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26 June, 2013
Outlines of English and American Literature|
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.