


Birth 1819-08-18

Death 1892-09-03





Ark ID: w6hh6r58

SNAC ID: 58885409