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

§ 16. Tory Satirists

The two most vigorous and prolific tory satirists were Joseph Stansbury (1750–1809), a merchant of Philadelphia, and the Rev. Jonathan Odell (1737–1818), of New Jersey. Their satires and satirical songs, odes, and ballades are generally alike both in matter and style, but Stansbury is the better poet, and has to his credit several satirical lyrics, quite as good as any of their time on either side of the water. He turrns off an ode to the king, a comic ballad recounting an American reverse, or a loyal song, all with equal facility and with little of the invective characteristic of Odell. His Town Meeting, a satirical ballad of over one hundred and fifty lines, is typical, but his lyric, To Cordelia, addressed to his wife from Nova Scotia at the close of the Revolution, shows that he could also write a true poem. Odell, whose satires were not only in the main longer and less original, but also more virulent, was the Freneau of the tory side. Though possessed of little humour and less wit, he is at least vigorous and incisive and can give Freneau as good as he sends:

  • Back to his mountains Washington may trot.
  • He take this city? Yes—when ice is hot.
  • That Churchill was his model appears in his Feu de Joie; his Word of Congress (1779), four hundred lines of politico-personal invective against the Continental Congress; and in the still longer American Times (1780), which attacked the leaders of the American cause with extreme bitterness and scurrility.

    After the Revolution and before the adoption of the Constitution, social and political unrest produced The Anarchiad, a Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night (1786–1787), in which four of the Hartford group, Joel Barlow, John Trumbull, David Humphreys, and Lemuel Hopkins cleverly adapted their English original The Rolliad to the conditions that gave rise to Shays’s Rebellion, paper money, demagogy, and other evils of the time. The Anarchiad is in 1200 lines of heroic couplets, and is divided into fourteen parts that purport to be extracts from an ancient epic, lately discovered, which foretell conditions in the decade following the Revolution. The verse is that of Pope and Goldsmith, from whom many passages are paraphrased; the style is a parody of Homer, Dante, Milton, and Pope; and the mock-heroic method is conventional; yet the satire through its wit and good sense deserved its immense popularity. The speech of Hesper in favour of a firm union of the states is fine and eloquent; and the brilliant satirical picture of the Land of Annihilation, though obviously suggested by The Dunciad, is not unworthy of its original.

    The entire story of the strife between federalist and republican, Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian, can be read in the verse satire of the time. No American shows this bitter partisanship more than Thomas Green Fessenden (1771–1837). His Terrible Tractoration, written in England about English conditions, is not political but is chiefly aimed at the critics of Perkins’s “metallic tractors,” an invention of which Fessenden was the agent. Its 1800 lines of Hudibrastic verse, full of references to contemporary persons and scientific matters, form a fair example of a not very admirable type of satire. Fessenden again displays his mental alertness and his indebtedness to “Peter Pindar” in Democracy Unveiled, or Tyranny Stripped of the Garb of Patriotism. This surprising production, in which he reaches the nadir of indecent personalities, attacks Jacobinism, democracy, and Jefferson in particular, with a virulence that disregards both good sense and good taste.

    The political mock-epic appears in the anonymous Aristocracy (1795), which ridicules the alleged aristocratic notions of the federalists. Also political in a sense is The Group (1795), by William Cliffton, a satire on the men who hid from danger during the Revolution but who now claim the reward of patriots. Though its series of portraits in the mock-heroic style of Pope is not without vigour, it is less original and amusing than Cliffton’s Rhapsody on the Times, several hundred lines of octosyllabics in the style of Prior, which contains narrative and descriptive satire against unrestricted immigration.

    Before the nineteenth century our social and literary satires are amusing only as futile attempts to make something out of nothing. The society and literary productions of Philadelphia are satirized in a series of poems beginning in 1762 and extending on into the next century; such as The Manners of the Times (1762) by “Philadelphiensis”; the anonymous Philadelphiad; and the more vigorous but still conventional Times (1788) by Peter Markoe. Other Philadelphia satires of this type might be named without raising the average of merit. Fortunately, New York and Boston seem to have been somewhat less analytic in their attitude; though both cities were guilty of such conventional social and literary satires as Winthrop Sargent’s Boston (1803). The inflated journalistic style of the last decade of the century suggested the one really clever and original literary satire of its time in America. The Echo was begun in 1791, was published serially, and appeared complete as a volume of three hundred pages in 1807. Its authors, who seem to have been Richard Alsop and Timothy Dwight, select some particularly bombastic passage from a current newspaper and travesty its style in heroic couplets, with a result that has not yet quite lost its flavour. The satire probably owed something to the parodies of The Anti-Jacobin, though in this case the matter and not the form is burlesqued.

    At the close of the century the long satiric poem in Hudibrastic verse or heroic couplet was already passing away in England, though American versifiers continued to imitate the outworn models. In the light of The Biglow Papers all these early beginnings seem faint and pale; but they are still significant as indications of the growth of national consciousness. It should also be noted that in average merit our early verse satire is probably not inferior to its counterpart in England. There is little to be said for the genre on either side of the water.