Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
John Pierpont (17851866)
MR PIERPONT is a native of Litchfield in Connecticut, and was born on the 6th of April, 1785. He was educated at Yale College, and received his degree in 1804. He studied law and practised for a while at Newburyport. He then removed to Baltimore, where he was one of the contributors to the Portico during the most successful period of that work. About ten years since he became pastor of Hollis Street church in Boston, and continues in that station at the present time, enjoying in addition to his reputation as a poet, a degree of popularity as a preacher which very few among our native clergymen have gained.
The earliest occasion on which Mr Pierpont appeared to the public in his poetical capacity, was as the author of The Portrait, a poem delivered in public at Newburyport in 1812, and afterwards published. In 1816 appeared at Baltimore, The Airs of Palestine, a performance not at first designed for publication, but written in the cause of charity. It was intended, to use the authors own words, that the recitation of it should form a part of the performances of an evening concert of Sacred Music for the benefit of the poor. It was indeed a volunteer in the cause; but its aid was coldly received, or rather was coldly declined wherever it made its trembling advances; and it was thus stung into the resolution of appearing before the public; not indeed to solicit the succor of charity for others, but the rites of hospitality for itself.
Since this period he has not attempted any poetical work of magnitude, but has occasionally tuned his lyre at public solemnities, and on festive occasions. Besides these original performances he has compiled for the use of schools, The American First Class Book and The National Reader, two manuals, which for sound judgment and correct taste in the selection of matter, are superior to any works of the kind which have appeared in our language. They are now in very extensive use throughout the country, and are becoming daily more esteemed in our seminaries of education. The principal aim in making these compilations we cannot too warmly applaud, namely, that of cherishing a national spirit and taste, and inspiring a love for our native institutions, literature and manners.
The Airs of Palestine is the one among Mr Pierponts poems to which he is chiefly indebted for his poetical reputation. It has passed several times through the press in this country and abroad, and has gained its author among foreign critics, the distinction, if not of the most highly gifted, at least of the most correct of the American poets. As regards the character of this work, which has been received from the first with a degree of interest equal if not superior to that attending any modern poem which has made its appearance among us; it may be remarked in general, that it possesses those sterling qualities which offer a permanent attraction, and will continue to win our regard, unaffected by the waverings of popular taste, or the influence of the new schools and doctrines which from time to time may spring up and give currency to novelties of style and matter in poetical composition. Its beauties require no minute and elaborate comment to unfold them to our comprehension; but are of a nature to be relished by the common reader unpractised in the mysteries of criticism, who admires accordingly as he is affected,as well as by him who judges them with a more delicate and philosophical perception of their niceties.
The main scope of the poem is to illustrate the influence of music upon the passions of mankind, and consequently, its moral nature and tendency, by themes taken from sacred history. The instances selected for this purpose evince a refined and happy taste, which singles out with unerring judgment from among the great mass of materials at hand, that which is best adapted to the object in view. The transitions, where it becomes necessary to vary the theme, in some degree, for the introduction of minor topics, are managed with consummate skill.
Mr Pierpont has not attempted to distinguish himself by those bold and daring flights which so many of our modern poets are accustomed to essay in putting their powers to the proof. His muse wings her way with a calm and graceful flight, luxuriating in the sunbeam and breasting the mountain breeze, but she does not plunge among the thunder clouds, or shake her pinions in the strife of the hurricane. The poetry of the present day is rife with those tumultuous elements which have their seat in the deep recesses of human thought and emotion, with storms of sweeping and destructive passion, and acute mental feeling,subjects with which our stripling bards fearlessly venture to grapple, ignorant of the nature of what they have seized upon, and the powers which the control of such things demand. Hence the small proportion among the great amount of verse that is yearly given to the world, which is blessed with more than a temporary reputation. By attempting achievements to which its powers are not adapted, genius itself must experience a failure. Let it not be thought a disparagement in the case of the present writer to say that he has not aimed at so much as many others. He has undertaken a work which in its successful execution, shows the hand of a master, and leaves us to believe that he is capable of yet greater things.
Mr Pierpont has been spoken of as a faithful scholar of the school of Pope, in regard we suppose to the mechanical structure of his verse; for in the essentials of poetry, we apprehend the qualities of these writers, have too little in common to warrant us in coupling them together. In the polish, and flow of his numbers, he may be classed, if it be necessary to point out a master, with that author; but his lines are free from the monotony of cadence which prevails to such a degree in the versification of Pope; while in vivid and beautiful imagery, and richness of language, he claims to be ranked in an order widely distinct from the bard of Twickenham.
The use of double rhymes in this poem has been censured. That they ever disagree with the solemnity of the subject, as has been objected, we find it difficult to perceive, while the reason assigned for their introduction under the circumstances in which the work was composed, seems to us satisfactory. The poem, as the author remarks, was begun and ended with the idea that it would be publicly rehearsed; and I was aware how difficult even a good speaker finds it, to recite the best heroic poetry for any length of time without perceiving in his hearers the somniferous effects of a regular cadence. The double rhyme was therefore occasionally thrown in like a ledge of rocks in a smoothly gliding river, to break the current which without it, might appear sluggish, and to vary the melody, which otherwise might become monotonous.
Mr Pierponts poetry is small in amount, but is destined to outlive the voluminous productions of many of his contemporaries. His patriotic and devotional songs written for public occasions, show a talent for lyrical composition which would raise him to eminent distinction without the aid of his descriptive poetry.