1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Timothy Dwight

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 1:371-76.



The first American ancestor of Timothy Dwight came from Dedham, England, to Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1637. Five generations intervened when the poet and theologian of the name was born, in the oldest male line, at Northampton, Mass., May 14, 1752. His father was a merchant of the town and a graduate of Yale; his mother was the third daughter of the metaphysician Jonathan Edwards — so Dwight came in regular succession to his future reputation, and he probably owed much of it directly to this lady, for he received his early education at home. His mother taught him the alphabet in one lesson, and he read the Bible when he was but four years of age. Latin he studied by himself at six, and would have been ready for college at eight, had not his school been discontinued when he came home to learn his favorite studies of geography and history from his mother. He entered Yale College when he was thirteen, in 1765, where for the first two years, it is said by one of his biographers, that, "through the folly of youth much of is time was misspent," a statement which is explained by an intimation from another biographer that gambling was a vice of the place, and that Dwight, though he played for amusement and never for money, let the sport engross too much of his time. At fifteen, however, he took up study in earnest, occupying fourteen hours a day with his books. He was graduated in 1769, and for two years was a teacher at New Haven, still continuing his studies. He then became a tutor in his college when he was nineteen, and began the composition of his poem the Conquest of Canaan. It was finished within three years, though not published till the conclusion of the Revolutionary war gave literature a hearing in 1785, when it appeared with a dedication to Washington. It was reprinted by J. Johnson, in London, in 1788. Dwight taught mathematics, rhetoric, and oratory, in the college for six years. His theme on taking his mastership of arts, was The History, Eloquence, and Poetry of the Bible, an oration, which was published at the time, and greatly advanced his reputation by its glowing declamation. It has a warm tribute to the eloquence of St. Paul, and instances the noble literature of the Old Testament in the Book of Job, the perfect example of the ode in the one hundred and fourth Psalm, and the beauties of others, particularly the eighteenth, where "the poet's imagination rises to such a height as Pindar, Dryden, and Gray must look up to with astonishment and despair."

Dwight returned to Northampton to recruit his health wasted by study, and establish a constitution which remained unimpaired till he was more than sixty. In 1777 he was married to the daughter of an old college companion of his father, Benjamin Woolsey, of Long Island; and the same year being licensed to preach, his services were accepted as chaplain in the army, which he joined at West Point, in which national atmosphere, at that national moment, he wrote his famous song of "Columbia," which was received with enthusiasm, was published in all the popular collections, and has not lost its place in similar quarters since. Though somewhat ornate, its spirit and success are not to be questioned. He was with the army a year when his father's death recalled him to the family at Northampton, where for five years he labored, as preacher and farmer, for their support. He was a member of the state legislature in 1781, and his popularity would have detained him in civil life had he not deliberately preferred the ministry, the duties of which he accepted at Greenfield, Ct., in 1783, and discharged in the same place for twelve years, adding to his small stipend of five hundred dollars per annum by the profits of an academy. His poem Greenfield Hill, inspired by the neighborhood, appeared in 1794, with a dedication to John Adams, and with its predecessor it was republished in England.

The next year Dwight was chosen to succeed Dr. Stiles in the presidency of Yale College, a post which he filled till his death, twenty-one years after. The chief literary fruits of his new college life were the series of divinity discourses delivered by him to the students, and which were published after his death, in five volumes, with the title, Theology; Explained and Defended: a work which has exercised an important influence in the congregational denomination of which it is the exponent, has been widely circulated in England, and which has been greatly admired by the author's friends for "its philosophical arrangement, its luminous reasonings, its bold and lofty eloquence, and the ability which it evinces to employ different faculties with the best effect, and to do everything in an exceedingly graceful and perfect manner."

In the year 1800 he revised Watts's Psalms, at the request of the General Association of Connecticut, adding translations of his own, which Watts had not attempted, and annexing a selection of Hymns; both of which were approved of and adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. As a favorable specimen of his execution in this line, the version of the one hundred and thirty-seventh Psalm, which Joel Barlow had previously as well succeeded with, may be instanced:

PSALM CXXXVII.
I love thy kingdom, Lord,
The house of thine abode,
The church, our blest Redeemer sav'd
With his own precious blood.

I love thy Church, O God!
Her walls before thee stand,
Dear as the apple of thine eye,
And graven on thy hand.

If e'er to bless thy sons
My voice, or hands, deny,
These hands let useful skill forsake,
This voice in silence die.

If e'er my heart forget
Her welfare, or her wo,
Let every joy this heart forsake,
And every grief o'erflow.

For her my tears shall fall;
For her my prayers ascend;
To her my cares and toils be given,
'Till toils and cares shall end.

Beyond my highest joy
I prize her heavenly ways,
Her sweet communion, solemn vows,
Her hymns of love and praise.

Jesus, thou Friend divine,
Our Saviour and our King,
Thy hand from every snare and foe
Shall great deliverance bring.

Sure as thy truth shall last,
To Zion shall be given
The brightest glories, earth can yield,
And brighter bliss of heaven.

This has been adopted, beyond the limits of Dwight's own denomination, in the Hymn-book of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

His vacations for the whole of his presidency were passed in travelling excursions, when travelling, before the days of the locomotives, was a quiet, leisurely individual affair, which led into by-places, was inquisitive of nature, gave country landlords an opportunity to exhibit themselves, and time was afforded to see the local great men on the way, as he journied through the neighboring states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York. He visited the White Mountains, Lake George, Montauk, Niagara, the Kaatskills, and various other localities, keeping notes of his journeys, written out in the form of letters, which compose the series published in 1821, after his death, of Travels in New England and New York. Southey [author's note: Quarterly Review, Oct. 1823, Art. I], who saw in the four well filled volumes admirable material for the history of a new state, what Miss Martineau has since called "world making," in the natural history observations, the sketches of Indian life, the notices of education, domestic manners, and social progress, pronounces this "the most important of Dwight's writings, a work which will derive additional value from time, whatever may become of his poetry and of his sermons."

In 1816 Dwight was seized with the illness — an alarming affection of the bladder — which, though it was partially relieved by a surgical operation, caused his death the year after, January 11, 1817, in his sixty-fifth year. He employed the last months of his life in compositions on the evidences of revelation, and in the completion of a poem of fifteen hundred lines, the description of a contest between Genius and Common Sense.

The personal influence of Dwight should not be overlooked in an estimate of his position. He appears to have been "every inch" a president. His popularity with the students was unbounded, and was maintained by no sacrifice of self-respect, for Dwight was always courtly and dignified. A lady, who saw him in her youth, when he visited an old college companion, her father, the Rev. Joseph Buckminster, Mrs. Lee, says that when he entered the humble parsonage, he appeared to her youthful observation to possess "the lofty politeness, the priestly dignity of the Bishop of London, as made known by the pen of Hannah More." The portrait by Trumbull exhibits this ease and self-command, which was built up upon some noble traits of character, a sense of duty, a higher order of industry, and an ardent fire of genius in youth. In Dwight's early poems we see a heat of honest enthusiasm sufficient to warm the faculties through life. These productions have been hardly dealt with. They are worth something more than to furnish a dull jest at epic failures. The Conquest of Canaan, it should be remembered, was the production of a youth hardly out of college, and should be looked at as a series of poetic sketches, not over nice in rhetorical treatment or obedience to the laws of Aristotle. In that view it contains much pleasing writing, but the word epic should never be brought in contact with it. His biographer thinks its reception was marred by the general prevalence of infidelity at the time of its publication. If so, the injury may have been somewhat abated by the appearance, soon after, of the Triumph of Infidelity, an anonymous poem from his pen, which dealt some trenchant blows at scoffers in high places. But the truth is, that no amount of religious belief held in its utmost purity can entirely overcome the indifference of readers as they make their way through the long monotonous pages of the Conquest of Canaan. The lines are sounding in couplets; the caesura gives breath and the rhymes ring well, but little impression is made upon the mind. The characters are too little discriminated, and the manners have too little exactness to fix the attention. The warriors are numerous, and one warrior is like another. The lovers, Irad and Selima, are exemplary; one is brave and the other virtuous, but their conversation is tedious. The action has not the merit of a close adherence to the original; so history is damaged without poetry being much the gainer. The interpolations of the combats of the American Revolution in the wars of the Israelites had, doubtless, a sound patriotic intention, but would be fatal to a better poem. Yet we may find many vigorous passages in the volume, which show a fine glow of the imagination. The similes are numerous, and many of them are striking. He thus treats Niagara in a comparison of the onset of battle:

Mean time from distant guards a cry ascends,
And round the camp the dinning voice extends;
Th' alarming trump resounds; the martial train
Pour from the tents, and crowd th' accustom'd plain,
In mazy wanderings, thickening, darkening, roll,
Fill all the field, and shade the boundless pole.
As where proud Erie winds her narrowing shores,
And o'er huge hills a boiling ocean pours,
The long white-sheeted foam, with fury hurl'd,
Down the cliffs thundering, shakes the stable world.
In solemn grandeur clouds of mist arise,
Top the tall pines, and heavy seek the skies:
So spread the volumes of the dust afar;
So roar the clamors of commencing war.

This prophetic passage, in which the author evidently has America in view, may boast at least one fine couplet:—

Then o'er wide lands, as blissful Eden bright,
Type of the skies, and seats of pure delight,
Our sons, with prosperous course, shall stretch their sway,
And claim an empire, spread from sea to sea:
In one great whole th' harmonious tribes combine;
Trace Justice' path, and choose their chiefs divine;
On Freedom's base erect the heavenly plan;
Teach laws to reign, and save the rights of man.
Then smiling Art shall wrap the fields in bloom,
Fine the rich ore, and guide the useful loom;
Then lofty towers in golden pomp arise;
Then spiry cities meet auspicious skies:
The soul on Wisdom's wing sublimely soar,
New virtues cherish, and new truths explore:
"Thro' time's long tract our name celestial run,
Climb in the east, and circle with the sun;"
And smiling Glory stretch triumphant wings
O'er hosts of heroes, and o'er tribes of kings.

The birds crowning the jubilee of returning day after a storm are introduced with beauty in the following scene, which glitters with sunshine:

Then gentler scenes his rapt attention gain'd,
Where GOD'S great hand in clear effulgence reign'd,
The growing beauties of the solemn even,
And all the bright sublimities of heaven.
Above tall western hills, the light of day
Shot far the splendors of his golden ray;
Bright from the storm, with tenfold grace he smil'd,
The tumult soften'd and the world grew mild.
With pomp transcendant, rob'd in heavenly dyes,
Arch'd the clear rainbow round the orient skies;
Its changeless form, its hues of beam divine,
Fair type of truth, and beauty endless shine,
Around th' expanse, with thousand splendors rare;
Gay clouds sail'd wanton through the kindling air;
From shade to shade, unnumber'd tinctures blend;
Unnumber'd forms of wondrous light extend;
In pride stupendous, glittering walls aspire,
Grac'd with bright domes, and crown'd with towers of fire.
On cliffs cliffs burn; o'er mountains mountains roll:
A bunt of glory spreads from pole to pole:
Rapt with the splendor, every songster sings,
Tops the high bough, and claps his glistening wings:
With new-born green, reviving nature blooms,
And sweeter fragrance freshening air perfumes.

The gentle Cowper, who wrote a favorable critique on the poem in the Analytical Review, notices this description of Night as "highly poetical."

Now Night, in vestments rob'd, of cloudy dye,
With sable grandeur cloth'd the orient sky,
Impell'd the sun, obsequious to her reign,
Down the far mountains to the western main;
With magic hand, becalm'd the solemn even,
And drew day's curtain from the spangled heaven.
At once the planets sail'd around the throne:
At once ten thousand worlds in splendor shone:
Behind her car, the moon's expanded eye
Rose from a cloud, and look'd around the sky:
Far up th' immense her train sublimely roll,
And dance, and triumph, round the lucid pole.
Faint shine the fields, beneath the shadowy ray:
Slow fades the glimmering of the west away;
To sleep the tribes retire; and not a sound
Flows through the air, or murmurs on the ground.

There is a glowing picture of the millennium. Indeed, the reader is oppressed by the uniform eloquence of the description. It is too florid. The natural powers of the writer appear in the poem, injured by the study of Pope's declamatory pieces.

It is said to have been at the suggestion of the poet Trumbull, his fellow tutor at the time in the college, that Dwight wrote the animated description of the battle lighted by the burning city of Ai, in the seventh book. The author of M'Fingal had another hint in his own humorous way for the laborious young poet. In allusion to the number of thunder-storms described in the portion of the poem handed him to read, he requested that when he sent in the remainder, a lightning rod might be included.

Dwight's literary compositions are represented by two leading ideas — his religion and his patriotism. The former is sustained in his Theology and in his Triumph of Infidelity, and in some fine passages in Greenfield Hill; the latter in his remarks on the Review of Inchiquin's Letters, and in many pages of his travels. In the poem on Infidelity, and his passage with the Quarterly Review, he does not mince matters, but shows the hand of a bold vigorous pamphleteer. The Triumph of Infidelity; a Poem. Printed in the World, 1788: was sent forth with no other title. It is an octavo of forty pages, levelled at the unbelieving spirit of the century then drawing to its close. It is dedicated to Mons. de Voltaire: "Sir, your Creator endued you with shining talents, and cast your lot in a field of action, where they might be most happily employed: In the progress of along and industrious life, you devoted them to a single purpose, the elevation of your character above his. For the accomplishment of this purpose, with a diligence and uniformity which would have adorned the most virtuous pursuits, you opposed truth, religion, and their authors, with sophistry, contempt, and obloquy; and taught, as far as your example or sentiments extended their influence, that the chief end of man was, to slander his God, and abuse him for ever. To whom could such an effort as the following be dedicated, with more propriety than to you."

The satire is full of indignation; with more polish, it could not fail to have become widely celebrated. Here are a few of its strong lines:

THE SMOOTH DIVINE.
There smil'd the smooth Divine, unus'd to wound
The sinner's heart, with hell's alarming sound.
No terrors on his gentle tongue attend;
No grating truths the nicest ear offend.
That strange new-birth, that methodistic grace,
Nor in his heart, nor sermons found a place.
Plato's fine tales he clumsily retold,
Trite, fireside, moral seesaws, dull as old;
His Christ, and bible, plac'd at good remove,
Guilt hell-deserving, and forgiving love.
'Twas best, he said, mankind should cease to sin;
Good fame requir'd it; so did peace within:
Their honours, well he knew, would ne'er be driven.
But hop'd they still would please to go to heaven.
Each week, he paid his visitation dues;
Coax'd, jested, laugh'd; rehears'd the private news;
Smoak'd with each goody, thought her cheese excell'd;
Her pipe he lighted, and her baby held.
Or plac'd in some great town, with lacquer'd shoes,
Trim wig, and trimmer gown, and glistening hose.
He bow'd, talk'd politics, learn'd manners mild;
Most meekly question'd, and most smoothly smil'd;
At rich men's jests laugh'd loud, their stories prais'd;
Their wives' new patterns gaz'd, and gaz'd, and gaz'd;
Most daintily on pamper'd turkies din'd;
Nor shrunk with fasting, nor with study pin'd:
Yet from their churches saw his brethren driven,
Who thunder'd truth, and spoke the voice of heaven,
Chill'd trembling guilt, in Satan's headlong path,
Charm'd the feet back, and rous'd the ear of death.
"Let fools," he cried, "starve on, while prudent I
Snug in my nest shall live, and snug shall die."

The picture of the good divine in Greenfield Hill, the opposite of this rough outline, is highly pleasing.

When the malignant review of Inchiquin's Letters appeared in the (London) Quarterly for Jan. 1814, its bitterness and contempt were so unsparing and its falsehood so gross, that Dwight, though its abuse was partly directed against Jefferson and others whom he did not hold in particular favor, thought it necessary to reply. His work, an octavo of one hundred and seventy-six pages, was entitled, Remarks on the Review of Inchiquin's Letters, published in the Quarterly Review; addressed to the Right Honorable George Canning, Esq., by an Inhabitant of New England; and was published in Boston in 1815. It carries the war into Africa, contrasting every defect urged against America with a corresponding iniquity in England, and exonerating his countrymen from many of the charges as utterly unfounded. It meets the reviler with language as loud and with facts severer than his own. It shows that under his polished exterior the fires of his youth still glowed in the college President.

Greenfield Hill is an idyllic poem of rare merit. A little more nicety of execution and a better comprehension of the design at the outset, would doubtless have improved it; but the spirit is there. It is noticeable that it was undertaken as an imitation or adaptation of different English poets; but the author found the labor of pursuing this plan too great, and fell off, or rather rose to original invention. This has often happened in English literature, and some of the best successes are due to this effort, which the genius of the writer has soon transcended; as in the Castle of Indolence and the Splendid Shilling, to which may be added Trumbull's M'Fingal. Thus Dwight, commencing with Beattie and Goldsmith, soon runs into measures and incidents of his own; or turns the contrast of American manners to happy account, as in his picture of "the Flourishing Village" of Greenfield, where he finds in the allotment of estates and the absence of manorial privileges, the opposite of The Deserted Village. The general plan of the poem is thus sketched by the author in his Introduction:

"In the Parish of Greenfield, in the town of Fairfield, in Connecticut, there is a pleasant and beautiful eminence, called Greenfield Hill; at the distance of three miles from Long Island Sound. On this eminence, there is a small but handsome village, a church, academy, &c., all of them alluded to in the following poem. From the highest part of the eminence, the eye is presented with an extensive and delightful prospect of the surrounding country, and of the Sound. On this height, the writer is supposed to stand. The first object, there offering itself to hie view, is the landscape; which is accordingly made the governing subject of the first part of the Poem. The flourishing and happy condition of the inhabitants very naturally suggested itself next; and became of course, the subject of the Second Part. The town of Fairfield, lying in full view, and, not long before the poem was begun and in a great measure written out, burnt by a party of British troops, under the command of Governor Tryon, furnished the theme of the Third Part. A field, called the Pequod Swamp, in which most of the warriors of that nation who survived the invasion of their country by Capt. Mason, were destroyed, lying about three miles from the eminence above-mentioned, and on the margin of the Sound, suggested, not unnaturally, the subject of the Fourth Part.

"As the writer is the minister of Greenfield, he cannot be supposed to be uninterested in the welfare of his parishioners. To excite their attention to the truths and duties of religion (an object in such a situation instinctively rising to his view) is the design of the Fifth Part; and to promote in them just sentiments and useful conduct, for the present life, (an object closely connected with the preceding one) of the Sixth."

The landscape, the characters, and the ideas of the poem are American; the language in a few instances belongs to English poets; but the author has handsomely acknowledged the obligation in his notes. Of the more characteristic portions, the description of the school, the affectionate picture of the village clergyman, the Indian war, the Connecticut farmer's prudential maxims, with the whole scope of the political reflections, are purely American.

Several members of the Dwight family have appeared as authors. The brother of the President, Theodore Dwight, occupied for a long time a distinguished part in the affairs of the country. He was born at Northampton in 1765, and studied law after the Revolution with his uncle Judge Pierpont Edwards. He had a hand in the poetical and political essays of the Echo, in the Hartford Mercury, in common with Hopkins and Alsop. He was an eminent Federalist, and was chosen the secretary of the Hartford Convention. In 1815, he commenced the Albany Daily Advertiser with the support of the leading politicians of his party in the state; and in 1817 engaged in the publication and editorship of the New York Daily Advertiser, which he continued till 1835, when he retired to Hartford. In 1833, his History of the Hartford Convention appeared at New York; and in 1839, his Character of Thomas Jefferson as exhibited in his own writings, at Boston—a book of a partisan political character. He died June 11, 1846.

His son, Theodore Dwight, was the author of a History of Connecticut, in 1841, of a volume on the Revolution of 1848, and the Life of Garibaldi, 1859. He died at Brooklyn, Oct. 16, 1866.

In 1829, a son of the president, Henry R. Dwight, published a volume in New York of Travels in the North of Germany, in the years 1825 and 1826; presenting "a view of the religious, literary, and political institutions of northern Germany, and their influence on society; the arts, the present state of religion, schools, and universities."

Another son of the president, Sereno E. Dwight, was author of the Life of Jonathan Edwards, A Memoir, by the Rev. William Dwight, of Portland, Maine.