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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

IX. The Beginnings of Verse, 1610–1808

§ 10. The Long Poems of the Eighteenth Century

During the whole of the eighteenth century the long poem, didactic, descriptive, and philosophic, flourished in England, and during the latter half of the same century its imitative progeny flourished in America. There could be no justification for cataloguing these imitative efforts, since not one of them still lives in our literature, and very few of them show any distinctive American traits. In the main, their method, their ideas, their imagery are as English as those of their prototypes, their heroic couplet is that of Pope or Goldsmith; their blank verse is that of Thomson or Young.

The tide set in with imitations of Pomfret, whose Choice (1700) appeared in at least four editions in America between 1751 and 1792. In 1747 William Livingston, who was to become the famous governor of New Jersey, expressed his ideal of existence in a direct imitation of Pomfret which he called Philosophic Solitude, or the Choice of a Rural Life. Ten years later a second imitation of Pomfret followed in The Choice by Dr. Benjamin Church of Boston, who longs for a home in the country, the right kind of wife, congenial friends, and leisure to read his favourite poets—Milton, Dryden, Gay, “awful Pope, unequalled bard,” and “nature-limning Thomson.” Though dwelling in a small American town, he sighs for solitude as longingly as he might have done in the midst of a world capital. Livingston and Church are half a century late in their sporadic imitations; and for a while Americans were simply catching up with almost a hundred years of English didactic poetry; but after the tide once turned, about the middle of the century, imitation was much more prompt and general and, after the Revolution, immediate and universal.

Goldsmith reached Americans almost at once, and appeared in nine editions between 1768 and 1791. His numerous imitators are all alike in using his method, his style, and even his very subject-matter. Among imitations of The Deserted Village may be mentioned Thomas Coombe’s Peasant of Auburn (1775), which contains lines fine enough to save it from oblivion. Imitations of Thomson’s Seasons began to appear soon after the first American edition was published in 1777, increased in number with the five successive editions up to 1792, and continued through at least the first decade of the nineteenth century. To read one of these is to know all, with their very fair verse, and their conventional and generalized descriptions of scenery that might as well be English as American. It is interesting to note, however, that the native element in our descriptive verse grows more pronounced in the decade preceding the first work of Bryant. The form is still that of Thomson, but the poet has at last opened his eyes to the distinctive beauty of American nature. In his Descriptive Poems (1802) John D. McKinnon wrote of the Hudson and the Mohawk Rivers and our own October landscape, as well as of

  • th’ illimitable plain
  • Depastured by erratic buffaloes;
  • and some “Untaught Bard,” writing under the influence of both Thomson and Young, in his Spring clearly foretells the coming of Thanatopsis. John Hayes, professor at Dickinson College, in the 2500 lines of blank verse of his Rural Poems (1807) celebrates American birds and flowers in spite of his imitation of Milton and Thomson. Still more interesting in this respect is The Foresters (1804) of the ornithologist Alexander Wilson, a poem in 2200 lines of heroic couplets which tell the story of a journey through New York and Pennsylvania to Niagara Falls. Wilson is a scientist rather than a poet, but he sees nature sympathetically and gives what he sees in a simple and direct style. At last the poet writes with his eye on American nature and not on conventional descriptions by English poets.