Like politics, poetry was everywhere in the years from 1754 to 1829. And like politics, poetry had both public and private meanings. Americans turned to poetry to amuse themselves and their friends, to pursue and publicize arguments, and to claim membership in real and imagined collectivities. The resultant verses offer a window onto a world of poetic purposes and pleasures that has often been overlooked.
THE COLONIAL ERA
During the late colonial period, educated Americans gathered in formal and informal circles to read and exchange original manuscripts, including poetry. They modeled their works on those of neoclassical English poets, particularly Alexander Pope, and they often signed compositions with pseudonyms such as Leander and Amynta. Women as well as men were prominent in these circles, and for all involved the writing and enjoying of such poetry was a way of proclaiming membership in two communities: the intimate circle of friends who were one's immediate readership, and the larger, Anglo-American community
of sensibility to which one's mastery of the forms granted membership.
Participants in literary circles wrote poetry to nurture and commemorate their own relationships, as well as to memorialize the occasions of their gatherings. Poets of the day also took on explicitly public themes. Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, who was an admired poet and conversationalist in both her own mid-Atlantic region and in England, penned poetic responses to both John Dickinson's Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer (1782) and to Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). John Maylem's "Conquest of Louisburg" described the siege and battle of that fortress during the French and Indian War. And Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge's "The Rising Glory of America," delivered on commencement day at the College of New Jersey in 1771, offered a vision of a prosperous and expansive future for America:
The Ohio soon shall glide by many a town
Of note; and where the Mississippi stream,
By forests shaded, now runs weeping on,
Nations shall grow, and STATES not less in fame
Than Greece and Rome of old!
Poems such as "The Rising Glory of America" claimed a place for the colonies on the world stage. They also asserted, implicitly or explicitly, that their authors deserved a place on that stage, too, and were not simply rude provincials. These entwined public and personal, emulative and assertive meanings of poetry took on added significance in the verse of the era's best-known African American poet, Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley, an African-born woman living in slavery in the colonies, penned neoclassical verse that followed English models. Yet Wheatley's identity, which was revealed in the published volumes of her work, made her successful adoption of English conventions a challenge to contemporaries who assumed blacks were intellectually inferior. The content of Wheatley's poetry, meanwhile, continues to inspire debate among scholars, who disagree over the extent to which Wheatley challenged Christianity and the social and political mores of her day.
IMPERIAL CRISIS AND REVOLUTION
In the years leading up to the Revolution, political arguments and emotions were often cast in verse. Benjamin Franklin counseled colonists to have patience with England and confidence in the colonies' eventual dominance: "We have an old mother, who peevish has grown," he wrote in the mid 1760s: "She snubs us like Children that scarce walk alone; She forgets we're grown up and have Sense of our own." Such verses made political argumentation more accessible and quotable, and those on both sides of the impending conflict also went further, setting their rhymed disagreements to music. John Dickinson's "Liberty Song"—which began, "Come join hand in hand brave Americans all / And rouse your bold hearts at fair liberty's call"—was published in the Boston Gazette in 1768, and it spawned a quick parody, published in the same newspaper and sung to the same tune: "Come shake your dull noodles ye pumpkins and bawl," the parody began, "And own that you're mad at Fair Liberty's call." Not all the poetry of the war years, however, was doggerel. Philip Freneau, ship captain and man of letters, sought to commemorate the events and people of the Revolution in often-ambitious verse, and he movingly evoked the horrors of his own wartime captivity in "The British Prison Ship."
POETRY IN THE NEW NATION
After the Revolution, Americans of all political stripes and social stations wrote poetry celebrating and critiquing the new nation's culture and politics. PhilipPage 536 | Top of Article Freneau published a revised version of "The Rising Glory of America" in 1786 and continued to pen new works. Also among the era's best-known practitioners of the arts were the Connecticut or Hartford Wits, who included Joel Barlow, John Trumbull, David Humphries, Lemuel Hopkins, Richard Alsop, and Timothy Dwight. Amateur men of letters who had begun their literary involvement before America's independence, the Wits combined a serious devotion to literature with careers that included diplomacy and the ministry. Barlow's work ranged from "Hasty Pudding," a humorous celebration of that dish and of Barlow's New England region, to the more ambitious "Vision of Columbus." Greeted with admiration in its original version, Barlow's expanded and revised epic, The Columbiad, fell with a thud when published in 1807. Timothy Dwight's 1794 "Greenfield Hill," meanwhile, offered a vision of New England's past, present, and future, and copious poetic commentary on its landscape, people, and customs. Such poetry combined nationalist ambitions with a wholehearted embrace of English poetic conventions, and the Wits saw no shame in that. In their view, achieving excellence in established poetic forms brought more honor to America than would have the attempted creation of a self-consciously new "American" style.
Freneau and the Wits were perhaps the best-known poets of the early national period, but many other Americans also tried their hand at the form. Women as well as men offered their verses to the public; in 1790, Mercy Otis Warren published cerebral verse on political and religious themes, and the same year saw publication of Sara Wentworth Morton's "Ouabi, or the Virtues of Nature, an Indian Tale in Four Cantos." Newspapers of the day often kept a spot on their back page for original and extracted verse, and readers eagerly sent in their offerings. One of the more widely circulated newspapers of the era, Joseph Dennie's Farmer's Weekly Museum, published a variety of poetry, including satiric treatments of American rustics, odes to beautiful maidens, and gently needling lines on the subject of the editor himself: "His flowery road you may rely on," wrote one correspondent, "is but a crooked path to Zion." And although poetry was a particular passion among young Federalist-leaning literati such as Dennie, Jeffersonians, too, expressed themselves in verse. The Kentucky Gazette, for example, published poetry that celebrated France and Jefferson, and the Fourth of July regularly inspired poetical commemorations in partisan newspapers of all kinds.
Among poets both well-known and obscure, satire was a favored mode of poetical communication in the early national period; its popularity reflected both the continued influence of the English Augustan poets and the mixture of intimacy and publicity that characterized American uses of verse. Satirical treatments of everything from religious orthodoxy to New Englanders' gift to Thomas Jefferson of a "mammoth cheese" found their way into print, and poetic styles themselves—particularly the rather florid Della Cruscan mode—also became the subject of archly mocking lines.
Even as satires, "occasional" poetry, and nationalist verse thrived in the early Republic, however, other forms were gaining popularity. Like their predecessors, these were influenced by English models, although they were put to what were intended as distinctively American uses. Moving beyond their love of Pope, Americans came in the early national period to admire the poetry of authors such as Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Coleridge, and they began to write poetry that explored inner states and evoked intense connections to nature. This was not a rejection of all that had come before; Americans had written poetry about nature throughout the colonial and Revolutionary periods, and Freneau's melancholic "The Wild Honeysuckle" had in fact foreshadowed the way in which, in later years, a contemplation of nature would become a contemplation of the observing self. It is the case, though, that what had once been a minor strain was becoming a dominant idiom, and the early verse of perhaps the era's best-known practitioner of the new style, William Cullen Bryant, suggests the changing style and tone of American poetry. Bryant's 1808 "The Embargo" was a poetic attack on Thomas Jefferson's policies. Despite its familiar subject, the poem had an unexpected emotional intensity that, in Bryant's own words, "darken'd satire's page." By the time of Bryant's first significant work, "Thanatopsis," which he began in 1814 and completed in 1821, the poet had more completely left behind Augustan forms and themes for strains both older and newer: "Thanatopsis," written in a meditative blank verse, merged a Calvinist sense of death's dominion with a reverence for nature that feels distinctively nineteenth century:
When thoughtsPage 537 | Top of Article
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—
Go forth under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around—
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air,—
Comes a still voice.
"No one, on this side of the Atlantic," insisted the author Richard Henry Dana on reading the original published version, "is capable of writing such verses." But someone had, and he would be far from the last American poet to venture forth "under the open sky."
Dowling, William C. Poetry and Ideology in Revolutionary Connecticut. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Ellison, Julie. "Race and Sensibility in the Early Republic: Ann Eliza Bleecker and Sarah Wentworth Morton." American Literature 65, no. 3 (1993): 445–474.
Gilmore, Michael T. "The Literature of the Revolutionary and Early National Periods." In The Cambridge History of American Literature. Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. Vol. 1: 1590–1820. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Grasso, Christopher. A Speaking Aristocracy: Transforming Public Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Hayes, Edmund M. "The Private Poems of Mercy Otis Warren." New England Quarterly 54, no. 2 (1981): 199–224.
Mulford, Carla J. "Political Poetics: Annis Boudinot Stockton and Middle Atlantic Women's Culture." New Jersey History 111, no. 1–2 (1993): 67–110.
Nickels, Cameron C. "Federalist Mock Pastorals: The Ideology of Early New England Humor." Early American Literature 17, no. 2 (1982): 139–151.
Richards, Phillip M. "Phillis Wheatley and Literary Americanization." American Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1992): 163–191.
Shields, David S. Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Shields, John C. "Phillis Wheatley's Subversive Pastoral." Eighteenth-Century Studies 27, no. 4 (1994): 631–647.
Wertheimer, Eric. "Commencement Ceremonies: History and Identity in 'The Rising Glory of America,' 1771 and 1786." Early American Literature 29, no. 1 (1994): 35–58.
Catherine O. Kaplan