2. Jersey Girl

Jersey Girl – what a fetching phrase! And, quite possibly a state of mind. However, its connotations are most certainly up for debate. You and I may have different opinions of what it means to be a Jersey Girl, and though the phrase has been evident in poetry throughout much of the state’s history, the definition has shifted and changed. An early example of this phrase is found in the poetry of J. Dunbar Hylton (1837-93). Hylton was an American poet during the Civil War who loved writing epic poems. His “My Jersey Girl” is a fine example of this style.

While today’s stereotypical Jersey Girl calls forth images of big, big hair and snug clothes, Hylton’s Jersey Girl is a classical beauty: “with ruby lips and teeth of pearl / And cheeks more fair than roses be . . . [and] waving curls of golden hue.”

The poem’s romantic language and delicate description of our Jersey Girl has a poignant Victorian feel, appropriately reflecting the high-class flair and politics of the then emerging New Jersey seaside resorts.

On the other hand, the romantic poem has geographical importance to South New Jersey as the sweep of the poem follows the current alongside the Pensauken River, today known as Pennsauken Creek, whose meandering path forms a natural boundary between Burlington and Camden County.

Hylton, J. Dunbar. “My Jersey Girl.” Above the Grave of John Odenswurge. New York: Howard Challen, 1884.

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Rev. Nathaniel Evans (1741-67) was both an Early American poet and clergyman. Born in Philadelphia, Evans first studied at William Smith’s Academy in Philadelphia (later to become the University of Pennsylvania), where he completed a M.A. in 1765. After graduation, he travelled to England to be ordained by the Bishop of London. Upon returning to America in the late 1760s, Evans was stationed in Gloucester County as a missionary of the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts. He held services in Gloucester and other small vicarages in New Jersey. During this time, he also acquired a significant group of followers who admired his poetry (evident by the large list of subscribers, filling several pages in Evans’ volume). The poem exhibited is “The Morning Invitation, to two young ladies at the Gloucester Spring.” In 1772, after the 26-year old Evans died of tuberculosis at his church in Haddonfield, William Smith edited and published this collection of Evans’ works.

Evans, Nathaniel. “The Morning Invitation, to Two Young Ladies at the Gloucester Spring.” Poems on Several Occasions, with Some Other Compositions. Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1772.

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Helen Ruggieri’s poem “Jersey Girl” is a reflection upon adolescent summers spent in South Jersey, paying homage to the area encompassing Wildwood from a perspective that could only belong to a Jersey girl. The poem describes the Wildwood boardwalk in a way that is instantly relatable for anyone who has experienced it firsthand. Ruggieri’s contemporary account contrasts with descriptions found in the other two poems on display, which date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her effortless portrayal of the sights, sounds, and smells of the boardwalk epitomizes the Wildwood experience. Ruggieri’s brief, yet vivid descriptions evoke salty air and gritty sand. The “plane waving me where to go” and “shell for my heart, calling the mambo, the cha cha cha,” eloquently describe an area often crowded with both patrons and possibilities.

Ruggieri, Helen. “Jersey Girl.” Under a Gull’s Wing: Poems and Photographs of the Jersey Shore. Eds. Rich Youmans and Frank Finale. Down The Shore, 1996.

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