IN that remote period of history which is especially visited upon us in our school-days, in expiation of the sins of our forefathers, there flourished seven poets at the court of Ptolemy Philadelphus. Royal favor and amiable dispositions united them in a club : public applause and self-appreciation led them to call it The Pleiades. In the middle of the sixteenth century, Pierre Ronsard, emulous of Greek fame, took to him six other poets more wretched than himself, and made up a second Pleiades for France. The third rising of this rhythmical constellation was seen in Connecticut a long time ago.
Connecticut is pleasant, with wooded hills and a beautiful river ; plenteous with tobacco and cheese ; fruitful of merchants, missionaries, sailors, peddlers, and singlewomen; — but there are no poets known to exist there, unless it be that well-paid band who write the rhymed puffs of cheap garments and cosmetics. The brisk little democratic State has turned its brains upon its machinery. Not a snug valley, with a few drops of water at the bottom of it, but rattles with the manufacture of notions, great and small, —axes and pistols, carriages and clocks, tin pans and toys, hats, garters, combs, buttons, and pins. You see that the enterprising natives can turn out any article on which a profit may be made, — except poetry. That product, you would say, was out of the question. Nevertheless, the species poet, although extinct, did once exist on that soil. The evidence is conclusive that palæozoic verse-makers wandered over those hills in bygone ages. Their moss-grown remains, still visible here and there, are as unmistakable as the footprints of the huge wading birds in the red sandstone of Middletown and Chatham. Où la poésie vat'elle se nicher ? How came the Muses to settle in Connecticut ?
Dr. Samuel Peters, in his trustworthy history of the Colony, gives no answer to this question ; but among the oldest inhabitants of remote Barkhamstead, for whom it is said General Washington and the worthies of his date still have a being in the flesh, there lingers a mythological tradition which may explain this aberration of Connecticut character. The legend runs thus.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, English readers were entertained with elaborate allegories, in which the passions, the vices, and even the habits of mankind were personified. Lighter ethical topics were served up in letters from Philotryphus, Septimius, or others ending in us, and in communications from Flirtilla, Jack Modish, and Co. Eastern tales and apologues, meditations on human life, essays on morality, inquiries as to whether the arts and sciences were serviceable or prejudicial to the human race, dissertations on the wisdom and virtue of the Chinese, were all the fashion in literature. The Genius of authorship, or the Demon, if you prefer it, was so precise, refined, exquisite in manner, and so transcendentally moral in ethics, that he had become almost insufferable to his master, Apollo. The God was a little tired, if the truth were known, with the monotonous chant of Pope, in spite of his wit. He began to think that something more was required to satisfy the soul than polished periods and abstract didactic morality, — and was not much surprised when he observed that Prior, after dining with Addison and Co., liked to finish the evening with a common soldier and his wife, and refresh his mind over a pipe and a pot of beer. But Pope was dead, and so was Thomson, and Goldsmith not yet heard from. There was a famine of literary invention in England. Out of work and wages for himself and his troupe, “disgusted at the age and clime, barren of every glorious theme,” Phœbus Apollo determined to emigrate. Berkeley had reported favorably of the new Western Continent : it was a land of poetical promise to the Bishop.
The rise of empire and of arts ;
The good and great inspiring epic rage,
The wisest heads and noblest hearts.”
Trusting in the judgment of a man who had every virtue under heaven, the God of Song shipped with the tuneful Nine for America. Owing, perhaps, to insufficiency of transportation, the Graces were left behind. The vessel sailed past Rhode Island in a fog, and disembarked its precious freight at New Haven, in the Colony of Connecticut. In the pleasant summer weather, the distinguished foreigners travelled northward as far as Litchfield Hill, and thence to Hartford, on the banks of the beautiful river. They found the land well wooded and well watered ; the natives good-natured, industrious, and intelligent : but the scenery was monotonous to the Pierian colonists, and the people distasteful. The clipped hair and penitential scowl of the men made heavy the hearts of the Muses ; their daughters and wives had a sharp, harsh, pert “tang” in their speech, that grated upon the ears of Apollo, who held with King Lear as to the excellence of a low, soft voice in woman. Each native seemed to the strangers sadly alike in looks, dress, manners, and pursuits, to every other native. Of Art they were absolutely ignorant. They built their temples on the same model as their barns. Poetry meant Psalms sung through their noses to the accompaniment of a bassviol. Of other musical instruments, they knew only the Jews-harp for home delectation, and the drum and fife for training-days. Doctrinal religion furnished them with a mental relaxation which supplied the place of amusement. Sandemanians, Adamites, Peterites, Bowlists, Davisonians, and Rogereens, though agreeing mainly in essentials, found vast gratification in playing against each other at theological dialectics. On one cardinal point of discipline only — the necessity of administering creature comfort to the sinful body — did all sects zealously unite. They offered copious, though coarse, libations to Bacchus, in the spirit-stirring rum of their native land.1
After careful observation, the nine ladies conferred together, and decided that in this part of the world their sphere of usefulness was limited and their mission a failure. Polymnia, Urania, and Clio might get into good society, but Thalia and Terpsichore were sure to be set in the stocks ; and what was poor Erato to expect, but a whipping, in a commonwealth that forbade its women to uncover their necks or to expose their arms above the wrists ? They made up their minds not to “locate ” ; packed up barbiton and phorminx, mask and cothurn, took the first ship bound to Europe, and quietly sailed away. Their stay was short, but they left their mark. To this day Phœbes are numerous in Connecticut, and nine women to one man has become the customary proportion of the sexes. As Greece had Parnassus, Helicon, and Pindus, Connecticut had New Haven, Hartford,and Litchfield Hill,—haltingplaces of the illustrious travellers. There they scattered the seeds of poetry,— seeds which fell upon stony places, but, warmed by the genial influence of the Sun-God, sprang up and brought forth such fruit as we shall see.
John Trumbull was born in Watertown, A. D. 1750 ; two years later, in Northampton, came Timothy Dwight: both of the best New England breed : Dwight, a grandson of Jonathan Edwards ; Trumbull, cousin to kind old Governor Trumbull, (whose pompous manner in transacting the most trifling public business amused Chastellux and the Hussar officers at Windham,) and consequently second cousin to the son of the Governor, Colonel John Trumbull, whose paintings might possibly have added to the amusement of the gay Frenchmen, had they stayed in America long enough to see them. Cowley, Milton, and Pope lisped in numbers ; but the precocity of Trumbull was even more surprising, He passed his college examination at the age of eight, in the lap of a Dr. Emmons ; but was remanded to the nursery to give his stature time to catch up with his acquirements. Dwight, too, was ready for college at eight, and was actually entered at thirteen.
About this time there were symptoms of an æsthetical thaw in Connecticut. There had been no such word as play in the dictionary of the New-Englanders. They worked hard on their stony soil, and read hard in their stony books of doctrine. That stimulant to the mind, outside of daily routine, which the human race must have under all circumstances, (we call it excitement nowadays,) was found by the better sort in theological quarrels, by the baser in New England rum, — the two things most cheering to the spirit of man, if Byron is to be believed. Education meant solid learning, — that is to say, studies bearing upon divinity, law, medicine, or merchandise ; and to peruse works of the imagination was considered an idle waste of time, —indeed, as partaking somewhat of the nature of sin. But the growing taste of Connecticut was no longer satisfied with Dr. Watts’s moral lyrics, whose jingle is still so instructive and pleasant to extreme youth. Milton and Dryden, Thomson and Pope, were read and admired ; “ The Spectator ” was quoted as the standard of style and of good manners ; and daring spirits even ventured upon Richardson’s novels and “ Tristram Shandy.”
While in this literary revival all Vale was anxious, young Dwight and Trumbull were indulging in hope. Smitten with the love of verse, Dwight announced his rising genius (these are the words of the “ Connecticut Magazine and New Haven Gazette”) by versions of two odes of Horace, and by “ America,” a poem after the manner of Pope’s “ Windsor Forest.” At the age of nineteen he invoked the venerable Muse who has been called in as the “ Poet s Lucina,” since Homer established her professional reputation, and dashed boldly at the epic, — “ the greatest work human nature is capable of.” His great work was “ The Conquest of Canaan.” Trumbull, more modest, wrote The Progress of Dulness,” in three cantos. To these young men of genius came later two other nurslings of the Muses, — David Humphreys from Derby, and Joel Barlow from Reading. They caught the poetical distemper. Barlow, fired by Dwight’s example, began “ The Vision of Columbus.” The four friends, young and hopeful, encouraging and praising each other, gained some local reputation by fugitive pieces in imitation of English models, published “ Spectator ” essays in the New Haven papers, and forestalled all cavillers by damning the critics after the method used by Dryden and Pope against Settle and Cibber.
Trumbull chose the law as a profession, and went to Boston to finish his studies in 1773. A clerk in the office of John Adams, who lodged with Cushing, Speaker of the Massachusetts House, could have read but little law in the midst of that political whirlwind which was driving men of every trade and profession into revolution. Boston stubbornly persevered in the resolution not to consume British goods, notwithstanding the efforts of the Addressers and Protesters and Tories generally, who preached their antiquated doctrines of passive obedience and divine right, and painted in their darkest colors the privation and suffering caused by the blockade. Trumbull joined the Whigs, pen in hand, and laid stoutly about him both in prose and verse. Then came the skirmish at Lexington, and all New England sprang to arms. Dwight joined the army as chaplain. Humphreys volunteered on Putnam’s staff. Barlow served in the ranks at the Battle of White Plains ; and then, after devoting his mind to theology for six weeks, accepted the position of chaplain in a Massachusetts regiment. The little knot of poets was broken up. One of them asked in mournful numbers, —
When meet again the Muses’ sons?”
They met again after the thunder and lightning were over, but in another place. New Haven saw the rising of the constellation ; its meridian brilliancy shone upon Hartford. At the close of the war, the four poetical luminaries. as they were called by the “ Connecticut Magazine and New Haven Gazette,” hung up the sword in Hartford and grasped the lyre. The epidemic of verse broke out again. The four added to their number Dr. Lemuel Hopkins, a physician, Richard Alsop, a gentleman of much cultivation, and Theodore Dwight, a younger brother of Timothy. There were now seven stars of the first magnitude. Many other aspirants to a place in the heavens were necessarily excluded ; among them, two are worthy of notice,— Noah Webster, who was already then and there meditating his method for teaching the American people to mispel, and Oliver Wolcott, afterward Secretary of the Treasury. Bound by the Sweet influences of the Pleiades, Wolcott wrote a poem,—“The Judgment of Paris.” His biographer, who has read it, has given his critical opinion that “ it would be much worse than Barlow’s epic, were it not much shorter.”
The year 1783 brought peace with England, but it found matters in a dangerous and unsettled state at home. After seven years of revolution it takes some time to bring a people down to the safe and sober jog-trot of every-day life. The lower classes were demoralized by the license and tumult of war, and by poverty ; they were surly and turbulent, and showed a disposition to shake off yokes domestic as well as foreign, — the yoke of taxation in particular : for every man of them believed that he had already done more, suffered more, and paid more, than his fair share. The calamity of a worthless paper legal-tender currency added to the general discontent. Hence any public measure involving further disbursements met with angry opposition. Large arrears of pay were due to soldiers, and bounties had been promised to induce them to disband peacefully, and to compensate them for the depreciation of the currency. Congress had also granted five years’ extra pay to officers, in lieu of the half-pay for life which was first voted. The army, in consequence, became very unpopular. A great clamor was raised against the Cincinnati Society, and factious patriots pretended to see in it the foundation of an hereditary aristocracy. The public irritability, excited by pretexts like these, broke out into violence. In Connecticut, mobs collected to prevent the army officers from receiving the certificates for the five years’ pay, and a convention was assembled to elect men pledged to nonpayment. Shay and Shattuck headed an insurrection in Massachusetts. There were riots at Exeter, in New Hampshire. When Shay’s band was defeated and driven out of the State, Rhode Island — then sometimes called Rogue’s Island, from her paper-money operations— refused to give up the refugee rebels. The times looked gloomy. The nation, relieved from the foreign pressure which had bound the Colonies together, seemed tumbling to pieces ; each State was an independent sovereignty, free to go to ruin in its own way. The necessity for a strong central government to replace English rule became evident to all judicious men ; for, as one Pelatiah Webster remarked, “ Thirteen staves, and ne’er a hoop, cannot make a barrel.” The Hartford Wits had fought out the war against King George ; they now took up the pen against King Mob, and placed themselves in rank with the friends of order, good government, and union. Hence the “Anarchiad.” An ancient epic on “ the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Blight” was dug up in the ruins of an old Indian fort, where Madoc, the mythical Welsh Columbus, or some of his descendants, had buried it. Colonel Humphreys, who had read the “Rolliad” in England, suggested the plan ; Barlow, Hopkins, and Trumbull joined with him in carrying it out. Extracts from the “ Anarchiad ” were prepared when wanted, and the verses applied fresh to the enfeebled body politic. They chanted the dangers and difficulties of the old Federation and the advantages of the new Constitution. Union was the burden of their song ; and they took a prophetic view of the stormy future, if thirteen independent States should divide this territory between them.
And broad Potomac lave two hostile shores ?
Must Alleghany’s sacred summits bear
The impious bulwarks of perpetual war?
His hundred streams receive your heroes slain,
And bear your sons inglorious to the main ? ”
We, miserrimi, have lived to see it, and to see modern Shayites vote to establish such a state of things forever.
When the new government was firmly settled and found to work well, the same class of men who had opposed the Union formed the Anti-Federal, Democratic, or French party. The Hartford school were Federalists, of course. Theodore Dwight and Alsop, assisted by Dr. Hopkins, published in the local papers “The Political Greenhouse” and “ The Echo,” — an imitation of “The AntiJacobin,” — “ to check the progress of false taste in writing, and to stem the torrent of Jacobinism in America and the hideous morality of revolutionary madness.” It was a place and time when, in the Hartford vocabulary,
and their versified squibs were let off at men rather than at measures. As a specimen of their mode of treatment, let us take Matthew Lyon, first an Irish redemptioner bought by a farmer in Derby, then an Anti-Federal champion and member of Congress from Vermont ; once famous for publishing Barlow’s letter to Senator Baldwin, — for his trial under the Alien and Sedition Act, — for the personal difficulty when
To avenge his wrongs.
And Griswold thus engaged.”
The Hartford poets notice him thus: —
Was purchased for a yoke of steers ;
But now the wise Vermonters say
He’s worth six hundred cents a day.”
Other leaders of the Anti-Federal party fare no better. Mr. Jefferson’s literary and scientific whims came in for a share of ridicule.
Historian of the Mingo chief;
Philosopher of Indians’ hair;
Inventor of a rocking-chair;
The correspondent of Mazzei,
And Banneker, less black than he,” et seq.
The paper containing this paragraph had the felicity of being quoted in Congress by the Honorable John Nicholas, of Virginia, to prove that Connecticut wished to lead the United States into a war with France. The honorable gentleman read on until he came to the passage, —
And sat as though on chestnut-burr,”
when he stopped short. Mr. Dana of Connecticut took up the quotation and finished it, to the great amusement of the House.
The last number was published in 1805. As we look over the “ Echo,” and find nothing in it but doggerel, — generally very dull doggerel, — we might wonder at the applause it obtained, if we did not recollect how fiercely the two great parties engaged each other. In a riot, any stick, stone, or ignoble fragment of household pottery is valuable as a missile weapon.
While the constellation was shining resplendent over Connecticut, each bright star had its own particular twinkle. Trumbull had his “ Progress of Dulness,” in three cantos,—an imitation, in manner, of Goldsmith’s “ Double Transformation.” The title is happy. The decline of Miss Harriet Simper from bellehood to an autumnal marriage, in Canto III., is more tiresome than the progress of Tom Brainless from the plough-tail to the pulpit, in Canto I. The Reverend Mr. Brainless, when called and settled, —
Deals forth the dulness of the day.”
These two lines, descriptive, unfortunately, of too many ministrations, are all that have survived of the three cantos. Trumbull’s chef d' œuvre is “ McFingal,” begun before the war and finished soon after the peace. The poem covers the whole Revolutionary period, from the Boston tea-party to the final humiliation of Great Britain : Lord North and General Gage, Hutchinson, Judge Oliver, and Treasurer Gray ; Doctors Sam. Peters and Seabury ; passive obedience and divine right ; no taxation without representation ; Rivington the printer, Massachusettensis, and Samuel Adams ; Yankee Doodle ; who began the war ? town-meetings, liberty-poles, mobs, tarring, feathering, and smoking Tories ; Tryon, Galloway, Burgoyne, Prescott, Guy Carleton ; paper-money, regulation, and tender ; in short, all the men and topics which preserve our polyphilosophohistorical societies from lethargic extinction. “ McFingal ” hit the taste of the times ; it was very successful. But although thirty editions were sold in shops or hawked about by peddlers, there was no copyright law in the land, and Trumbull took more praise than solid pudding by his poetry. It was reprinted in England, and found its way to France. The Marquis de Chastellux, an author himself, took an especial interest in American literature. He wrote to congratulate Trumbull upon his excellent poem, and took the opportunity to lay down “ the conditions prescribed for burlesque poetry.” “ These, Sir, you have happily seized and perfectly complied with. . . . . I believe that you have rifled every flower which that kind of poetry could offer. . . . . Nor do I hesitate to assure you that I prefer it to every work of the kind, —even to Hudibras.” Notwithstanding the opinion of the pompous Marquis, nobody reads “McFingal.” Time has blotted out most of the four cantos. There are left a few lines, often quoted by gentlemen of the press, and invariably ascribed to “ Hudibras ” : —
What stands before hint can espy ;
But optics sharp it needs, I ween,
To sec what is not to be seen.”
As oft to miss the mark they drive at,
And though well aimed at duck or plover,
Bear wide and kick their owners over,”
With good opinion of the law.”
The last two verses have passed into immortality as a proverb. Perhaps a few other grains of corn might be picked out of these hundred and seventy pages of chaff.
Dr. Dwight staked his fame on “The Conquest of Canaan,” an attempt to make an Iliad out of the Old Testament. Eleven books ; nine thousand six hundred and seventy-two dreary verses, full of battles and thunderstorms ; peopled with Irad, Jabin, Hanniel, Hezron, Zimri, and others like them, more colorless and shadowy than the brave Gyas and the brave Cloanthus. Not a line of this epic has survived. Shorter and much better is “Greenfield Hill,” a didactic poem, composed, the author said, to amuse and to instruct in economical, political, and moral sentiments. Greenfield was, for a time, the scene of the Doctor' s professional labors. His descriptions of New England character, of the prosperity and comfort of New England life, are accurate, but not vivid. The book is full of good sense, but there is little poetry in it. True to the literary instincts of the Pleiads, he shines with reflected light, and works after Thomson and Goldsmith so closely that in many passages imitation passes into parody.
Like Timotheus of Greece, Timothy of Connecticut
Could swell the soul to rage, or kindle soft desire.”
He wrote a war chant ; he wrote psalms ; and there is a song in the “ Litchfield Collection ” in which he attempts to kindle soft desire. Here is an extract : —
The promised scenes of bliss,
Nor idly give another day
The joys assigned to this.
Thy bashful virgin pride,” —
and so on sings the Doctor. Who would have thought that
Or Nestor play at pushpin with the boys,”
as Shakspeare has it ? who would have expected erotic tints and Epicurean morality from the author of “ The Conquest of Canaan,” and of four volumes of orthodox and weighty theology ?
The “ Ode to Columbia,”
The queen of the world and the child of the skies !”
written when Dwight was a chaplain in the Revolutionary Army, is probably more known to the moderns than any of his poetical efforts. It is a vision of the future greatness of the new-born nation, — short, spirited, and finished with more care than he was in the habit of giving to his verses.
In like manner the brave and burly Colonel
Sweetly he sang amid the clang of arms.”
At Washington’s head-quarters in Peekskill he composed “An Address to the Armies of the United States.” It was recited publicly in London, and translated by Chastellux into French prose. Three years later he published a poem on the “ Happiness of America,” which ran through ten editions. In it the gallant man-at-rhymes tells the story of his own campaigns : —
With what high chiefs I played my early part :
With Parsons first, whose eye with piercing ken
Reads through their hearts the characters of men.
Then how I aided in the following scene
Death-daring Putnam, then immortal Greene.
Then how great Washington my youth approved,
In rank preferred and as a parent loved ;
(For each fine feeling in his bosom blends, —
The first of heroes, sages, patriots, friends !)
With him what hours on warlike plans I spent
Beneath the shadow of th’ imperial tent ;
With him how oft I went the nightly round
Through moving hosts, or slept on tented ground ;
From him how oft (nor far below the first
In high behests and confidential trust,) —
From him how oft I bore the dread commands
Which destined for the fight the eager bands ;
With him how oft I passed th’ eventful day,
Rode by his side as down the long array
His awful voice the columns taught to form,
To point the thunders and to pour the storm.”
This extract will give a fair idea of the Colonel’s manner. A poem on “ The Future Glory of the United States of America,” another on “ The Industry of the United States of America,” and “ The Death of General Washington,” make up his credentials to a seat on the American Parnassus.
Joel Barlow, “ Virgilian Barlow,” is the most remarkable of the cluster. Pie started in the race of life with ten competitors of his own blood, and came in a successful adventurer in both hemispheres. After serving in the army with musket and prayer-book, he practised law, edited a newspaper, kept a book-shop, —and having exhausted the variety of callings offered by Connecticut, went to France as agent for the Scioto Land Company, and opened an office in Paris with a grand flourish of advertisements. “ Farms for sale on the banks of the Ohio, la belle rivière ; the finest district of the United States ! Healthful and delightful climate ; scarcely any frost in winter ; fertile soil ; a boundless inland navigation ; magnificent forests of a tree from which sugar flows ; excellent fishing and fowling; venison in abundance ; no wolves, lions, or tigers ; no taxes ; no military duty. All these unexampled advantages offered to colonists at five shillings the acre ! ” The speculation took well. Nothing was talked of but the free and rural life to be led on the banks of the Scioto. Brissot’s foolish book on America confirmed the promises of Barlow, and stimulated the ardor of purchasers.
The Scioto Company turned out to be a swindling land-company, the precursor of many that have resembled it. The lands they offered had been bought of the Ohio Company, but were never paid for. When the poor French barbers, fiddlers, and bakers, as they are called in a contemporary narrative, reached the banks of la belle rivière. they found that their title-deeds were good for nothing, and that the woods produced savages instead of sugar. Some died of privation, some were scalped, and some found their way to New Orleans. The few who remained eventually obtained a grant of a few acres from the Ohio Company, by paying for them over again.
In the mean time the French Revolution had broken out, and Barlow saw the visions and dreamed the dreams of the enthusiasts of that day. He dropped the land business, and he dropped his New England prejudices, religious as well as political, and his New England common sense. Connecticut men who wander into other lands and other opinions seem peculiarly subject to such violent transformations. Some of the most ignivorous of our Southern countrymen are the offspring of Connecticut ; and, strange as it may appear, the sober land of the pumpkin and onion exports more arbiters of elegance and punctilio, more judges without appeal of horses, wine, and beauty, more gentlemen of the most sensitive and demonstrative honor, than any other Northern State.
Inspired by the instincts of his race, Barlow fancied he saw the approach of a new era of perfection. To hasten its advent in England, he translated Volney’s “ Ruins,” and went to London to publish his translation. There he wrote his “Advice to the Privileged Classes,” a political pamphlet, and became an active member of the Constitution Society. The Society commissioned him as delegate to the French Convention, with an address of congratulation and a gift of a thousand pairs of shoes. The Convention rewarded him with the dignity of Citoyen Français. Barlow adopted the character, and carried it out. He sang at a supper a parody of “ God save the King,” composed by himself.
Tell all the world around
How Capet fell !
And when great George’s poll
Shall in the basket roll.
Let mercy then control
The Guillotine !
Till England’s King and Queen
Her power shall prove ;
When all the sceptred crew
Have paid their homage to
The Guillotine !”
A few years before, Barlow had dedicated the “ Vision of Columbus ” to poor Capet, whose destruction he celebrates so pleasantly, — with many assurances of the gratitude of America, and of his own veneration. “ Cælum, non animum” would never have been written, if Horace bad properly understood Connecticut character.
Barlow’s zeal was pleasing to the rulers of France. They sent him and the Abbé Grégoire to revolutionize Savoy, and to divide it into departments. After his return, he became rich by speculation, and lived handsomely in the Hôtel de Clermont-Tonnerre. His reputation extended to his own country. The United States employed him to negotiate with the Barbary pirates, — that is to say, to buy off the wretched cutthroats who infested the Mediterranean. He went to Africa, and made arrangements which were considered advantageous then, and would be hooted at as disgraceful now. In the treaty with Algiers occurred a passage that gave great offence to his friends at home, and to Federalists in general. It was to this effect, if not in these words : “ That the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
In 1805, after seventeen years of absence, Barlow returned to America, built himself a house near Washington, and called it Kalorama. Jefferson and the Democrats received him with open arms ; he embraced them with ecpial warmth, and was a very great man for some time. A new edition of the “ Columbiad ” completed his fame, — an edition gotten up at his own expense, with engravings by his friend Robert Fulton ; the paper, type, illustrations, and binding, far superior to anything as yet produced by American publishers. At the request of the President, Barlow went back to France as Minister, in the place of General Armstrong. It was the winter of the Russian campaign. A personal interview with the Emperor on the subject of the Berlin and Milan Decrees seemed necessary, and Barlow hurried to Wilna to meet him. The weather was unusually severe, the roads rough, and the accommodations wretched. Cold and exposure brought on a violent illness ; and Barlow expired in a miserable hut near Cracow.
The “ Columbiad ” is an enlargement, or rather a dilution, of the “ Vision of Columbus,” by the addition of some two thousand verses. The epic opens with Columbus in prison ; to him enters Hesper, an angel. The angel leads Columbus to the Mount of Vision, whence he beholds the panorama of the Western Continent he had discovered. Hesper acts as showman, and explains the tableaux as they roll on. He points out the geographical features of America, not forgetting Connecticut River ; relates the history of Mexico and of Peru, and explains the origin of races, cautioning Columbus against the theory of several Adams. Turning north, he describes the settlement of the English colonics, and narrates the old French War of General Wolfe and the American Revolution, with the customary episodes, — Saratoga, Yorktown, Major André, Miss McCrea, and the prison-ships. Finally, the angel predicts the glory of the world’s future, — perpetual peace, unrestricted commerce, public works, health and longevity, one universal language. The globe, “one confederate, independent sway,” shall
One central system, one all-ruling soul,
Live through the parts, and regulate the whole.”
There is evidently no room for the serpent Secession in Barlow’s paradise. This grand federation of the terrestrial ball is governed by a general council of elderly married men, “ long rows of reverend sires sublime,” presided over by a “ sire elect shining in peerless grandeur.” The delegates hold their sessions in Mesopotamia, within a “sacred mansion ” of high architectural pretensions.
Tall rolumns heave, and sky-like arches bend ;
Bright o’er the golden roof the glittering spires
Far in the concave meet the solar fires ;
Four blazing fronts, with gates unfolding high,
Look with immortal splendor round the sky.”
In the spacious court of the capitol of the world stands the statue of the Genius of Earth, holding Truth’s mighty mirror in his hand. On the pedestal are carved the noblest arts of man. Beneath the footstool of the Genius,
The mask of priesthood and the mace of kings,
Lie trampled in the dust ; for here, at last,
Fraud, folly, error, all their emblems cast.
Each envoy here unloads his weary hand
Of some old idol from his native land.
One flings a pagod on the mingled heap ;
One lays a crescent, one a cross to sleep ;
Swords, sceptres, mitres, crowns and globes and stars,
Codes of false fame and stimulants to wars,
Sink in the settling mass. Since guile began,
These are the agents of the woes of man.”
It will be observed that Barlow improved slightly upon the old loyalist cry, “ Une loi, un roi, une foi.” One government, one reverend sire elect, and no religion, was his theory of the future of mankind.
Few men in these degenerate days have the endurance to read the “ Columbiad ” through ; but “ Hasty Pudding,” which Barlow celebrated inverse as good sound republican diet, may be read with some pleasure. It belongs to the same class of poems as Philips’s “ Cider,” Dyers “ Fleece,” and Grainger’s “ Sugar-Cane,” and is quite as good as most of them.
There is little to be said about Alsop. He was a scholarly gentleman, who published a few mild versions from the Italian and the Scandinavian, and a poem on the “ Memory of Washington,” and was considerate enough not to publish a poem on the “ Charms of Fancy,” which still exists, we believe, in manuscript. In some verses extracted from it by the editors of the “ Cyclopædia of American Literature ” we recognize with interest that traveller of the future who is to moralize over the ruins of the present, — known to all readers as Macaulay’s NewZealander, although Goldsmith, Kirke White, and others had already introduced him to the public. Alsop brings this Wandering Jew of literature from Nootka Sound to gaze on “many a shattered pile and broken stone,” where “fair Bostonia,” “York’s proud emporium,” or Philadelphia, “ caught the admiring gaze.”
The wild-eyed, excitable Dr. Hopkins had more vigor and originality than his brother stars. There is much rough humor in his burlesque of the essay of Brackenridge of Pittsburg on the Indian War: —
One single thought on Indians e’er bestowed ;
To them his care extends, or even knew,
Before Columbus told him, where they grew” ;
and in his epitaph on the “Victim of a Cancer Quack ” : —
Southeast a little of his nose,
Which daily reddened and grew bigger,
As too much drinking gave it vigor ” ;
and in the “ Hypocrite’s Hope ” : —
To saintship him betakes ;
And when too soon his child shall come,
A long confession makes" ;
and in the squib on Ethan Allen’s infidel book : —
His tushes broke by biting nails,
Appears in hyperborean skies,
To tell the world the Bible lies.”
Dr. Hopkins published very little ; he might be excused, if he had written more.
Addison said, he never yet knew an author who had not his admirers. The Connecticut authors were no exception to this rule. To begin with, they admired themselves, and they admired one another ; each played squire to his gifted friend, and sounded the trumpet of his fame. It was, “See! Trumbull leads the train,” or “the ardent throng ” ; “Trumbull ! earliest boast of Fame” ; “ Lo ! Trumbull wakes the lyre.”
In bright accordance wit and fancy reign ;
Whose powers of genius in their ample range
Comprise each subject and each tuneful change,
Each charm of melody to Phœbus dear,
The grave, the gay, the tender, the severe.”
Barlow is “a Child of Genius”; Columbus owes much of his glory to him.
With added splendor great Columbus shines.”
Then we have “Majestic Dwight, sublime in epic strain ” ; “ Blest Dwight ” ; Dwight of “ Homeric fire.” Colonel Humphreys is fully up to the regulation standard: —
See Humphreys glorious from the field retire,
Sheathe the glad sword and string the sounding lyre.”
Dwight thought “ McFingal ” much superior to “Hudibras”; and Hopkinson, the author of “ Hail Columbia,” mentions, as a melancholy instance of æsthetic hallucination, that Secretary Wolcott, whose taste in literature was otherwise good, had an excessive admiration for “ The Conquest of Canaan.” A general chorus of neighbors and friends rose in the columns of the “ Connecticut Magazine and New Haven Gazette ” :—“ It is with a noble and patriotic pride that America boasts of her Barlow, Dwight, Trumbull, and Humphreys, the poetical luminaries of Connecticut”; and all true New-Englanders preferred their home-made verses to the best imported article. The fame of the Seven extended into the neighboring States ; Boston, not yet the Athens of America, confessed “ that Pegasus was not backed by better horsemen from any part of the Union.” But the glory grew fainter as the distance increased from the centre of illumination. In New York, praise was qualified. The Rev. Samuel Miller of that city, who published in 1800 “A Brief Retrospect of the Literature of the Eighteenth Century,” calls Mr. Trumbull a respectable poet, thinks that Dr. Dwight’s “Greenfield Hill” is entitled to considerable praise, and finds much poetic merit in Mr. Barlow’s “ Vision ” ; but he closes the chapter sadly, with a touch of Johnson’s vigor : — “ The annals of American literature are short and simple. The history of poverty is usually neither very various nor very interesting.” Farther South the voice of the scoffer was heard. Mr. Robert Morris ventured to say in the Assembly of Pennsylvania, that America had not as yet produced a good poet. Great surprise and indignation, when this speech reached the eyes of the Connecticut men ! Morris might understand banking, but in taste he was absurdly deficient. No poets ! What did he call John Trumbull of Hartford, and Joel Barlow, author of “ The Vision of Columbus ” ? “ We appeal to the bar of taste, whether the writings of the poets now living in Connecticut are not equal to anything which the present age can produce in the English language.”
Cowper showed excellent sense when he wrote, —“ Wherever else I am accounted dull, let me at least pass for a genius at Olney.” The Hartford Wits passed for geniuses in Connecticut, which is better, as far as the genius is concerned, than any extent or duration of posthumous fame. Let their shades, then, be satisfied with the good things in the way of praise they received in their lives ; for between us and them there is fixed a great gulf of oblivion, into which Time, the merciless critic from whose judgment there is no appeal, has tumbled their works.
In 1793, a volume of “American Poems, Selected and Original,” was published in Litchfield by subscription. A second volume was promised, if the first met with “ that success which the value of the poems it contained seemed to warrant ” ; but no second volume appeared. When Hopkins died, in 1801, the constellation was sinking fast to the horizon ; a few years later it had set, and only elderly inhabitants remembered when the Down-Eastern sky was made bright by it. Barlow’s magnificent edition revived the recollection for a time, and the old defiant cry was raised again, that the “ Columbiad ” was comparable, not to say superior, to any poem that had appeared in Europe since the independence of the United States, But English reviewers refused to chime in. Their critical remarks were not flattering, although merciful as compared with the jeers of the “ Edinburgh ” at Byron’s “ Hours of Idleness,” or the angry abuse with which the earlier productions of the Lake School were received. Nevertheless, Paulding, Ingersoll, and Walsh, indignant, sprang to their quills, and attacked the prejudiced British with the argumentum ad hominem, England’s “ sores and blotches,” etc. ; the argumentum Tu quoque, “ We ‘re as good a poet as you are, and a better, too ” ; and, lastly, pleaded minority in bar of adverse criticism, “ We are a young nation,” and so on. This was to yield the point. If a young nation necessarily writes verses similar in quality to those of very young persons, it would always be proper to take Uncle Toby’s advice, “and say no more about it.” Deaf to Walsh’s “ Appeal,” and to Inchiquin’s “Letters,” Sydney Smith, as late as January, 1820, asked, in the “ Edinburgh,” that wellknown and stinging question, “ In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book ? ” Even at home, “ Hesper ” and “ The Mount of Vision ” soon faded out of sight. At that time, 18081810, readers of verse had, not to mention Cowper, “ The Lay of the Last Minstrel” and “ Marmion,” “Gertrude of Wyoming,” “ Thalaba,” Moore’s “ Anacreon,” and two volumes by William Wordsworth, — poems with which the American producer was unable to compete. In 1820 Samuel G. Goodrich of Hartford published a complete edition of Trumbull’s works in two volumes, the type large and the paper excellent,— with a portrait of the author, and good engravings of McFingal in the Cellar, and of Abijah Mann bearing the Town Resolves of Marshfield to Boston. The sale did not repay the outlay. When Trumbull died, in 1831, he was as completely forgotten as any Revolutionary colonel or captain.
Humphreys once feeling, that, in spite of all his struggles, he was not doing much, exclaimed, —
He did not see the reason why: his soul had not much to say. This was the trouble with them all. There was not a spark of genuine poetic fire in the Seven. They sang without an ear for music; they strewed their pages with faded artificial flowers which they mistook for Nature, and endeavored to overcome sterility of imagination and want of passion by veneering with mag niloquent epithets. They padded their ill-favored Muse, belaced and beruffle ! her, and covered her with garments stiffened with tawdry embroidery to hide her leanness ; they overpowdered and overrouged to give her the beauty Providence had refused. I say their Muse, but they had no Muse of their own ; they imported an inferior one from England, and tried her in every style, — Pope’s and Dryden’s, Goldsmith’s and Gray’s, and never rose above a poor imitation ; producing something which looked like a model, but lacked its flavor : wooden poetry, in short, — a genuine product of the soil.
Judging from their allusions to themselves, no one of the Seven mistrusted his own poetical powers or the gifts of his colleagues. They seem to have died in their error, unrepentant, in the comfortable hope of an hereafter of fame. Their works have faded out of sight like an unfinished photograph. It was a sad waste of human endeavor, a profitless employment of labor, unusual in Connecticut.2
But, although thus “wrecked upon the rock of rhyme,” these bards of Connecticut were not mere waste-paper of mankind, as Franklin sneeringly called our poets, but sensible, well-educated gentlemen of good English stock, of the best social position, and industrious in their business ; for Alsop was the only one who “ left no calling for the idle trade.” Hopkins stood at the head of his profession. Dwight was beloved and respected as minister, legislator, theologian, and President of Yale College. Trumbull was a member of the State Legislature, State’s Attorney, and Judge of the Supreme Court. Humphreys served on Washington’s staff, received a sword from Congress for his gallantry at Yorktown, was Secretary of Legation at Paris, Minister to Portugal and Spain, and introduced merino sheep into New England. Barlow, as we have already seen, was Ambassador to France at the time of His death. All of these, except Trumbull, had borne arms, and did not throw away their shields like Archilochus and Horace. They were sincere patriots, who honestly predicted a future of boundless progress in wealth, science, religion, and virtue for the United States, — the exemplar of liberty and justice to the world, “ surpassing all nations that have ever existed, in magnitude, felicity, and duration.” And on the other hand, every one of them believed in the decline and impending fall of their old enemy, Great Britain. Barlow’s “ Hesper ” even hints that a Columbus from New England may one day rediscover the Old World.
After the peace, when the closer union of the States under one general government was proposed, the Hartford Wits worked hard to argue down and to laugh down the bitter and absurd opposition which sprang up. That great question was settled definitively by the adoption of the new Constitution, and another took its place : How is this document to be interpreted ? The Hartford men, excepting, of course, Joel Barlow, the Lost Pleiad of the group, whose head had been turned by the bewildering theories of his French fellow-citizens, were warmly in favor of administering the new government on Federal principles. Were not the Federalists right ? More than thirty years ago, De Tocqueville pronounced in their favor ; De Witt, in his recent essay on Jefferson, comes to the same decision : both observers who have no party-feelings nor class-prejudices to mislead them. And have not the last few years given us all light enough to see that abstractly, as statesmen, the Federal leaders were right? As politicians, in the degraded American sense of the word, they were unskilful ; they accelerated the downfall of their party by injudicious measures and by petty rivalries. But although their ruin might have been adjourned. it could not have been avoided ; we now know that their fate was inevitable. The democracy must have run over them and trodden them out by the sheer brute force of numbers ; no superiority in wisdom or in virtue could have saved them long.
In those hot and angry days a mania politica raged among the inhabitants of the United States. One could no longer recognize the sensible people who had fought the British stoutly for seven years, without the slightest idea that they were struggling for anything more than independence of foreign rule. Thomas Paine and Joel Barlow, graduates of the great French Revolution University, had come to teach them the new jargon : the virtue and wisdom of the people ; the natural rights of man ; the natural propensity ot rulers and priests to ignore them ; and other similar high-sounding words, the shibboleth and the mainstay of the Democratic party to this day. The AntiFederalists were as much pleased to learn that they had been contending for these beautiful phrases as was Monsieur Jourdain when told he had been speaking de la prose all his life. They assumed the title of Citizen, invented that of Citess to please strong-minded sisters, and became as crazy as Monsieur Jourdain when invested with the dignity of Mamamouchi. They proclaimed that the government of the United States, like all other governments, was naturally hostile to the rights of the people ; France was their only hope ; if the leagued despotisms succeeded against her, they would soon send their engines of destruction among them. They planted trees of liberty, and danced about them, and sang the Carmagnole with variations from Yankee Doodle ; they offered their lives for liberty, which was in no danger, not even from their follies ; and swore destruction to tyrants, as if that unpopular class of persons existed in the United States. They were the people, — the wise, the pure, — who could do no wrong. The Federalists were aristocrats, monocrats, — lovers of court ceremonies and levees, chariots and servants and plate. The distinguished chief of the French party, whose “heart was a perpetual bleeding fountain of philanthropy,” was not above pretending to believe that his opponents were striving to “ establish the hell of monarchy” in this republican paradise, and were “ ready to surrender the commerce of the country, and almost every privilege as a free, sovereign, and independent nation, to the British.” Even such a man as Samuel Adams, at a dinner on board of a French frigate, could put the bonnet rouge on his venerable head, and pray that “ France alone might rule the seas.”
The New-Englanders laughed at the charge of monarchical predilections, so absurdly inconsistent with their history, their laws, habits, and feelings. Before the war, leading men in other Colonies had affected to dread their levelling propensities ; and General Charles Lee had said of them, with some truth, that they were the only Americans who had a single republican qualification or idea. Freedom was an old fireside acquaintance ; they knew that the dishevelled, hysterical creature the Gallo-Democrats worshipped was a delusion, and feared she might prove a snare. Their common sense taught them to pay little attention to a priori disquisitions on natural rights, social compacts, etc.,— metaphysics of politics, nugatory for all practical American purposes, — and to reject as ridiculous the promised millennium of supreme reason and perfected man. From a long experience in the management of public affairs, they learned that our new government was in danger from its weakness rather than from its strength ; hence they rejected the fatal doctrine of State rights, the root of the greatest political evil, Secession. In the theories and in the measures of the Democrats, in the very absurdity of the accusations made against themselves, they thought they perceived a reckless purpose to relax authority for the sake of popularity, which would lead to mob-rule, more distasteful to the orderly Yankee than any other form of tyranny. Moreover, in the Eastern States most of the AntiFederalists belonged to the lowest class of society; and, not content with urging their pernicious public policy, the more turbulent of the party showed a strong inclination to adopt French principles in religion and morals, as well as in government. Robespierre had announced pompously, “ L' Atheisme est aristocratique.” New England Federalists thought it democratic on this side of the ocean. If they must choose between the Tri-Color and the Cross of St. George, they preferred the Cross. There was no guillotine in Great Britain,— no capering about plaster statues of the Goddess of Reason ; people read their Bibles, went to church, and respected the holy sacrament of matrimony. But they wished for neither a France nor an England ; they desired to make an America after their own hearts, — religious, just, orderly, and industrious ; they believed that on the Federalist plan such a nation could be built up, and on no other ; they opposed Jeffersonian politics then as they oppose Jeffersonian - Davis politics now, and they were as heartily abused then as they have been since, and as foolishly.
It must be confessed that the Hartford Wits did ample injustice to their antagonists. Mr. Jefferson was certainly not an Avatar of the enemy of mankind, nor were his followers atheists, anarchists, and rogues. But in 1790 there were no shabbier Democrats than those of Connecticut. If we may judge of the old race by a few surviving specimens, we may pardon our poets, if they added contempt to theoretical disapprobation, and, in their eagerness to
allowed their feelings to exaggerate the unpleasant traits of the master and of his disciples.
The Hartford men were on the losing side. Federalism expired with the election of Monroe. Its degenerate successor, Whiggism, had no principles of value, and only lagged in the rear of the Democratic advance. Statesmanship and good sense went hopelessly down before the discipline of party and the hunger for office ; and with each year it became easier to catch a wellmeaning, but short-sighted public in any trap baited with the usual ad captandum commonplaces. We are very frequently told that “ History is philosophy teaching by example,”—one of those copy-book apophthegms which people love to repeat as if they contained important truth. But the teachings of history or of philosophy never reach the ears of the multitude ; they are drowned by the din of selfish rogues or of blind enthusiasts. Poor stupid humanity goes round and round like a mill-horse in a dreary ring of political follies. The cast-off sophisms and rhetorical rubbish of a past generation are patched up, scoured, and offered to the credulous present as something novel and excellent. People do not know how often the rotten stuff has been used and thrown away, and accept it readily. After a while, they discover to their cost, as their ancestors did before them, that it is good for nothing. But even if it were possible to have a grand international patent-office for political devices, where the venerable machines, so often reinvented to break down again, could be labelled worthless, and exhibited to all the world, I fear that the newest pet demagogue would persuade the voters of his district, in spite of their eyes, that he had contrived an improvement to make some one of the rickety old things work. No wonder that Dr. Franklin lost patience, when he saw how sadly reason was perverted by ignorance, selfishness, and wickedness, and wished “ that mankind had never been endowed with a reasoning faculty, since they know so little how to make use of it, and so often mislead themselves by it, and that they had been furnished with a good sensible instinct instead of it.”
Connecticut should be proud of her poets : not as literary luminaries of the first magnitude, but as manly citizens, who sincerely loved justice, order, selfcontrol,— in two words, genuine freedom ; as cultivated gentlemen, who belonged to a class no longer numerous.
Still meets unmoved the blasts of Fate.”
Unmoved, indeed, as in Federal times, but suffering sadly from depletion. The great West and the city of New York have sucked her best blood. There still remain inventive machinists, acute money-changers, acutest peddlers ; but the seed of the Muses has run out. No more Pleiades at Hartford; no three “ mighties,” like Hosmer, Ellsworth, and Johnson ; no lawyers of infinite wit, like Tracy and Daggett ; no Wolcotts or Shermans : but the small State can boast that she has still within her borders many sons full of the spirit shown by Comfort Sage and by Return Jonathan Meigs, when they marched for Boston at the head of their companies as soon as the news of Lexington reached Connecticut.
- It may interest temperance men to learn that somewhat later than the period alluded to above, Connecticut paid excise on 400,000 gallons of rum yearly, —about two gallons to each inhabitant, young and old, male and female.↩
- Philip Freneau, whose Jacobin newspaper was despised by all good Federalists, wrote better verses than the All Connecticut Seven. His “Indian Burying-Ground “ is worthy of a place in an anthology. This stanza has often been ascribed to Campbell ; it is as good as any one in Schiller’s “ Nadowessie DeathLament,”—↩
- “By midnight moons, o’er glistening dews,
In vestments for the chase arrayed,
The hunter still the deer pursues ;
The hunter and the deer a shade.”↩