John Trumbull

Samuel Kettell, in Specimens of American Poetry (1829) 1:175-83.

JOHN TRUMBULL, the author of M'Fingal, was born on the 24th day of April, 1750, in the parish of Westbury, then a part of the town of Waterbury, in New Haven county, Connecticut. The place is now called Watertown, and is included in the county of Litchfield. His father was the first minister of the congregational church in that town, a man of good classical attainments and for many years one of the trustees of Yale College. The subject of this memoir was an only son, and of a very delicate and sickly constitution. He received the strictest care from his mother, who was a woman of superior education for those of her day. Young Trumbull gave early manifestations of his poetical turn by studying and committing to memory all the verses contained in the Spectator and Watts's Lyric Poems, which comprised the department of English literature in his father's library. This slight initiation into the rudiments of polite letters enabled him to exert his propensity to verse by making rhymes of his own, an exercise in which he was encouraged by his parents. His father, in conformity to a practice common at that time, had taken under his tuition a youth of seventeen years of age for the purpose of directing his studies previous to his entering college. Trumbull took notice of the student's method of learning Latin, and unaided and unperceived by any one except his mother, set about the study of the language himself. His father after some time discovered it, and finding he made a more rapid progress than his fellow student, encouraged him to proceed. He was examined and admitted at the college in 1757, but owing to his extreme youth and ill health, was not sent to reside there till 1763.

He employed this interval of time in the study of the Greek and Latin classics, and such English writers as were to be procured in his native village, consisting of few beside Milton, Dryden, Pope and Thomson. Upon entering college he found little attention paid to polite literature, except in the department of the ancient languages, and as his proficiency in this branch of learning was such that the ordinary duties of his class required but a trifling portion of his time, he turned his attention to Algebra, Geometry, and Astronomy, sciences newly introduced to the notice of the students. After receiving his degree, he continued three years longer at college, occupied in a general course of literary study.

At this time he began his acquaintance with Dr. Dwight, who was also pursuing his studies at the college. This young poet, who had already attracted notice by some elegant translations from Horace, became an intimate associate of Trumbull, and the two friends exerted their talents and industry in conjunction, to promote the taste for elegant letters among the inmates of the college. These pursuits were then looked upon as idle and worthless: nothing was held in high repute but the learned languages, mathematics, logic, and scholastic theology. The wit of Trumbull, who summoned the aid of his muse to root out this remnant of puritanical barbarism, seconded by the efforts of others who joined his party, effected in the end a material change in the taste and pursuits of the students. He attracted further notice by engaging with the assistance of his friends, in the publication of a series of essays in the manner of the Spectator; these were printed in a newspaper, first at Boston, and afterwards at New Haven. In 1771, Trumbull and his friend Dwight were chosen tutors at the college. In 1772, appeared the first part of his poem, The Progress of Dulness, which he wrote with a view to help the cause of education by exposing the absurdities then prevalent in the system; the work was completed the following year. Dwight was at this time busy upon his great poem, the Conquest of Canaan, in the composition of which he was assisted with the criticism and advice of Trumbull.

During the exercise of his college duties, Trumbull found leisure to devote himself to the study of the law, and in 1773, he was admitted to the bar in Connecticut, where however, he did not pursue the profession, but removed his residence to Boston, and continued his studies in the office of John Adams, afterwards President. The revolutionary struggle was then just commencing, and Trumbull entered with great warmth and enthusiasm into the political controversies which then monopolized the public attention, and displayed himself as a strenuous partizan of the cause of liberty. Many of his political essays were published in the gazettes. He returned to Connecticut, and began practice at the bar in New Haven in 1774. In 1775, he wrote the first part of his M'Fingal, which was immediately published at Philadelphia, where Congress was then sitting.

In 1776 he married, and in 1781 removed to Hartford, where he fixed his residence. His friends at this time requested him to finish M'Fingal, and set on foot a subscription for the work. With this prospect he applied himself to the revision of the first part, and the composition of another canto. The poem was completed and published at Hartford, in 1782. No legal provision existed at that period to secure to an author his own literary property, and in consequence, this work, which had an immense popularity, became the prey of hawkers and pedlars, without bringing any profit to the writer beyond the first edition. More than thirty editions of the poem were published.

Upon the return of peace, the country remained in an unsettled condition, without any bond of union among the several states, except the articles of confederation. This loose and insecure system of government was attended by a copious train of evils. No harmony of plan or policy existed among the different state governments. The country was impoverished; great dissatisfaction and clamor arose at the extra pay granted to the revolutionary army, and at the formation of the society of the Cincinnati, while the national debt pressed heavily upon the people. The insurrection of Shays burst forth in Massachusetts, mobs were raised in Connecticut, and violent efforts were made to stir up the people in opposition to the general government and kindle a civil war. The exertions of all who were attached to peace, good order, and regular authority, were called for at this crisis to save the country from impending ruin. All the efforts of persuasion, eloquence, argument, ridicule, and satire, were put forth on the occasion, and the tempest of popular discontent was allayed. Trumbull lent his pen to the cause, and in conjunction with several gentlemen at Hartford, produced it poem called the Anarchiad, which we shall notice hereafter.

In 1789, Trumbull was appointed Attorney to the state of Connecticut for the County of Hartford, which office he held till 1795. He has also several times represented the town of Hartford in the state Legislature, and in 1801, was appointed a Judge of the Superior Court of the State of Connecticut. He received the additional appointment in 1808, of a Judge of the Supreme Court of Errors, which he held till the organization of the courts in 1819, under the new constitution of the state.

In 1820 he made a collection of his poems, to which he prefixed a memoir and added notes, and they were published in a handsome style in two vols. 8vo. On announcing the work, the public voice was warmly expressed in favor of it, and consequently a large edition was published. After a great effort, however, a small subscription only could be obtained, and the enterprise proved unfortunate to the publisher. Trumbull realized one thousand dollars, and a gratuity of one hundred copies of the work. This statement is made to correct an error prevalent at the time, that the author derived no benefit from the publication.

In 1825 he removed, at the age of seventy-five to Detroit, where he has continued to reside with his daughter to the present day.

Although Trumbull's fame as a poet has rested mainly upon M'Fingal, yet the modern reader would probably assign as high a rank to his earliest piece, The Progress of Dulness. This is a satire in Hudibrastic verse upon the errors and abrsurdities which were then prevalent in the literature and manners of the author's neighborhood. The pedantry and ignorance of the members of the learned professions, the preposterous customs on the subject of education, the coxcombry and conceit of fashionable life, are handled with a felicitous power of sarcasm. Had he produced no other work than this, it would have sufficed to bring him into distinguished notice. But it has attracted little regard compared to the more popular and national work, M'Fingal.

M'Fingal has had a greater celebrity than any other American poem, owing partly to its intrinsic merit, but more, doubtless, to the time and circumstances which gave it birth. It was written, at the request of some members of the American Congress, in 1775, with a view to aid the struggle for independence, which had then just begun. The period had arrived when England and America were to be separated. Reflecting men saw the necessity of this, long before it was visible to the common people. A redress of grievances had been the end of their views; the thought of independence was forbidden by their reverence for their king, their love of England, and their respect for its power.

It was a task no less difficult than necessary for the crisis, that the American people should be roused to active and bloody resistance; that the breasts which had been accustomed to glow with loyalty should burn with indignation; that the filial feeling should give place to resentment; and that the language of prayer and petition should be laid aside for the accents of hostility.

In this critical moment the keen sighted politicians of the day did not overlook the influence, which the still lingering respect toward England, and the deep sense of her power, must exert over the colonists. They understood the advantage which would be gained, if this respect and dread of power could be made to give place to scorn and contempt. They foresaw that if the Americans could despise the English, they would more boldly face them in battle; that if they could once laugh at them by their firesides, and in the camp, at night, they would beat them in the field on the morrow.

The wit of Trumbull was in this extremity a better reinforcement than regiments. He had been an attentive spectator of the events which had preceded, and which opened the war; he had watched with a satirical eye, the errors and follies of England and her officers; and felt with indignation the wrongs which had been inflicted on his country. He had already drawn more than one keen shaft from his quiver, and found, with unerring aim, the vital part of his country's enemies. But there was now a requisition for help on all who could give it; and while others, at the earliest call of a suffering country, drained their purses and their veins in her behalf, Trumbull could not refuse the contribution of such timely aid as he had to bestow.

It was at this moment, and to serve this emergency, that M'Fingal was written. Its direct object was to pour contempt upon the British and their Tory friends, and consequently to inspire the lovers of liberty with confidence, and give point and efficacy to their indignation. It is probable that the author, now but twenty-five years of age, appearing on the stage when everything was turned to politics, educated in a country where the taste for the luxuries of literature was either not formed, or was absorbed in more stirring excitements, and when literary competition did not yet exert much influence in stimulating to effort, had little in view, in composing M'Fingal, beyond the immediate political effect. His purpose was, to influence immediately and strongly the common people. The style and subject of his work were therefore prescribed to him by the occasion which he was to serve; the one must be coarse and familiar, adapted to the plain apprehension of common minds; the other must be the British and the Tory party. He was not at liberty to choose, even if his taste had inclined him, to the higher and more inspired language of the muse; nor might he seize upon some great event, over which distance had thrown its mist, and to which time had lent its enchantment. He must be popular, at the risk of being short lived; he must serve his country, and take the chance of being remembered as a patriot, and forgotten as a poet.

In truth, we suspect if M'Fingal had not lived beyond the war, and, after having answered its immediate design, had passed with other productions of the day into oblivion; that the author had not been disappointed. Such must have been the fate of a work written in the heat of party excitement, and possessing in its very constitution the elements of decay, if, indeed, the breathing of genius may not have endowed it with immortality.

M'Fingal is a burlesque poem, directed against the enemies of American liberty, and holding up to particular scorn and contempt, the tories and the British officers, naval, military, and civil, in America. It is a mercile satire throughout: whatever it touches, it transforms; kings, ministers, lords, bishops, generals, judges, admirals, all take their turn, and become in the light or associations in which they are exhibited, alternately the objects of our merriment, hatred, or scorn. So wedded is the author to his vein of satire, that even M'Fingal, the friend of England, and the champion of the tories, is made the undisguised scoffer of both them and their cause.

The story of M'Fingal is this: the hero, a Scotchman, and justice of the peace in a town near Boston, and who had two gifts by virtue of his birth, "rebellion and the second sight," goes to a town meeting, where he and one Honorius, make speeches at each other through two whole cantos. At the end of the second canto, the town meeting breaks up tumultuously; and the people gather round a liberty pole erected by the mob. Here M'Fingal makes a virulent speech of near two hundred lines, at the end of which he is pursued, and brought back to the liberty pole, where the constable is swung aloft, and M'Fingal tarred and feathered. M'Fingal is set at liberty; he goes home, and at night makes a speech to some of his tory friends in his cellar, extending through the rest of the poem, leaving only room to tell that the mob broke off his address in the middle by assaulting the house, and that M'Fingal escaped to Boston. These are all the incidents, and this the whole story of a poem of four cantos, and consisting of some thousands of lines.

The work is written after the manner of Hudibras, sometimes affecting the carelessness of its versification and the drollery of its rhymes, and occasionally verging into the more artificial and dignified manner of Pope. It often condescends to deal in the coarse language and revolting images of its prototype, and even surpasses it, we think, in free allusions to scripture. In its general manner, it is characterized by less of levity than Hudibras, and more of vivacity than the Dunciad. It frequently and happily imitates them both, sometimes in the quaint humor of Butler, exhibiting new and striking analogies between images altogether remote and dissimilar; and sometimes in the unrelenting manner of Pope, holding up the objects of its satire to hatred and abhorrence. If it seldom or never rivals the more exquisite passages of either, we are almost ready to admit that it is because they are inimitable.

The gifts of the author seem to lie in a keen perception of the ridiculous, and a ready talent for seizing upon the true point of humor. The excellencies of the poem therefore are found in the address with which a satirical light is made to play upon the objects of the writer's fancy, and that power of ridicule, which like an uneven glass, throws everything that is seep through it, into absurd and ridiculous positions. The principal defects of the work, considered without relation to the objects for which it was written, are a want of creative imagination; a barrenness of incident and consequent deficiency of interest in the story; a cast of extravagance and a tone of bitterness in the sentiments, which, however natural for the time and fitting to the occasion, must ever after be beyond the sympathy of the reader.

There is another weighty deduction to be made from the merit of the work. Burlesque poetry is but an inferior species of composition, and the masters of it can claim but a second place in the temple of the muses. We may admit with Johnson that Hudibras has made Butler immortal, but we wish with Dryden, that he had written a different work. We feel it to be in some sense a prostitution of poetry, to busy it with the faults and follies of men. The free and chosen haunts of the muse are in the lofty mountains, along the margin of the silver rivulet, through silent valleys, in solitary woods, on the sea-shore, in the blue sky, on the sailing cloud. Here she communes with nature, and discourses of loveliness and beauty. It is not willingly, but by compulsion, that she leaves these scenes for the crowded haunts of men, to deal with vice and deformity. The change is almost fatal to her charms. In the narrow streets of the city we hardly recognise the enchantress. Her white wing becomes soiled and drooping; her brow furrowed with indignation; her lip curled in scorn; a quiver of poisoned arrows is at her back; a whip of scorpions in her hand. The silver music of her voice is gone; her inspired language is exchanged for the vulgar speech of men; her fancy is filled with images of deformity! Who that has been her companion in the lone mountain, by the wild waterfall, and in the trackless wood; when weary, has reposed on beds of wild roses, when thirsty, has kissed the lip of a virgin fountain, that ever before has flowed untouched in its secret bower — who, that has lived and communed with her thus, would wish to see her degraded to the business of a satirist and scourge?

Yet in contemplating M'Fingal, if we cannot admire the poet, we must acknowledge the debt we owe the patriot. It is in the light of history and not by the tests of literary criticism, that we would estimate the value of the work. Let it be tried by the stern question, why was it written, and what has it done? the answer is a proud one. — It was dictated by patriotism, and served efficiently the cause it was designed to promote. While most satires have originated in personal malice, or feelings nearly allied to it, this was written in an hour of national trial, to serve the cause of justice and humanity. The Dunciad was designed to blast the enemies of Alexander Pope; M'Fingal to confound the enemies of liberty. The higher motives which gave birth to the last, cannot indeed elevate it to the literary rank of the other; yet while critics deny to M'Fingal a place among the English classics, the name of Trumbull is honorably registered in the annals of American Independence.