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Outlines of English and American Literature
Revolutionary Poetry
by Long, William J.


The poetry of the Revolution, an abundant but weedy crop, was badly influenced by two factors: by the political strife between Patriots and Loyalists, and by the slavish imitation of Pope and other formalists who were then the models for nearly all versifiers on both sides of the Atlantic. The former influence appears in numerous ballads or narrative poems, which were as popular in the days of Washington as ever they were in the time of Robin Hood. Every important event of the Revolution was promptly celebrated in verse; but as the country was then sharply divided, almost every ballad had a Whig or a Tory twist to it. In consequence we must read two different collections, such as Moore's Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution and Sargent's Loyalist Poetry of the Revolution, for supplementary views of the same great struggle.

The Hartford Wits

The influence of Pope and his school is especially noticeable in the work of a group of men called the Hartford Wits, who at the beginning of our national life had the worthy ambition to create a national literature. Prominent among these so-called wits were Joel Barlow (1754-1812) and Timothy Dwight (1752-1817). In such ponderous works as Barlow's Columbiad and Dwight's Conquest of Canaan, both written in mechanical rhymed couplets, we have a reflection not of the glories of American history, as the authors intended, but of two aspiring men who, without genius or humor, hoped by industry to produce poems that in size at least should be worthy of a country that stretched between two oceans.

More gifted than either of his fellow "wits" was John Trumbull (1750-1831), who had the instinct of a poet but who was led aside by the strife of Whigs and Tories into the barren field of political satire. His best-known work is M'Fingal (1775), a burlesque poem in the doggerel style of Butler's Hudibras, which ridiculed a Tory squire and described his barbarous punishment at the hands of a riotous mob of Whigs. It was the most widely quoted poem of the entire Revolutionary period, and is still interesting as an example of rough humor and as a reflection of the militant age in which it was produced.

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