Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Joel Barlow (1754–1812)
JOEL BARLOW was born at Reading, a small village in Fairfield county, Connecticut, about the year 1755. His father was a farmer in independent, though moderate circumstances, and had ten children, of whom our poet was the youngest. He died while Joel was a lad at school, and left him little more than sufficient to give him a liberal education of such a sort as was customary at that period. He entered first at Dartmouth college in New Hampshire, but that seminary being then in its infancy, and laboring under many embarrassments, he removed after a short residence, to Yale college in New Haven. In the third year of his academic course, the revolutionary war broke out, and the Connecticut militia being called out in great numbers to strengthen Washington’s army, Barlow could not resist the inclination to join the camp where four of his brothers were in arms. He shouldered his musket during the college vacations, and fought in many of the skirmishes at the beginning of the war. After completing his studies with great reputation, he received a degree in 1778, on which occasion he first came before the public as a poet, by pronouncing an original poem, which was soon after printed. He had previously made some attempts at verse, but not it appears, of any serious character. This earliest of his works may be found in a volume with the title of “American Poems” published at Litchfield in 1793.  1
  On leaving college he betook himself to the study of law, but continued it only for a short time. He was strongly urged to enter the army as a chaplain, there being a great deficiency of this kind among the troops. Although he had never undertaken a course of theological reading, yet the high opinion entertained of his talents and character, and the influence of his friends, enabled him after a preparatory study of six weeks, to pass examination, and obtain a license to preach as a congregational minister. He repaired immediately to the army, where in the strict and punctual discharge of his clerical duties he sustained a high reputation. In the severe labors of his office, he did not neglect his more elegant studies, but mingled devotion to the muses with his spiritual exhortations. He composed patriotic songs and addresses to the soldiery, and made all his powers subservient to the great purpose of arousing the patriotism of the troops, and sustaining their courage under their numerous hardships and perils. He continued with the army throughout the war, and amid these occupations was also engaged in the composition of the poem afterwards published under the title of “The Vision of Columbus.” On receiving the degree of Master of Arts at New Haven, in 1781, he recited a poem called “The Prospect of Peace.” This was published and announced as a specimen of the larger work he had in hand, in which the substance of it is still to be found. About the same period he was married to Miss Baldwin of New Haven, a sister of the Hon. Abraham Baldwin, senator in Congress, from Georgia.  2
  Mr Barlow had not chosen the theological profession in accordance with any decided taste for the calling, nor with any view beyond the emergency which had brought about his connexion with it. The scenes moreover with which he had been familiarized in the discharge of his numerous labors in the ranks of the army, had induced such habits as to render it a work of difficulty for him to assume at once, and with good effect the character of a parish clergyman. He had no scruple therefore in throwing aside the clerical office, and returning to his law studies. He settled himself at New Haven, and as his profession did not bring him any great immediate profit, he undertook the management of a weekly paper. His extensive knowledge, and the ability he displayed as a writer, soon gained the work great circulation and credit, as but few of the public prints at that time were conducted with any talent, or indeed were anything more than meagre repositories for the news of the day. During this connexion he prepared for the press his Vision of Columbus, which was published in 1787. He had become so widely known in the army, and was so well aided by his friends, that a large subscription was obtained for the work. He dedicated it to Louis XVI, and had the satisfaction of seeing it meet with a very favorable acceptance from the public. A few months after its appearance, it was reprinted in London, and subsequently went through a second edition in this country, and one in Paris.  3
  After the publication of his poem, Barlow was engaged by the general association of the clergy of Connecticut, to revise Watts’s version of the Psalms which had been in general use in their churches, and were regarded by them as capable of improvement by supplying omissions and altering those parts referring to the politics and religion of Great Britain. This task he performed in a very satisfactory manner. Twelve psalms which had been omitted by Watts were added, and six nearly rewritten, besides numerous corrections, improving the grammar and poetical expression of the original, as well as adapting the national allusions to the circumstances of this country. A selection of hymns was also added from Watts, and originals by himself, in which he succeeded so well in imitating his model, that as they are interspersed in the volume without being marked with the name of the author, it is not easy to make the distinction among them. This work became the authorized version of the Connecticut churches. Some alterations were afterwards made by Dr Dwight, and it still continues in common use. Barlow upon the publication of his psalms, opened a bookstore in Hartford for the sale of the work, and as soon as this was effected, returned to the practice of law, having before abandoned his connexion with the newspaper.  4
  As a lawyer, he did not meet with a very flattering success. His oratorical powers were by no means of a high order, and his manners wanted that engaging pliancy, which is so effectual in aiding the exertions of him who is striving for the popular favor. He does not appear to have had a sufficiently strong liking for the study, to incite him to such assiduity in the pursuit of it, as might have overcome these great hinderances. He was soon aware that he could indulge no hope of rising to eminence in the career which he had begun, or even acquire a sufficient sum for his maintenance. The property which he had acquired by his literary undertakings was rapidly disappearing, and he was under the necessity of betaking himself to some new occupation. Under these circumstances he was applied to by certain members of a land association, called the Ohio Company, and some other persons who were regarded as men of property, to go to Europe as the agent of a concern for disposing of large tracts of land in the western territory. By fraudulent manœuvres, these persons obtained the management of a large portion of the funds of the Ohio Company, and giving themselves the name of the Scioto Company, offered vast quantities of land for sale, to which they had no claim. Barlow was totally ignorant of the true character of the undertaking, and readily agreed to the proposal. He sailed for England in 1788, and from that country proceeded to France, where he succeeded in disposing of some of the lands. The agency however turned out unfortunate for Barlow.  5
  His reputation gained him the intimacy of the public characters of the greatest note and influence in France, and the singularly novel and interesting scenes which the revolution in that country was exhibiting from day to day, caused him to enter into politics with great ardor. As an American, and one who had already lent his aid to the cause of revolution, he could not hesitate to join the republican party. He was affected with no small portion of the common enthusiasm of the day, and indulged in zealous and confident anticipations of the wonders in the political and social order of the universe, which it was judged were to be the final result of those early convulsions in the political system of Europe. He sided with that portion of the republican party, called the Girondists, and made himself distinguished as one of their most active and zealous partizans. He returned to England in 1791 and published in London the first part of a work with the title of “Advice to the privileged orders,” which with subsequent additions, has been several times reprinted; it is a performance of some ability, but abounding in the extravagances which the revolutionary effervescence had engendered. This was followed the next year by a poem called “The Conspiracy of Kings,” in which, as the title manifests, he took for his subject the engrossing topic of political interest. In autumn of the same year he published a letter to the National Convention, on the defects of the first constitution, in which he suggested several improvements, such as abolishing the royal power, diminishing the public salaries, making elections more frequent and popular, and dissolving the connexion of the church with the government. Barlow in consequence of these publications, became associated with the leading characters in England, who were on the side of reform, as also with a great number of men of literature and science in London. In the latter part of 1792 the London Constitutional Society, of which he was a member, voted an address to the National Convention, and Barlow with another passed over to France to present it. The Convention, as a mark of respect, conferred on him the rights of a French citizen: rights, however, which we believe he never exercised or claimed by any public act.  6
  After a few weeks stay in Paris, he was about to return to England, when information of the notice which the British government had taken of his mission, led him to think he should be unsafe in England. The revolutionary spirit had extended widely in that country, and the government became alarmed. Barlow’s errand to Paris was suspected to have some connexion with a secret political undertaking, and the business was officially investigated. In this state of things he determined to remain in France, and sent for Mrs Barlow from England. In the latter part of 1792 he accompanied his friend the Abbé Gregoire, and a deputation of the Convention to Savoy, whither they were despatched to organise that territory, as a department of the French republic. He spent the winter at Chamberry, and at the request of his friends wrote an address to the Piedmontese inciting them to throw off their allegiance to the king of Sardinia. It was translated into French and Italian, and distributed throughout the country, but failed to produce any great effect. Another work which has been much better received by the public, occupied the remainder of the season. His poem of Hasty Pudding, the most popular of all his writings, was written at Chamberry. From this country he returned to Paris, and engaged in commercial speculations, from which he reaped considerable profit.  7
  We do not find that he took any share in politics at this period: and although many political writings of a violent and atrocious character were given to the public under his name about this time, we have his own assurance that he never wrote them. He continued to indulge hopes that the struggles which were then convulsing France with still mightier power, would soon work out her political regeneration; but the scenes of turbulence, anarchy, and blood, which recurred from day to day, shook his faith in the cause of the revolution, and kept him aloof from the scene of contest. Notwithstanding he continued to reside at Paris for about three years. His character as a neutral insured him a degree of safety amid the tumults around him, which he could not otherwise have enjoyed.  8
  In 1795 or near that time, he visited the north of Europe, and on his return received information that he had been appointed by President Washington, Consul for the United States at Algiers, and Plenipotentiary for the negotiation of a peace with the Dey, and the redemption of all the American captives in the Barbary states. Barlow undertook the charge, and passing over to the Mediterranean through Spain, proceeded to Algiers, and began the business of negotiation. He encountered powerful obstacles from the intrigues of several of the European agents, but had the address to conclude the treaty expeditiously. The next year he negotiated a treaty with Tripoli, and ransomed all the American prisoners who could be found in Barbary. In this exertion we are assured that he was often obliged to hazard his life, to accomplish his humane purposes. Having discharged these duties, he gave up his consulship, returned to Paris, and entered again into trade, by which he acquired a handsome fortune, a great part of which he laid out in landed estates in France. One of his purchases, was the elegant hotel of Clermont Tonnere in Paris, where he lived some years in a splendid style.  9
  Mr Barlow was not commissioned by instructions from government to set on foot any negotiation respecting the difficulties which arose at this time between the United States and France; nevertheless he made some exertions to bring about an adjustment of differences, and published some writings to the same end in the United States. About the same time he offered a memoir to the French government, on the subject of privateering, blockade, and other points in maritime warfare. In this he condemned the system of privateering, as no better than robbery, and asserted the right of neutrals to trade in articles which the international code has set down as contraband of war. The memoir was received respectfully, but the new French constitution then framing, and for which it was designed, was hurried through with all possible expedition, to answer the immediate purposes of some of the leading politicians, and Barlow’s suggestions were passed by unheeded for want of time for their consideration.  10
  He had now been absent nearly seventeen years from his native country. Paris was no longer the theatre of faction and turbulence, but had regained a sufficient degree of quiet to render it an agreeable place of abode. Its magnificent repositories of everything precious in literature and the arts, offered the strongest attractions to a man of letters, but the desire of revisiting the land of his birth, and beholding the wonderful improvements in her social and political state which the lapse of a few years had wrought, induced him to sell his property in France, and embark for America. After a short visit to England, he arrived in this country in 1805. He fixed his abode at Washington, where he purchased an elegant house, and lived in a splendid and hospitable manner, on terms of intimacy with the President, and the most noted public men.  11
  One of his earliest undertakings after his return was the plan of a national college or academy, under the immediate patronage of the government, which had been originally suggested by Washington, and now received the approbation of Mr Jefferson. Barlow drew up a prospectus of the proposed institution, which is described as an academy to be erected at the seat of government “which should combine the two great objects of scientific investigation and of instruction, together with national views, by uniting a university to a learned society, formed on a plan resembling that of the national institute of France, and adding to both a military and naval academy, and a school of fine arts.” This prospectus he published in a pamphlet at his own expense, and circulated it throughout the country. The plan met with considerable opposition from the friends of several of the literary institutions in the different states, but was so warmly received in many quarters, that it was brought before Congress. On the 4th of March 1806, a bill was introduced in the senate, to incorporate a national academy upon the plan offered by Barlow. It was passed to a second reading and referred to a committee. After some debate as to the name which the institution should bear, the bill was referred to a select committee who never reported; whether from a disapproval of the entire project, or want of time for deliberation upon the business, we are not informed. Thus the project failed, and Barlow never renewed his attempt.  12
  He now entered upon an undertaking which he had contemplated for many years, and the preparations for which had already occupied a great portion of his life. This was the publication of his Columbiad, the title he bestowed upon the rifacciamento of the national poem of his early years. That production had been received by the American public with a degree of favor, highly flattering to the author. Our native literature at that period was but scanty, and a work of any pretensions though of ordinary merit, was sure to attract notice. The Vision of Columbus made its appearance in an attractive shape, and with strong claims upon the general regard. It was the most national and patriotic performance, both in frame and spirit, which any native writer had produced. The subject was familiar to every one, and the scenes of the revolution which furnished the author with so large a portion of the incidents of his story, had an interest for his readers, which disposed them to look with partiality upon the strains in which those deeds were sung. When we add, that the state of criticism was comparatively low among us in those days, and that correct taste which is formed by extensive reading, was by means an ordinary accomplishment, it will not appear surprising that such a production should be read under the influence of strong prepossessions, or that the judgment passed upon its merits, should have been regulated by no very discriminating and philosophical notion of poetical excellence. The consequence was, that the Vision of Columbus was overpraised, and Barlow, who was accustomed to be spoken of as the first in rank among the American bards, was tempted to claim a higher character in the poetical scale, by giving his work the imposing stateliness and symmetry of the epopee. For this purpose he cast the poem anew, and made such additions as he deemed requisite to give it the epic fulness and perfection. He spared no pains nor expense in the publication, and in 1808 the Columbiad was issued from the press in a style of elegance which few works, either American or European, have ever equalled. An edition in duodecimo was published the next year, and the poem was also reprinted in London.  13
  Although the Columbiad was the performance upon which Barlow chiefly relied for his fame, yet now that it was completed and before the world, he did not seem disposed to desist in any measure from his literary enterprises. He made large collections of materials for a general history of the United States, and was busily engaged in planning the work in 1811 when he received the appointment of minister plenipotentiary to France. The objects of his mission were the negotiation of a treaty of commerce and indemnification for the French spoliations. He accepted the appointment, sailed for France, and entered immediately upon the business, which he found it difficult to accomplish, from the many delays and obstacles which the French government contrived to throw in his way. Mr Barlow spared no zeal nor perseverance to effect his purpose, and being invited in 1812 to a conference with Napoleon at Wilna, he set out in October and travelled day and night in that severe season, which annihilated the phalanxes of the French Emperor. The country through which his course lay, after leaving France, was so wasted by the ravages of war, as hardly to afford a meal to the traveller, and in a state of extreme debility from fatigue and want of food and sleep, he was exposed to sudden changes from cold to heat, in the small and crowded cottages of the Jews, which afford the only taverns to be met with in Poland. This produced a violent inflammation of the lungs, of which he died on the 22d of December, 1812, at Zarnawica, a village in Poland near Cracow.  14
  Barlow, as a poet, can by no means be allowed the highest rank among his countrymen, even those of his own day; yet he has drawn upon himself by the publicity of his career, and the efforts he made for that purpose, a greater degree of notice, than any other of our native bards. To the European world, Barlow was the only transatlantic poet. The witlings of the British periodical press pointed their gibes at our literature in the person of this single writer, and regarded the Columbiad as the sum total of American genius in the shape of verse. A better standard of taste has now lowered the estimation of his powers among us, and it is no longer fashionable to consider the literary reputation of the country as resting upon his attempt at epic poetry. Still, the talents which he has unquestionably displayed in his writings, entitle him to no small share of our attention.  15
  The Conspiracy of Kings is a vehement invective against the potentates of Europe, and the enemies of the French revolution. In this piece, he expatiates upon the common topics of the writers in the same cause, with great warmth and spirit. It is a good specimen of animated, vigorous declamation.  16
  The Hasty Pudding will probably retain a greater share of popularity than any other portion of his works. This poem is executed in a lively and entertaining manner, and affords in the familiar and homely nature of the subject, and the gaiety with which it is treated, an agreeable contrast to the gravity and stateliness of the author’s general style.  17
  The Columbiad has met with small favor from the critics, and its faults, both in plan and execution, were severely commented upon at its first appearance. The absurdity of attempting to give an epic unity and interest through the medium of a vision, to a series of actions so unconnected in date and subject: and the strange and awkward neologisms by which the language of the poem is disfigured, called forth the reprehensions of the reviewers in every quarter. It had no popularity among us, and is now fallen quite into neglect,—a fate which the reader may ascribe to the improved taste and understanding in literary matters, of the present day, but which was in part occasioned by the higher character which the poem assumed over the work as it stood in its original state. The Vision of Columbus, while no one claimed for it any very exalted rank, continued to be spoken of in terms of respect. But in its new shape it came out with the high pretensions of an epic, and having been pronounced a failure, nobody reads it.  18
  In his preface he avows the object of the Columbiad to be altogether of a moral and political nature. Most epic poems are regarded as having some similar aim. They were designed to leave some more important and durable impression than what arises from contemplating the interest of the story or the beauty of the language. We are led to conclude, however, from Barlow’s explanation of his plan, that he considered more the philosophy than the poetry of his work; that he was less solicitous for the classical regularity and interest of the fable, than for the general sentiments and moral effect of the performance, forgetting that without a proper degree of skill in arranging the narrative which was to be the vehicle of the sentiments, they must fail of accomplishing their object. It is surprising that Barlow’s judgment should have allowed him to imagine that to render his poem perfectly national in character, it was necessary that it should embrace the history and topography, as it were, of the whole American continent; or that he could have hoped to excite interest by a story which extended through hundreds of years; which treated of Manco; Capac and Washington, described the conquest of Mexico, and the battle of Bunker Hill; and contained long philosophical speculations upon almost every subject—political, moral, and scientific. How utterly he has failed in this particular we need waste no criticism in showing. His notions of what was requisite to give the epic dignity to his performance seem to have embraced the most objectionable part of the old doctrines upon the subject with ideas of his own altogether novel. The machinery which he deemed it necessary to introduce, accomplishes hardly anything of its destined purpose in controlling the main events, or bringing about the catastrophe of the story; and the topics which he had occasion to handle offered such a temptation to speculate, descant, and moralize, that the quantity of matter in a digressory strain which he has embodied in the work, gives it the character in some parts of a philosophical instead of a narrative poem, a defect of plan which the highest graces of composition could hardly redeem.  19
  The versification in this poem is elaborated with great care, but it is not flowing nor graceful. The language is often tumid, and extravagant, and disfigured with ornaments which denote a vitiated taste. There is throughout a want of imagination, fire, and the marks of that inbred faculty of the soul, that refined intellectual feeling which pours out its energies with a fervor that reaches the heart. Barlow was a poet by dint of study and labor; but in the creations which his fancy has bodied forth, we seek in vain for the breathings of that spirit of unearthly tone, which act like a spell upon the senses, whose visitings thrill the bosom in its deepest and most hallowed recesses, stir our sympathies with a magic potency, and stamp the memory with a deep and abiding impression.  20
  His powers were inadequate to the accomplishment of the undertaking which he meditated in the Columbiad. The poem cannot be commended as a whole, but there are portions of it which exhibit the author’s talent in a very favorable manner. It has many passages of spirited, rich, and splendid description: and in expatiating in a moral and philosophical strain, he displays a loftiness of sentiment, and an enthusiasm, which inspire noble thoughts and kindle some of our most exalted emotions. The moral scope of the work, in spite of its miscarriage as an epic, will recommend it to our regard as the earnest endeavor of a sincere philanthropist to further the progress of the human race in their advances to political and moral perfection.  21

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