Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
James Allen (17391808)
JAMES ALLEN was born in Boston, July 24th, 1739. His father was a merchant of considerable wealth, and wished to make him a scholar, but the youth, although possessed of good natural parts, was too averse to study to make any great progress with his books. The resolution and assiduities however, of his tutor, carried him through his preparatory studies in a short space, after the pupil had spent most of the time allotted to that purpose in slothful inactivity. He entered Harvard College, but his inattention to his books, and his free notions upon religion, hindered his attaining to the honors of the University. He spent, but three years at College, and then abandoned his scholastic pursuits altogether. His life offers nothing of interest or vicissitude. He continued to reside in Boston, without applying himself to regular business of any sort. Inheriting a comfortable patrimony, and naturally inclined to repose, he felt none of those stimulants to exertion, which in other circumstances might have effected the full development of his powers. His occupations, or more properly, amusements, were writing essays and verses upon the political affairs of the times; but he was too fond of his ease to become individually a partizan in public disputes, or load himself with the cares of any official station. The career of hardly any man of letters (if Allens disinclination for study, and the small degree of care he bestowed upon his works, can allow him any claim to that title) is less diversified by any striking event. He led the noiseless easy life of a bachelor, and though a person of considerable whim and eccentricity of character, passed his days in the pleasures of a cheerful intimacy with a circle of friends. He died in 1808, in his 70th year.
Mr Allen was the author of a great number of poems, but few of them have been published. The lines on the massacre of the fifth of March are the best known. These were first printed in 1772. The performance was written at the request of Dr Warren, and designed to be published as a companion to the oration on the same subject which the Doctor had been appointed by a committee of the town of Boston to deliver. Allens poem struck the committee so favorably that they voted it to be printed with the oration, but insinuations being thrown out that the political principles of the writer were unsound, that body thought fit to suppress it. Mr Allen seems to have been not very solicitous to disabuse the public respecting the matter, and prized his literary fame too little to make any exertion for the purpose of bringing his poetry into notice. The work might therefore have been neglected and finally lost like the greater part of his writings, but for the endeavors of some of his friends, who procured the manuscript and published it, accompanied by specimens of another poem of his, called The Retrospect, which the editors offered their comments upon, with the object of clearing the authors character as to his politics, no less than to commend his poetical abilities. We believe nothing of his besides these two pieces has been made public, save a few short scraps in the magazines.
He wrote an epic with the title of Bunker Hill, and went so far as to make arrangements for its publication, but his indolent habits soon mastered this resolution, and the poem we think is now lost. No inducement could prevail upon him to bestow any pains upon the correction of his writings, or make any resolute effort to extend his reputation as a poet. He cared nothing for fame, and though an authors rank must be awarded him according to the merits of what he has executed, we should form too low an estimate of Allens powers, from performances which display so little care and application, as those which he has given to the world. His verses are not wanting in poetical spirit, but they do not bear the marks of finished elaboration.