1858 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Timothy Dwight

Charles D. Cleveland, in Compendium of American Literature (1858) 151-53.



TIMOTHY DWIGHT, the son of Timothy and Mary Dwight, was born at Northampton, Massachusetts, on the 14th of May, 1752. His father was a man of sound and vigorous intellect; and his mother, the daughter of the celebrated Jonathan Edwards, inherited no small share of her father's intellectual greatness. When to great mental vigor we add that his parents united the highest moral qualities, we can see how highly favorable was such an intellectual and moral atmosphere to the development of his youthful faculties; and of these influences he had, most happily, the disposition to avail himself. He showed uncommon powers of mind at a very early age, being able to read in the Bible fluently at the age of four, and at six commencing the study of Latin.

In 1765, he entered Yale College, just as he had completed his thirteenth year, and was familiar not only with the requirements for entering — though these were very low compared with what they now are — but with most of the classical authors that were read during the first half of his collegiate course. Owing to his over preparation, he did not feel the necessity of much application for the first two years; and these, consequently, were spent rather idly. But for this indolence he atoned in his junior and senior years, studying with an intensity that left no time unemployed. In consequence of his excessive application to study, his eyes became seriously affected, and a permanent weakness of sight was induced, so that to the close of life he could read but little, and that only occasionally.

After leaving college, he taught a grammar school in New Haven, and, in 1771 was chosen tutor in Yale College, in which office he continued, with high reputation for six years. While here, in 1774, he finished his poem The Conquest of Canaan, though it was not published till eleven years after. In March, 1777, he married the daughter of Benjamin Woolsey, of Long Island. By her he had eight sons, six of whom survived him. In June he was licensed as a preacher, and in September was appointed chaplain to a brigade in General Putnam's division, in which capacity he continued about a year. In 1778, his father dying, he removed to Northampton, to console his mother and provide for her numerous family, to whose support he contributed for five years, from a scanty income obtained by preaching and teaching and occasionally laboring on a farm. In 1783, he was ordained over a parish in Greenfield, where he continued for twelve years. In 1785, he published his Conquest of Canaan; and in 1794, his poem called Greenfield Hill, in seven parts. After the death of Dr. Stiles, he was chosen President of Yale College, and was inaugurated in September, 1795 which office, together with the professorship of theology, he continued to fill for the remainder of his life. While discharging the duties of these offices, he prepared his sermons on systematic theology, on which his fame chiefly rests, entitled Theology Explained and Defended in a Series of Sermons, 5 volumes. This admirable and most comprehensive system of divinity has passed though many editions in England as well as in our own country. In his college vacations, he was in the habit of journeying, and to this we owe his Travels in New England and New York, published, after his death, in four volumes. He died January 11th, 1817, aged sixty-four, having been President of the College twenty-one years.

Pleasing as Dr. Dwight is as a poet, and learned and eloquent as he was as a divine, it is as President of Yale College that he was most valued, and honored, and loved while living, and as such is embalmed in the hearts of the large number of scholars, divines, and statesmen still living, who were instructed by him in their collegiate course. He had the remarkable faculty of winning the affections and commanding the most profound respect of all the young men who came under his influence, while he poured forth his instructions in a most impressive eloquence from a mind stored with the treasures of ancient and modern learning. And knowing, as we do, that for the last twenty years of his life he could scarcely use his eyes at all, our wonder increases that he accomplished so much. But what cannot singleness of aim, determined purpose, and unremitting industry effect?