The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 17. Lyric Poetry
Volumes of miscellaneous short poems began to appear in 1765, but, owing to the Revolution and its attendant changes, ceased almost entirely between 1770 and 1790, and revived only during the last decade of the century. Though intrinsically of little merit, they show in the main that Pope and the long poem were not absolutely dominant and that Americans were reading English lyrical poetry and were learning to write graceful verse which certain of the public were ready to read. This public was small enough, however, for most of the volumes were published by subscription; and a remarkable number were issued by pious friends as memorials to young poets, and hence show little except that friendship may make unreasonable demands.
The poems of Thomas Godfrey (1736–1763) of Philadelphia were published two years after his death by his friend and fellow poet Nathaniel Evans. His work is highly imitative; pastorals in heroic couplet, after Pope; and Ode to Friendship and a Dithyrambic on Wine in the manner of Dryden’s occasional odes; a Night Piece in elegiac quatrains, which shows the influence of Gray and Young; songs in the manner of Shenstone and Prior; and here and there a touch of Collins. His best as well as his most ambitious poem is The Court of Fancy, an allegory in heroic couplets, suggested by Chaucer’s House of Fame. Though conventional in style, it is not without originality, and as the first truly imaginative poem written in America is of more than passing interest. Godfrey’s imitative habit could not quite cloak his spontaneity, and had he come only a generation later he might have contributed more permanently to our poetry.
The poems of his friend and editor the Rev. Nathaniel Evans (1742–1767), also of Philadelphia, were issued five years after his death in a volume entitled Poems on Several Occasions which contains a number of unimportant occasional poems, and others imitative of Milton, Cowley, Prior, Gray, and Collins. Evans’s most ambitious effort is his Ode on the Prospect of Peace; but more interesting is his tribute to Benjamin Franklin in praise of physical science. On the whole his poems show less native ability than Godfrey’s and are equally imitative; but the work of both is significant as the beginning of our more purely lyrical verse.
Had not the Revolution interfered, the publication of volumes of miscellaneous poems would probably have continued unbroken. When about 1790 it began again, to continue indefinitely, the awakening of national consciousness had produced no change in the matter and style of the short poem; it was still an echo. And Philadephia was still the centre for writing and publication. But new influences—such as Mrs. Radcliffe, Ossian, and the contemporary romantic ballads—are often apparent in the last decade of the century. The sentimental, the mysterious, the horrible, environed with appropriate scenery, appear here and there in the work of such poets as William Moore Smith (1759–1821), of Philadelphia, who gives evidence of this imported “romanticism” in The Wizard of the Rock, a blend of Parnell, Percy, and Goldsmith; and Maria’s Grave, which is placed amid the romantic scenery pictured by the poet’s originals across the Atlantic. Most distinguished personally of the Philadelphia poets was Judge Francis Hopkinson (1737–1791), signer of the Declaration of Independence, whose many occasional poems are merely as good as the average of their kind, but whose songs, some of which are suggestive of Gay and Prior, are distinctly musical and pleasing. The Rev. John Blair Linn (1777–1804), who, like Godfrey and Evans, died young and left his work unfinished, wrote odes to solitude and melancholy, pastorals and elegies, and other echoes of Shenstone, Gray, and even Mason. It is noticeable that the songs and light social lyrics of the close of the century come from Philadelphia, the social capital. The gifted and original William Cliffton (1772–1799) was both a satirist and a lyrist. His half-dozen lyrics, quite the two best of which are To Fancy and To a Robin, are not without grace and delicacy, which he owes largely to his models, Gay, Prior, and Collins. Like Freneau and other poets of the time, Cliffton found his surroundings unsympathetic:
It is not certain that Joseph Brown Ladd (1764–1786) wrote his Poems of Arouet under Della Cruscan influence, for they were published in the year in which the school took its rise in Florence; they are at least an anticipation of its more languishing side. But whether or not the Della Cruscan mania had reached Charleston, where Ladd was killed in a duel, in 1786, it was certainly widespread in Boston less than a decade later. Mrs. Sarah Wentworth Morton (1759–1846), termed by her admirers “The American Sappho,” praises Della Crusca in a fervid address prefixed to her narrative poem Ouabi, or the Virtues of Nature (1790), and as “Philenia” exchanged poetical tributes with her “Menander,” no less a celebrity than Robert Treat Paine, Jr. (1773–1811).
Boston’s craving for a native poet, the bad taste of the time, and the poet’s own wayward life combined to give Paine a reputation surpassing that of any of his contemporaries. At Harvard he was known by his occasional poems, and his patriotic song Adams and Liberty made him a celebrity. Though he practised law, he gave most of his time to the theatre and to poetry. Soon his reputation was such that he could command five dollars a line for his verse, a price never before approached in America and perhaps never since equalled. His marriage with an actress estranged him from his family, and after this event his life was that of a wastrel. His services, however, were in request upon all public occasions, from the opening of theatres to meetings of the Phi Beta Kappa. For such occasions he wrote the didactic poems, prologues, and odes in conventional but vigorous heroic couplets that form the greater part of his work. The Ruling Passion, for Phi Beta Kappa, and The Invention of Letters, for a Harvard commencement, were hailed as the spontaneous and original outbursts of genius, though both are merely laboured and conventional didactic poems of a type that was even then in its decline. In these and a few other of Paine’s poems one finds rhetorical passages of some merit amid a waste of bombast and affectation but looks in vain for any imagination or real feeling. The diction embodies all the vices against which the new poetry rebelled. Della Crusca plus Pope would have crushed a more genuine talent than Paine’s. His reputation is a curious evidence of the pathetic craving for a national poet and of the determination to force the birth of a genius. His Works in Prose and Verse, an octavo volume of over five hundred pages, was published one year after his death, with all the reverence due to a classic.
“The American Sappho” was not the only woman singer of Boston. Mrs.Susanna Rowson,besides her plays and novels, wrote poems which unite “sensibility” and didacticism. Her odes, hymns, elegies, nature lyrics, and songs show little observation of life or nature, and scarcely any distinctive American quality. Of all these, the patriotic lyric America, Commerce, and Freedom, which is commonplace but not without spirit, alone has survived. The Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous, of Mrs.Mercy Warren (1728–1814)include ponderous and solemn epistles and elegies that are merely belated echoes of Pope. New York also had its woman poet in Mrs. Ann Eliza Bleecker (1752–1783), whose melancholy life is reflected in the tone of her sentimental elegies, epistles, descriptive poems, and religious lyrics, in the style of the English poets of the first half of the century. Her daughter, Mrs.Margaretta Faugeres, who published her own poems with those of her mother in 1793, shows in her poem on the Hudson the growing attention to native scenery. The inquiring reader may find all the imitative qualities of our early lyric poets if he will consult the very inclusive Original Poems, Serious and Entertaining, of Paul Allen (1775–1826), whose facile and graceful verse is indicative of English influences all the way from Prior to Cowper.
Aside from the lyrics of Freneau, the two original strains in our early lighter verse are the humorous poems of Thomas Green Fessenden and of Royall Tyler,and the nature lyrics of Alexander Wilson. Fessenden contributed humorous poems of New England country life to Dennie’s Farmer’s Weekly Museum, and these were afterwards published in his Original Poems. To this same magazine and also to Dennie’s Port Folio, Royall Tyler contributed pictures and studies in verse of American environment and character which are worth all the pretentious imitations of his contemporaries. The lyrics scattered throughout the pages of Alexander Wilson’s Ornithology and afterwards printed in his collected poems merit more attention than they have heretofore received. Wilson was scientist and poet enough to celebrate the osprey, the Baltimore bird, the hummingbird, and the bluebird in true nature lyrics which, together with those of Freneau, are not unworthy forerunners of Bryant’s.