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

§ 14. Joel Barlow

No other member of the Hartford group, indeed no other man of letters of his time, lived a life so active and varied as Joel Barlow (1754–1812). After his graduation from Yale, he served as chaplain in the army, and in 1781 married and settled in Hartford as lawyer and editor. His philosophic poem The Vision of Columbus, published in 1787, was read and admired in France and England. Barlow later went to France as agent of the notorious Scioto Land Company, apparently in ignorance of its fraudulent character. In Paris he became a strong partisan of democracy, and for several years divided his time between France and England, writing political pamphlets and books, and making a fortune through commerce and speculation. While resident in Savoy in 1792, he wrote what is certainly his most original and enduring poem and also one of the best pieces of humorous verse in our early literature. Hasty Pudding is a mock-heroic of the conventional eighteenth-century type, in four hundred lines of heroic couplets. Its three cantos describe the making of the famous New England dish, the eating of it, and the traits that render it delectable and worthy of eulogy. The pastoral scenes are native, not imitated, the diction is simple and natural, and the humour, though rather thin, is sufficiently amusing. Barlow rendered valuable service to his native land in 1795, when he went to Algiers and secured the release of American prisoners; and again in 1798 when he helped to avert war between France and America. He returned home in 1805, and two years later published his Columbiad. He again served his country well in 1811, when he was sent by President Madison as an envoy to Europe; but in journeying to meet Napoleon he was caught in the retreat from Moscow, and died and was buried in Poland. Though democrats in America celebrated his memory, he perhaps has never had justice done him as a patriot and typical American.

When The Vision of Columbus was published in 1787 it suited the taste of the time, and its author was hailed as a genius, not only by his fellow Hartford Wits but also by the public at large. Its subject and style gave it a reputation that it could not have attained even a decade later. Barlow was misled by his temporary success into the fatal error of expanding the 4700 lines into the 8350 lines of The Columbiad. But when the latter appeared in 1807, it failed to please the very public that had welcomed its predecessor. Its failure was due less to the changes in the poem than to the development of public taste during the poet’s absence in Europe. Pope’s dominance had been successfully contested, and the long philosophic poem itself was in its decline. Barlow’s failure was all the more striking on account of his very audacity. His Vision of Columbus was simply a philosophic poem; his Columbiad was avowedly an epic, meant to have a vaster theme, a more refined style, and a higher moral purpose than Homer’s. The Columbiad, however, remains merely a “geographical, historical, political, and philosophical disquisition.” To Columbus, as he lies sick and in prison, there appears Hesper, the genius of the western world, and, with the purpose of setting forth all that Columbus and America have contributed to the welfare of the world, reviews the state of Europe in the middle ages, the voyages of discovery, conquests, and colonisation, and the war of the Revolution, with references to contemporary persons and events. He concludes with a prophecy of the future glories of America. This literary dragnet has drawn into itself nothing delicate or tender and little that is truly human, for such qualities are not compatible with its forced sublimity and its declamatory and gaudy rhetoric. To the worst vices of the conventional poetic diction, Barlow in a painful effort to achieve the grandiose, has added vile phrases of his own peculiar coinage. And yet, hidden away among these thousands of lines of laboured rhetoric, are passages really fine and free in both conception and execution. Atlas, genius of Africa, prophesies to Hesper the ruin that must follow American slavery. In the chaos

  • His own bald eagle skims alone the sky,
  • Darts from all points of heaven her searching eye,
  • Kens thro the gloom her ancient rock of rest,
  • And finds her cavern’d crag, her solitary nest.
  • The most vigorous poems produced in America between 1765 and 1807 were the numberless satires that marked every stage of the fight with England and of the internal strife between Whigs and Tories and, later, between Republicans and Federalists. Hudibras, The Dunciad, The Rolliad, The Anti-Jacobin, and the satires of Churchill, of Gifford, and of “Peter Pindar” bred in America songs, mock-heroics, burlesques, and satires of direct attack, in lyric measures, heroic couplets, and octosyllabics.