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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Joel Barlow (1754–1812)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
ONE morning late in the July of 1778, a select company gathered in the little chapel of Yale College to listen to orations and other exercises by a picked number of students of the Senior class, one of whom, named Barlow, had been given the coveted honor of delivering what was termed the ‘Commencement Poem.’ Those of the audience who came from a distance carried back to their homes in elm-shaded Norwich, or Stratford, or Litchfield, high on its hills, lively recollections of a handsome young man and of his ‘Prospect of Peace,’ whose cheerful prophecies in heroic verse so greatly “improved the occasion.” They had heard that he was a farmer’s son from Redding, Connecticut, who had been to school at Hanover, New Hampshire, and had entered Dartmouth College, but soon removed to Yale on account of its superior advantages; that he had twice seen active service in the Continental army, and that he was engaged to marry a beautiful New Haven girl.  1
  The brilliant career predicted for Barlow did not begin immediately. Distaste for war, hope of securing a tutorship in college, and—we may well believe—Miss Ruth’s entreaties, kept him in New Haven two years longer, engaged in teaching and in various courses of study. ‘The Prospect of Peace’ had been issued in pamphlet form, and the compliments paid the author incited him to plan a poem of a philosophic character on the subject of America at large, bearing the title ‘The Vision of Columbus.’ The appointment as tutor never came, and instead of cultivating the Muse in peaceful New Haven, he was forced to evoke her aid in a tent on the banks of the Hudson, whither after a hurried course in theology, he proceeded as an army chaplain in 1780. During his connection with the army, which lasted until its disbandment in 1783, he won repute by lyrics written to encourage the soldiers, and by “a flaming political sermon,” as he termed it, on the treason of Arnold.  2
  Army life ended, Barlow removed to Hartford, where he studied law, edited the American Mercury,—a weekly paper he had helped to found,—and with John Trumbull, Lemuel Hopkins, and David Humphreys formed a literary club which became widely known as the “Hartford Wits.” Its chief publication, a series of political lampoons styled ‘The Anarchiad,’ satirized those factions whose disputes imperiled the young republic, and did much to influence public opinion in Connecticut and elsewhere in favor of the Federal Constitution. A revision and enlargement of Dr. Watts’s ‘Book of Psalmody,’ and the publication (1787) of his own ‘Vision of Columbus,’ occupied part of Barlow’s time while in Hartford. The latter poem was extravagantly praised, ran through several editions, and was republished in London and Paris; but the poet, who now had a wife to support, could not live by his pen nor by the law, and when in 1788 he was urged by the Scioto Land Company to become its agent in Paris, he gladly accepted. The company was a private association, formed to buy large tracts of government land situated in Ohio and sell them in Europe to capitalists or actual settlers. This failed disastrously, and Barlow was left stranded in Paris, where he remained, supporting himself partly by writing, partly by business ventures. Becoming intimate with the leaders of the Girondist party, the man who had dedicated his ‘Vision of Columbus’ to Louis XVI., and had also dined with the nobility, now began to figure as a zealous Republican and as a Liberal in religion. From 1790 to 1793 he passed most of his time in London, where he wrote a number of political pamphlets for the Society for Constitutional Information, an organization openly favoring French Republicanism and a revision of the British Constitution. Here also, in 1791, he finished a work entitled ‘Advice to the Privileged Orders,’ which probably would have run through many editions had it not been suppressed by the British government. The book was an arraignment of tyranny in church and state, and was quickly followed by ‘The Conspiracy of Kings,’ an attack in verse on those European countries which had combined to kill Republicanism in France. In 1792 Barlow was made a citizen of France as a mark of appreciation of a ‘Letter’ addressed to the National Convention, giving that body advice, and when the convention sent commissioners to organize the province of Savoy into a department, Barlow was one of the number. As a candidate for deputy from Savoy, he was defeated; but his visit was not fruitless, for at Chambéry the sight of a dish of maize-meal porridge reminded him of his early home in Connecticut, and inspired him to write in that ancient French town a typical Yankee poem, ‘Hasty Pudding.’ Its preface, in prose, addressed to Mrs. Washington, assured her that simplicity of diet was one of the virtues; and if cherished by her, as it doubtless was, it would be more highly regarded by her countrywomen.  3
  Between the years of 1795–97, Barlow held the important but unenviable position of United States Consul at Algiers, and succeeded both in liberating many of his countrymen who were held as prisoners, and in perfecting treaties with the rulers of the Barbary States, which gave United States vessels entrance to their ports and secured them from piratical attacks. On his return to Paris he translated Volney’s ‘Ruins’ into English, made preparations for writing histories of the American and French revolutions, and expanded his ‘Vision of Columbus’ into a volume which as ‘The Columbiad’—a beautiful specimen of typography—was published in Philadelphia in 1807 and republished in London. The poem was held to have increased Barlow’s fame; but it is stilted and monotonous, and ‘Hasty Pudding’ has done more to perpetuate his name.  4
  In 1805 Barlow returned to the United States and bought an estate near Washington, DC, where he entertained distinguished visitors. In 1811 he returned to France authorized to negotiate a treaty of commerce. After waiting nine months, he was invited by Napoleon, who was then in Poland, to a conference at Wilna. On his arrival Barlow found the French army on the retreat from Moscow, and endured such privations on the march that on December 24th he died of exhaustion at the village of Zarnowiec, near Kraców, and there was buried.  5
  Barlow’s part in developing American literature was important, and therefore he has a rightful place in a work which traces that development. He certainly was a man of varied ability and power, who advanced more than one good cause and stimulated the movement toward higher thought. The only complete ‘Life and Letters of Joel Barlow,’ by Charles Burr Todd, published in 1888, gives him unstinted praise as excelling in statesmanship, letters, and philosophy. With more assured justice, which all can echo, it praises his nobility of spirit as a man. No one can read the letter to his wife, written from Algiers when he thought himself in danger of death, without a warm feeling for so unselfish and affectionate a nature.  6
 
 
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