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

§ 12. Political verse

The third period of early American verse, which begins with 1765 and ends with 1808, is characterized by two remarkably coincident phenomena, one political, the other æsthetic. One of these is the beginning of the nationalism that produced our early patriotic poems and satires, and is marked by the passage of the Stamp Act. The other, also beginning about 1765, is the wholesale importation and reprinting of English poetry which worked with the growth of native culture to produce a great quantity of verse all more or less imitative of English models and largely independent of political conditions. All the poems of this period, whether springing from political or from purely æsthetic influences, are most conveniently treated under their various genres without regard to individual writers, though one poet, Philip Freneau, demands separate consideration.

The first ballad springing from American soil recounts a battle fought in 1725 between whites and Indians near Lovewell’s Pond in Maine. Composed at the time of the event, it was for generations preserved only by word of mouth, and was not published for almost a century. Though unliterary, it tells its story with vigour and directness, and is of additional interest in that Longfellow in 1820 chose the same fight as the subject of his first poem, The Battle of Lovell’s Pond.

Many fugitive verses on the French and Indian War were published anonymously in the newspapers, the best of which are perhaps The Song of Braddock’s Men, and the lines on Wolfe—

  • Thy merits, Wolfe, transcend all human praise.
  • Anti-British ballads began to appear immediately upon the passage of the Stamp Act, to continue until the close of the Revolution. These spring from the heat of the conflict, and are as replete with patriotism as they are deficient in literary merit. Yet they admirably fulfilled their purpose of arousing public spirit, and many of them were known and sung everywhere. John Dickinson’s Patriot’s Appeal, which begins
  • Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
  • By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall,
  • gave rise to a parody which was in turn parodied in the famous Massachusetts Liberty Song. Almost equally popular were John Mason’s Liberty’s Call, Thomas Paine’s Liberty Tree, and Timothy Dwight’s Columbia, with its refrain
  • Columbia, Columbia, to glory arise,
  • The queen of the world and the child of the skies.
  • But the one ballad that shows a spark of poetry is Nathan Hale, which commemorates the capture and death of the young American spy. It opens with a promise that is scarcely sustained throughout the poem:
  • The breezes went steadily thro the tall pines,
  • A saying “Oh! hu-sh,” a saying “Oh! hu-sh,”
  • As stilly stole by a bold legion of horse,
  • For Hale in the bush, for Hale in the bush.
  • Best known of the purely humorous ballads is Francis Hopkinson’s Battle of the Kegs (1778), which tells of the alarm felt by the British over some kegs that the Americans had charged with powder and had set floating in the Delaware River.

    The hundreds of patriotic ballads, songs, and odes that appeared after the Revolution, though more ambitious and “literary,” seem less spontaneous and sincere than the earlier verse, which called a nation to arms; and for all their flaunting of the stars and stripes, they leave the reader cold. Scarcely a poet who wrote between 1780 and 1807 failed to compose at least one such poem; but, it is safe to say, the only patriotic ballads of permanent merit written between 1725 and 1807 are the sea poems of Freneau.

    The longer American patriotic poems of the later eighteenth century may take the form of narratives of battle, of personal eulogies, or, perhaps most characteristically, of philosophic statements of what today is called “Americanism.” They increase in number toward the close of the century, when the air was full of American principles and ideals, and finally, in spite of their imitative style, they become in spirit at least a distinctive product without exact parallel in England. The best of them express a national aspiration that can still appeal to the patriotic reader. There is little of all this, however, in the early outbursts evoked by the French and Indian War, when the poets were generally loyal to Great Britain. On the accession of George the Third in 1761 the faculty and graduates of Harvard published a curious volume of congratulatory poems entitled Pietas et Gratulatio Collegii Cantabrigiensis Apud Nov-Anglos. The volume of one hundred and six pages includes thirty-one poems, three of which are in Greek, sixteen in Latin, and twelve in English. The poems in English are in the form of irregular odes or heroic couplets stilted and commonplace in subject and style. The modern reader may find amusement in such loyal lines as

  • Bourbons to humble Brunswicks were ordained:
  • Those mankind’s rights destroyed, but these regained.
  • But the patriotic poem was soon to transfer its allegiance. A truly remarkable quantity of narrative verse tells the story of the Revolution and celebrates its civil and military leaders. Almost everyone who wrote verse in America after the Revolution produced an ode or an epic to vindicate his patriotism. Literature was now democratic; nothing was needed but inspiration, and the air was full of that. Far above the average is the rather fine Eulogium on Major-General Joseph Warren, written by “A Columbian”; but the vast majority of these historic and eulogistic narratives serve but to exemplify the heights of patriotism and the depths of bathos. The elaborate and laboured elegies on Washington are as numerous and as futile as might be expected. The finest eulogy on Washington was written prior to his death by Dr. Benjamin Young Prime in a pindaric ode of 1400 lines entitled Columbia’s Glory, or British Pride Humbled, which, in spite of its conventional form and style and lack of imagination, contains passages of admirable rhetoric.