Rev. Timothy Dwight

Samuel Kettell, in Specimens of American Poetry (1829) 1:223-32.

TIMOTHY DWIGHT was born at Northampton, in Massachusetts on the 14th day of May, 1752. His father, Timothy Dwight, was a merchant liberally educated, and the proprietor of a considerable estate; and is described by the biographers of his illustrious son as "a man of sound understanding, of fervent piety, and of great purity of life." His mother — the third daughter of Jonathan Edwards, a name celebrated alike in systems of philosophy, and systems of divinity — was in many respects a remarkable woman, and to her early assiduity, doubtless, more than to any other cause, must be ascribed his subsequent celebrity. During the years of childhood, his education was conducted almost exclusively by her, and in her nursery.

In his twelfth year he was placed in the family of the Rev. Enoch Huntington, of Middletown, a gentleman distinguished for his classical attainments in an age when such attainments were probably more valued, and more frequent among the clergy of New England than they now are. He was admitted a member of Yale College, at the age of thirteen years. Owing partly to personal misfortunes, and partly to the inauspicious circumstances of the institution, his studies were for two years in a great measure interrupted. For the two remaining years his application was such as has been seldom surpassed by any person so early in life. He commenced Bachelor of arts in 1769.

After two years spent in the superintendance of the classical school in New Haven, he was chosen tutor in Yale College, and immediately entered on the duties of that office. In this new station he soon exhibited those peculiar talents which eminently qualified him for the high place which he afterwards filled with honor to himself, and with usefulness to his country. His colleagues in office, of whom JOHN TRUMBULL was one, were men of a kindred spirit with himself. These men, by their united efforts, inspired as they were, with the enthusiasm of genius, soon effected a decided change in the literary character of the institution. For many years previous, the study of the classics, and of mathematical and metaphysical sciences had been pursued with great zeal. The period of the tutorship of Dwight, which included the six years from 1771, to 1777 — is regarded as an era in the history of Yale College. A better standard of superiority, and a more liberal course of study were adopted. English literature became an object of attention. Rhetoric and oratory were cultivated. And so devoted were the attentions of Dwight to the improvement of his class, that he not only carried them through, and far beyond the usual studies, but was at the pains of addressing to them a series of lectures on style and composition, similar in plan to the lectures of Blair, which had not then come before the public. His instructions generally at that time were of the same character which they afterwards possessed when from the chair of the President he taught, for twenty-two years, as many successive classes of the young citizens of independent and republican America. The first class of his pupils entered on their Bachelor's degree a year before the declaration of independence. Yet at that time he, in common with other men of enlarged and powerful minds, had formed the noble and prophetic, conception of what this country was to be, and of what it will be in the ages yet to come. In teaching then, as well as afterwards, he regarded his pupils as destined to sustain the various duties of citizens, and to bear up the honors of a great republic. The consequence was, that all his instructions had a peculiarly practical cast and bearing. He endeavored to impress on his pupils distinct notions of the scenes in which they were to act, and of the responsibilities which they must sustain. "You should by no means consider yourselves," said he, "as members of a small neighborhood, town, or colony only, but as being concerned in laying the foundation of American greatness. Your wishes, your designs, your labors are not to be confined by the narrow bounds of the present age, but are to comprehend succeeding generations, and to be pointed to immortality. You are to act, not like inhabitants of a village, nor like beings of an hour, but like citizens of a world, and like candidates for a name that shall survive the conflagration."

During this period of his life, he attempted to join with the severest study a system of abstemiousness which, as he thought, might prevent the necessity of bodily exercise. This system he followed till he had nearly destroyed his life. Another consequence of his close and unremitting application was the impairing of his eyesight — a calamity under which he suffered to the end of his life.

In March, 1777, he married Miss Mary Woolsey, daughter of Benjamin Woolsey, Esq. of Long Island. In September following he relinquished his connexion with the college; and soon after accepted a chaplaincy in the continental army. It is one of the most remarkable circumstances in the history of the revolutionary war, and one which strikingly illustrates the deep and universal enthusiasm of the nation, that not a few of the clergy, eminent alike for piety and talents, went forth from their homes, and from the solitude of sacred study, to animate the army by their exhortations, and by their prayers to call down upon it the blessings of heaven. Mr. Dwight on joining the army found himself indeed in circumstances entirely unlike his previous course of life; but the power and versatility of his genius, and the enthusiasm with which he shared with all around him, proved adequate to the exigency. The soldiers of the brigade with which he was connected, were mostly farmers of Connecticut, who had left only for a season their firesides, and their hereditary acres, and the churches in which they had been wont from infancy to worship.

His reputation in the army was high. Several patriotic songs from his pen acquired a wide popularity, particularly with the soldiers. His "Columbia" is at this day among our best and most popular national songs.

After a single year thus spent, his father's death compelled him to resign his office. For the five succeeding years, he resided at Northampton with his mother, assisting her in the support and education of her numerous family. During this period he directed the cultivation of the paternal estate, (of which he relinquished his share in favor of his mother and her other children,) superintended the education of his young brothers and sisters, and preached on Sundays to vacant congregations in the vicinity. Not forgetting his favorite employment in which he was destined to be more widely and eminently useful than perhaps any other individual who ever lived, he established an Acadamy at Northampton which speedily attained a great share of public favor. Yale College being at this time, as it often had been during his own tutorship, in a dispersed and broken state, owing to the danger of its maritime situation, a part of one of the classes placed themselves under his tuition, and were conducted by him through the course of college study.

During his residence at Northampton, he was twice chosen to represent that town in the legislature of Massachusetts. This was at a time when many questions of great importance, arising from the revolutionary condition of society, were to be settled by legislative authority. In these circumstances he exhibited such political wisdom and integrity, and such parliamentary talents, as gained for him great confidence. He was earnestly solicited by his friends, to devote himself to public life. In particular he was requested to become a candidate for a seat in Congress. But he could not be persuaded to abandon the work to which he had now devoted himself. He esteemed the sphere which is occupied by a minister of Christianity, as more exalted and more desirable than any other station. In 1783 he was ordained pastor of the church and congregation in Greenfield, a parish of Fairfield, in Connecticut.

For twelve years his life was occupied with the labors of a country pastor. But such a man could not be withdrawn from public attention. His fame as a preacher, as a scholar, and as a man of splendid talents, was continually increasing. Extensively acquainted with distinguished men, himself an object of attraction almost equally to friends and to strangers, and by disposition and habit, hospitable even beyond the well-known hospitality of New England, his house was a place of almost constant resort.

The annual pittance of a country minister was inadequate to the expenses of his family, and this circumstance, conspiring with his previous course of life, led him to establish here, as he had done at Northampton, an Academy for the liberal education of youth. He was soon surrounded by pupils from every part of the country; and in the course of the twelve years which were thus spent, he is said to have instructed more than one thousand scholars.

He became President of Yale College in 1795. His labors and his usefulness in this station are well known. He came to the Presidency at a critical moment. The institution was impoverished. The state, at that time, as at almost all other times, refused its patronage. No private munificence was afforded to enlarge its means of usefulness. The prosperity, and indeed the existence of the institution was at stake. Amid all these embarrassments, he succeeded. A system of kind and parental, yet vigorous discipline was immediately introduced, under which the college has been uniformly distinguished for its decorum to this hour. The college became more popular. The Legislature of the state, condescended to bestow upon it some appropriations of uncertain value, from which a considerable amount was ultimately realized.

The number of students was increased; new buildings were provided for their accommodation; the apparatus and library were enlarged; additional professorships were established, and the President soon gathered around him a body of instructors to whose talents and industry combined with his own, it is to be ascribed that the institution is now, in numbers and popularity, if not in resources, one of the first among the American Universities.

As President, Dr. Dwight was charged with the direct instruction of the senior class. How well he performed this work, how he delighted his pupils by the eloquence and variety of his instructions; how he won their confidence, and their admiration; how he secured for himself their warmest and kindest affections; with what paternal feelings he advised them individually, entering into all their plans, and understanding as if by intuition all their difficulties and embarrassments; and how intimate and enduring was the tie by which he and they were mutually connected — hundreds now living, can tell.

In addition to his duties as President, he sustained the Professorship of Divinity. In this office, he preached in the college Chapel twice every Sunday. One of the sermons every week was in the course of systematic lectures on Theology, which has been published since his death, and has obtained a popularity unprecedented for a work of that description. In discharging the duties of this department, he also conducted the studies of the Theological class, and was, as the Professor of Divinity has always been till within a short time past, their sole instructor.

After his accession to the Presidency, his course of life was remarkably uniform. Forty weeks of each year, he was confined by his official duties. The remaining twelve weeks were generally spent in excursions through almost every part of the Northern states. The vast amount of local, historical, and statistical information, which he was able thus to collect, has been published since his death under the title of Travels in New England and New York. The transactions of the Connecticut Academy, several of the literary and religious periodicals of his time, and his frequent occasional publications, anonymous and avowed, testify to his industry, and to the richness and energy of his mind.

Twenty years had thus passed away, and he had never been once detained from his pulpit by sickness or by any other cause. At the age of sixty-three his constitution, notwithstanding so many years of sedentary toil, was unimpaired. The same manly frame, and noble and commanding aspect, the same indefatigable activity, the same powerful intellect, the same splendid imagination which had distinguished him at forty, still remained. But in February 1816, he was attacked by the disease under which he died. For twelve weeks he endured an agony which a constitution less powerful could not have so long sustained. After this, he gained a partial relief, and the hope of his recovery was indulged. He again entered his pulpit, and recommenced the course of his labors. But the disease was not removed. His employments were unremitted till within four days of his death, which took place on the 11th day of January 1817, in the sixty-fifth year of his age.

The poetical works of Dr. Dwight, are The Conquest of Canaan, in eleven books. The Triumph of Infidelity. Greenfield Hill, in seven parts. Watts's Psalms with additions and emendations, and some miscellaneous pieces.

The Conquest of Canaan is a regular epic, founded on that portion of Scripture history to which the title refers. It was commenced in early youth, and finished when the writer was in his twenty-third year. Soon after, in 1775, it was proposed for publication, and more than three thousand subscribers gave their names for the encouragement of the design. Unfortunately, owing to the state of the country, it was withheld from the press for ten years longer. Thus, when it was at last given to the public, although it had undergone no material alteration, it was regarded not as the production of youthful genius, trying its wings by long any daring flights, nor as the work of a mind immature in judgment or in strength, and from which, therefore, nothing perfect ought to be expected, — but rather as the most elaborate effort of an author renowned for splendid faculties and thoroughly disciplined.

In the same light has it been generally regarded to this hour. And as the reputation of its author has been continually spreading and swelling, this work has been held in less and less esteem, and is now rarely mentioned, save when some witling, rejoicing in the weak efforts of genius, refers to the epic of Dwight as an illustration of the "Nemo omnibus horis sapit." Yet the poem is not without its merits. If we regard it as written by a youth, before his twenty-fourth year, it is abundant with the marks of genius. The smoothness of its versification, the distinctness and beauty of many descriptive passages, and its occasional flights of sublimity, indicate a mind which by culture might have attained no moderate sphere of poetical excellence. It is copious, indeed, in faults, but they are mostly the faults of youth. A turgid versification, and the perpetual recurrence of favorite expressions, and favorite rhymes, may be laid to the charge of every youthful poet; and are generally remedied by practice in composition and by the exercise of maturer judgment. The characters are wanting in individuality: they are not sufficiently distinguished from each other by their separate traits: they resemble too much the "fortemque Gyan fortemque Cloanthum" of Virgil. But who would expect of an academic stripling, that acquaintance with human nature, and that creative skill in the conception of character, which are among the last attainments of genius? The propriety of local circumstances and national character is violated. The narrative is too much broken up by long and commonplace discussions that have little connexion with the progress of the action. And finally though the poem has a formal unity in respect to time and place and action, it is wanting in that unity which consists in fastening the attention of the reader to one object, and in leaving on his mind one deep impression. For all these faults in the poem of a young man, we can easily make allowance. But the case is altered in a measure, when we reflect that though the poem was written by a young man within the walls of a college, it was revised and finished by one of years and discretion, who had been long familiar with the groves of Academus, and the fountains of sweet song, and long versed in the ways of the world; by one who had been a scholar and a teacher, a chaplain in the tented field, a politician in the halls of legislation, and a pastor in the quiet country.

Greenfield Hill is rather a collection of poems than one connected work. For though the several parts have a slight relation to the general title, each part is in itself a separate performance. Portions of it were written expressly in imitation of the manner of some popular British poets. Thus The Prospect, imitates Thomson; The Flourishing Village is a beautiful counterpart to the masterpiece of Goldsmith; The Destruction of the Pequods, in versification and style, is modeled after The Minstrel of Beattie; and The Clergyman's advice to the Villagers — one of the simplest and truest, and most beautiful of ethical poems — is in the manner of Edward Moore. In every part of the work, we see not only maturity and strength of mind, superadded to melody of verse and power of imagination, but every proof that the author feels himself at home, and is employed in just that class of subjects in which his genius is best fitted to excel.

The Triumph of Infidelity, is a satire occasioned by the publication of Dr. Chauncey's work on Universal Salvation. In its style it resembles the strong and hearty invective of Juvenal, more than the playful ridicule of Horace. It is not without obvious faults. Its topics of sarcasm are sometimes trite, and it occasionally expresses, perhaps too freely, the author's contempt of individuals. This poem was published anonymously, and has not been numbered with his works in any biography of the author hitherto published.

His edition of Watts contains thirty-three psalms written by himself. Some of these are superior and favorite specimens of a kind of poetry in which true excellence is uncommon.

Respecting the poems of Dwight generally, it may be said, that while they cannot claim for him the praise which is rendered only to a few exalted names, they rise in merit far above the average level of that mass of compositions which constitutes as a body, the poetry of the English language.