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

§ 11. Timothy Dwight

The one poem that sums up all the direct imitations of Goldsmith, and Thomson, and of Denham, Milton, Pope, and Beattie as well, is Greenfield Hill. Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, at the age of nineteen graduated from Yale, where he then became a tutor. In 1777–1778 he served as chaplain in the army, and varied his duties by writing patriotic songs for the soldiers. In 1783 he became pastor of the church at Greenfield, Connecticut, and in 1795 was made president of Yale. He was the first of our great college presidents, and as theologian, scholar, patriot, and writer was one of the eminent personalities of his time. As a poet he belongs to a group of writers who during the last two decades of the eighteenth century formed a literary centre at New Haven and Hartford. The chief “Hartford Wits” were Timothy Dwight, John Trumbull, Joel Barlow, David Humphreys, Richard Alsop, Lemuel Hopkins, and Theodore Dwight, a brother of Timothy, all either graduates of Yale or associated with that college. Their contemporary reputation was immense. Dwight, Barlow, and Humphreys, indeed, were practical men of affairs, and all were more or less versatile. But the reading public looked upon them as geniuses; and Freneau was the only poet aside from the Hartford group who was ever mentioned in connection with them. Yet even as they were issuing their declaration of literary independence, they were in every line betraying their dependence upon English poetic style, ideas, and imagery. Their more ambitious and laboured poems, including almost all those by Dwight, Barlow, and Humphreys, are to the modern reader the least successful. Their best work, which they themselves and the public took less seriously, is in the form of satire, and was mainly written, singly or in collaboration, by Trumbull, Theodore Dwight, Alsop, and Hopkins. Yet the work of the “Hartford Wits” in fostering poetry in a period of political and social struggle and change deserves grateful recognition from the student of American literature.

Timothy Dwight’s Greenfield Hill is a medley of echoes. The poet stands upon a hill in his Connecticut parish, and, like his English predecessors, describes the view, paints the social conditions of the country, recounts its history, and prophesies its future. The 4300 lines of the poem are divided into seven parts, written variously in heroic couplet, Spenserian stanza, blank verse, and octosyllabics. The poet’s desire “to contribute to the innocent amusement of his countrymen and to their improvement in manners and in economic, political, and moral sentiments” results in a history, guide-book, and treatise on manners, morals, and government, but not in a poem. To say that Greenfield Hill is made to order and is inspired by morality and patriotism, is to state the genesis of all the serious work of the Hartford group.

Outrageously long poems on æsthetic subjects were rife in America toward the close of the century. At a time when society and politics were in a state of upheaval, when neither the domestic nor the foreign policy of the country had been settled, and when consequently there was so much of native interest to write about, it is incongruous to find so many poems suggested by Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination and Brooke’s Universal Beauty. Richard Alsop’s Charms of Fancy in all its 2300 lines of heroic couplets contains not a fresh image or an original idea; but The Powers of Genius by John Blair Linn is at least the work of a man of taste and scholarship and compares favourably with all but the very best of its British counterparts. The extreme of dulness and futility is reached in the many poems on philosophy and religion for which Pope and Young were largely responsible. Somewhat stronger and more interesting than most of these is Timothy Dwight’s Triumph of Infidelity, which purports to be a satire, and which with irony and abuse rather than logic attempts to refute the arguments of the eighteenth century “infidels,” Voltaire included. Biblical paraphrases, too, multiplied after the Revolution, and appeared in large numbers between 1780 and 1810. These are supplemented by epics on biblical themes, the most celebrated of which is again the work of the indefatigable Timothy Dwight, written by the time he was twenty-two, but published when he was thirty-three and should have known better. The Conquest of Canaan (1785), in ten thousand lines of heroic couplets, owes its style to Pope’s Homer and much of its method and imagery to Virgil and Milton. The epic as a whole is what might be expected when the poet’s purpose is “to represent such manners as are removed from the peculiarities of any age or country, and might belong to the amiable and virtuous of any period, elevated without design, refined without ceremony, elegant without fashion, and agreeable because they are ornamented with sincerity, dignity, and religion.” Into the heroic biblical narrative are woven the loves of Irad and Selima and of Iram and Mira, who take their evening strolls through the lanes and meadows of Connecticut. Though intolerably verbose, the poem contains purple passages which lift it to the level of the average eighteenth-century epic and which perhaps led Cowper to review it favourably. With a noble disregard of congruity, The Conquest of Canaan is, withal, distinctly patriotic, with its union of “Canaan and Connecticut” and its allusions to contemporary persons and events.