1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Trumbull

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 1:322-26.



The author of M'Fingal, the humorous epic sketch of the Revolution, was born in the present township of Watertown, Connecticut, April 24, 1750, of a family each branch of which has contributed its share of honor to the state. The American head of the house came from England to Ipswich in Massachusetts, in 1645. His son removed to Connecticut. Of the three grandsons, his children, John Trumbull the poet was the representative of the first in the third generation; the second gave the first governor to the state, Jonathan Trumbull, in the second generation, and another Jonathan Trumbull, governor, with his brother the distinguished painter, in the third; while the grandson of the third Benjamin wrote the history of the state. The father of our author was the minister of the Congregational Church of his district; his mother is spoken of as possessed of superior education. A delicate child and fond of books, of which the supply in general literature was very limited at home, being confined to the Spectator and Watts's Hymns, he was early trained by his father for Yale College, of which institution he was admitted a member on examination at the precocious age of seven, though his actual residence at college was wisely adjourned till six years afterwards. During this period he became acquainted with some of the best English classics, and subsequently took up their defence, as a branch of study, in opposition to the exclusive preference of the college for the ancient languages, mathematics, and theology. He was a fellow-student with Timothy Dwight, with whom he formed an intimate and lasting friendship. They wrote together papers in the style of the Spectator, then the standard model for this class of compositions, which they published in the journals of Boston and New Haven. The two friends in 1771 became tutors together in the college, and the next year Trumbull published his Progress of Dulness, a year after enlarging it by a second and third part. The literary quartette was completed by the junction of Humphreys and Barlow.

Under cover of the tutorship, Trumbull studying law was admitted to the bar in Connecticut, in 1773, and as he had entered college first and prepared himself afterwards, so upon his admission as an attorney, he proceeded to Boston and became a student in the office of John Adams, the subsequent President of the United States. In this patriotic society he learnt the lesson of American Independence in its elements, and learnt it well; recording his impressions of the rising spirit of freedom and resistance in An Elegy on the Times, a poem of sixty-eight stanzas, which celebrates the Port Bill and non-consumption of foreign luxuries, the strength of the country, and its future glories contrasted with the final downfall of England.

At the end of 1774, Trumbull returned to New Haven, and wrote what now stand as the first, second, and third cantos of M'Fingal. The period of the war was chiefly passed by him in his native place. In 1781 he took up his residence at Stratford, and at the termination of the war in 1782 completed M'Fingal, revising his early sketches, and adding the concluding canto. Its popularity was very great. There were more than thirty different pirated impressions, in pamphlet and other forms, which were circulated by "the newsmongers, hawkers, pedlars, and petty chapmen" of the day.

Having served his country during the Revolution, he employed his pen again in the second and not inferior work of preserving it for union and the constitution. He was one of the writers of the Anarchiad, a newspaper series of papers at Hartford, a production levelled at the irregularities of the day, and of which an account will be found in the life of his associate in the work, Lemuel Hopkins. He was afterwards called into public life as a member of the State Legislature, and in 1801 became Judge of the Superior Court of the State, continuing to reside at Hartford till 1825, when he removed to Detroit, Michigan, the residence of his daughter, Mrs. Woodbridge, where he died, May 12, 1831, of a gradual decline, at the age of eighty-one, a mature period for a life which had been visited by ill health at intervals from childhood.

The collection of his Poems appeared at Hartford in 1820, with a prefatory memoir closing with a broken sentence, interrupted by asterisks which, with the absence of critical commendation, suggests that the author himself was holding the pen. This edition was published by subscription, and it is not to the credit of the public of that year that only a small subscription was obtained. The publisher, Mr. S. G. Goodrich, lost money by the undertaking, but a thousand dollars and a hundred copies of the work had been secured to the author.

Of the miscellaneous productions of Trumbull, The Progress of Dulness, a satirical poem, composed in his twenty-second year, is the most important. It is in the octosyllabic measure, in three parts.

The first recounts the adventures of Tom Brainless. That hero is sent to college, where his natural dulness is rather strengthened than abated by his smattering of unprofitable studies, and the cheap protection of his diploma. Finding it necessary to do something for himself in the world, he learns "the art of preaching," and of stealing judiciously out of Pool and Henry, which accomplishments acquired, he ascends the pulpit.

Now in the desk, with solemn air,
Our hero makes his audience stare;
Asserts with all dogmatic boldness,
Where impudence is yoked with dulness;
Reads o'er his notes with halting pace
Mask'd in the stiffness of his face;
With gestures such as might become
Those statues once that spoke at Rome,
Or Livy's ox, that to the state
Declared the oracles of fate.
In awkward tones, nor said, nor sung,
Slow rumbling o'er the falt'ring tongue,
Two hours his drawling speech holds on,
And names it preaching, when he's done.

Dick Hairbrain is introduced to us in the second part, a town fop, the son of a wealthy farmer, ridiculous in dress, empty of knowledge, but profound in swearing and cheap infidelity picked up second-hand from Hume and Voltaire. His college course was as dull in point of learning, though a little more animated in profligacy, than that of his predecessor.

What though in algebra, his station
Was negative in each equation;
Though in astronomy survey'd,
His constant course was retrograde;
O'er Newton's system though he sleeps,
And finds his wits in dark eclipse!
His talents proved of highest price
At all the arts of card and dice;
His genius turn'd with greatest skill,
To whist, loo, cribbage, and quadrille,
And taught, to every rival's shame,
Each nice distinction of the game.

He becomes a travelled fool, of course, and runs through his coxcombry and dissipation, till the jail and the palsy relieve him, and the poor creature sinks out of sight, to give place to another shifting of the poet's drop-scene, when the counterpart of this delectable gentleman, Miss Harriet Simper, makes her appearance on the stage. She illustrates the slender stock of female education, formerly in vogue, and the life of the coquette in those good old times of our forefathers, when, among the many who were valiant and industrious, and led simple honest lives, there was room as usual for some who were indolent and conceited. The fops and beaux surrounding this lady present a curious scene of the day when the Sunday meeting was the battle-field for the artillery of love and fashion:

As though they meant to take by blows
Th' opposing galleries of beaux,
To church the female squadron move,
All arm'd with weapons used in love.
Like colour'd ensigns gay and fair,
High caps rise floating in the air;
Bright silk its varied radiance flings,
And streamers wave in kissing-strings;
Each bears th' artill'ry of her charms,
Like training bands at viewing arms.
So once in fear of Indian beating,
Our grandsires bore their guns to meeting,
Each man equipp'd on Sunday morn,
With Psalm-book, shot and powder-horn;
And look'd in form, as all must grant,
Like th' ancient, true church militant;
Or fierce, like modern deep divines,
Who fight with quills, like porcupines;—

when the fortunes of gallantry and domestic happiness were read out of tea-cups; when the ladies grew ecstatic over the hazards of virtuous Pamela, and the gentleman swore by Lovelace, or sported philosophy out of Tristram Shandy — for whose humors, by the way, our author should have had a better fellow-feeling. He speaks, in a note, of the transitory reputation of that not yet quite or likely soon-to-be-forgotten publication. Miss Harriet Simper, after jilting her admirers by scores, falls a victim to Hairbrain, who proves as great a flirt as herself, and rejects her advances. Thrown off by the beau, she finally accepts our dull old friend of the first canto, Brainless, for whom, in consideration of the marriage,

The parish vote him five pounds clear
T' increase his salary every year.
Then swift the tag-rag gentry come
To welcome Madame Brainless home;
Wish their good Parson joy; with pride
In order round salute the bride:
At home, at visits and at meetings,
To Madam all allow precedence;
Greet her at church with rev'rence due,
And next the pulpit fix her pew.

The manners of this poem are well painted, the satire is just, and the reflections natural and pointed. It may still be read with pleasure. The plea for the humanities, as opposed to the dry abstractions and pedantries of college education, is not yet exhausted in its application; and the demand for higher studies and a more profound respect for woman, have been enough agitated of late to commend the early effort of Trumbull in this enlightened cause. In his case, as in many others of the kind, the perceptions of the wit outran the slower judgments of duller men.

The poem of M'Fingal is Trumbull's lasting work for fame. The author himself has described its purpose and method in a letter written in 1785 to the Marquis de Chastellux, who had complimented him, from the French capital, upon fulfilling the conditions of burlesque poetry according to the approved laws from the days of Homer. In reply, Trumbull says he would have been happy to have seen the rules alluded to before he composed the poem; but he had not written it without design or attempt at construction. It had been undertaken "with a political view, at the instigation of some leading members of the first Congress, who urged him to compose a satirical poem on the events of the campaign in the year 1775," and he had aimed at expressing, "in a poetical manner, a general account of the American contest, with a particular description of the character and manners of the times, interspersed with anecdotes, which no history could probably record or display: and with as much impartiality as possible, satirize the follies and extravagances of my countrymen as well as of their enemies. I determined to describe every subject in the manner it struck my own imagination, and without confining myself to a perpetual effort at wit, drollery, and humour, indulge every variety of manner, as my subject varied, and insert all the ridicule, satire, sense, sprightliness, and elevation, of which I was master." In carrying out this design, M'Fingal, a burly type of the monarchy-loving squires of New England, is chosen as the representative of the general Tory interests and personages of the country. Honorius is the Whig champion of freedom and opposition, and the poem is mostly an harangue between the two. It opens with a meeting assembled for political discussion in the church of M'Fingal's native town, whither he has just arrived from Boston. Honorius commences with a general attack on the decay of Britain, and her injurious course towards the colonies, with free allusion to court lawyers, clergymen, and interested merchants, when he is suddenly interrupted by M'Fingal, with a fierce diatribe of reproach and expostulation, the humor of which consists in clinching every nail driven in by his opponent; for the squire was one of those arguers more dangerous to his friends than his foes.

As some muskets so contrive it,
As oft to miss the mark they drive at,
And though well aim'd at duck or plover,
Bear wide, and kick their owners over:
So fared our Squire, whose reas'ning toil
Would often on himself recoil,
And so much injured more his side,
The stronger arguments he applied;
As old war-elephants, dismay'd,
Trod down the troops they came to aid,
And hurt their own side more in battle,
Than less and ordinary cattle.

The clergy, with their divine right for the powers that be, the royal editors and councilmen are brought before us, and their pretensions knocked about as shuttlecocks from one arguer to the other.

Canto first is adjourned for dinner, which refreshment being secured, the parties meet to battle again with renewed vigor in the afternoon. M'Fingal taunts the company with the blessings of Puritan exile, and the various measures of government; and after this ironical appeal to their gratitude, throws in an alarm for their fears, in a glance at the movements of General Gage. Honorius sneers at the Boston general, and M'Fingal gets the floor again, pouring forth an eloquent flood of declamation upon British victories, and confiscations in prospect, the rise of Tories and fall of Whigs. Honorius, in turn, sounds a trumpet-tongued harangue for freedom. The Tories lose their temper, and the contest for order is louder and louder, till the attention of the combatants is diverted by a movement without. This is the famous gathering for the consecration of the liberty pole, which is the central Point of the third canto. M'Fingal endeavors to disperse the mob by tongue and constable, but at the first note of the riot act and proclamation, "Our Sovereign Lord the King" arguments are seconded by stones and clubs; a general fight ensues, M'Fingal's sword enacts prodigies, but a revolutionary spade, which had planted the liberty pole, wielded by a stout Whig, disarms him. The constable, who had skulked at the beginning of the fray, is twisted midway in air by the breech, a philosophical position compared to Socrates in his basket, a height from which he soon sees the error of his ways; while a court, hastily assembled on the spot, assigns the graver fate of tarring and feathering to M'Fingal — a comic invention of the Revolution, a huge practical joke partaking something of the jocular Puritan humors of old Cromwell; inconvenient, doubtless, but better every way for all parties than the prison ships and cruelties of the British. The decree having been executed in an exemplary manner—

And now the mob, dispersed and gone,
Left Squire and Constable alone.
The Constable with rueful face
Lean'd sad and solemn o'er a brace;
And fast beside him, cheek by jowl,
Stuck 'Squire M'Fingal 'gainst the pole,
Glued by the tar t' his rear applied,
Like barnacle on vessel's side.

M'Fingal, at the opening of the fourth canto, retires under cover of night to the cellar of his mansion, where there is a secret Tory muster, burlesqued from Satan and his pandemonium, the chiefs sitting about on ale kegs and cider barrels, the Squire discoursing from the rostrum of the potato bin. His Scotch descent enables him to close the poem with a vision of second sight, an excellent piece of machinery. This portion being written after the war, has the benefit of history for its predictions. It is an eloquent recapitulation of the varied fortunes of the struggle. The humor is exquisite, and refined by the truthful force and occasionally elevated treatment of the subject. When the last battle of the Revolution has been fought, and the narrowing genius of England been contrasted in the uninvited inspiration of the Squire with the expansive force of America, the mob discovers the retreat; the assembly is dispersed, M'Fingal escapes out of a window en route to Boston, and the poem is closed.

M'Fingal is modelled upon Hudibras in a certain general treatment, the construction of its verse, and many of its turns of humor; but it is so thoroughly American in its ideas and subject matter, that it soon ceases to be an imitation, and we look upon it solely as it was — an original product of the times. The Hudibrastic body is thoroughly interpenetrated by its American spirit. The illustrations, where there was the greatest temptation to plagiarism, are drawn from the writer's own biblical and classical reading, and the colloquial familiarities of the times. For the manners of the poem there is no record of the period which supplies so vivid a presentation of the old Revolutionary Whig habits of thinking and acting. We are among the actors of the day, the town committees, the yeomanry, the politicians, and soldiers, participating the rough humor of the times; for nothing is more characteristic of the struggle than a certain vein of pleasantry and hearty animal spirits which entered into it. Hardships were endured with fortitude, for which there was occasion enough, but the contest was carried on with wit as with other weapons. The fathers of the Revolution were as ready to take a joke as a bullet, though there might be as much lead in one as the other. There were pleasant fellows on both sides, but if the palm of victory were to be assigned to the wits, the Freneaus, Trumbulls, Hopkinsons, and Hopkinses, would carry the day against the Myles Coopers, Mather Biles, Rivingtons, Scovills, Burgoynes, and Major Andres.