Who Wrote “Rock Me to Sleep”? Elizabeth Akers Allen and the Profession of Poetry
Duke University Press
Modern Language Quarterly
Nineteenth-century reading practices (which involved the copying, memorizing, and unauthorized circulation of verses) blurred the line between readers and writers, vexing the very idea that a poem could have an owner. In 1867 a notorious attribution scandal pitted the established writer Elizabeth Akers Allen against an unhinged upstart, Alexander M. W. Ball, who claimed to have written her poem “Rock Me to Sleep.” A close examination of their dispute raises broad questions about the value of poetry, both in the rapidly professionalizing world of later nineteenth-century America and, implicitly, in the more recent milieu of the Internet. Are some poets professionals, even if poetry does not pay? Who owns the poem, the writer or the reader? Does the writer own every version of the poem, or only the original? What, if anything, distinguishes professionals from amateurs, writers from readers, and originals from copies?