1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

David Humphreys

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 1:387-90.



DAVID HUMPHREYS, a soldier of the Revolution, who wrote patriotic and martial poetry in the camp, the friend and household companion of Washington, was born, the son of a Congregational clergyman, the Rev. Daniel Humphreys, in Derby, Connecticut, in 1753. He was educated at Yale College, where he fell in with Dwight and Trumbull, with whom he formed a personal and literary friendship, which was not neglected in after life. At the beginning of the war he entered the army, becoming attached to Putnam's staff as major, and in 1780 became aide, with the rank of colonel, in Washington's staff; or as he himself recites these military incidents of his career in verse:—

With what high chiefs I play'd my early part,
With Parsons first, whose eye, with piercing ken,
Reads through the hearts the characters of men;
Then how I aided, in the foll'wing scene,
Death-daring Putnam — then immortal Greene—
Then how great Washington my youth approv'd,
In rank preferred, and as a parent lov'd.

To Putnam, Humphreys showed his gratitude by writing his life — a smooth and complimentary piece of biography, which certainly anticipates no modern doubts of the bravery of "Old Put." His intercourse with Washington did not end with the war. He accompanied him on his retirement to Virginia, residing with him more than a year, and again returning after his visit to Europe, to live in this privileged house in 1788, until Washington became President, when Humphreys travelled with him to New York. Of his domestic intimacy with Washington, Humphreys, in his Mount Vernon, an Ode, has left a grateful reminiscence. Indeed, in his verses the reader is never long out of sight of Washington. His gratitude never tires of expressing itself, and this is a most amiable feature of his character. The man was formed for friendship. His countenance is full of benevolence, which in his long bachelor days — before he married Miss Bulkley, an English lady of wealth at Lisbon, when he was about forty-five — overflowed in kind remembrances of his associates. In a pleasant poetical epistle written to a young lady in Boston, and dated at New Haven in 1780, he celebrates a sleigh-ride journey which brought him among his friends in Connecticut.

Some days elaps'd, I jogg'd quite brave on
And found my Trumbull at New Haven;
Than whom, more humour never man did
Possess — nor lives a soul more candid—
But who, unsung, would know hereafter,
The repartees, and peals of laughter,
Or how much glee those laughters yield one,
Maugre the system Chesterfieldian!
Barlow I saw, and here began
My friendship for that spotless man;
Whom, though the world does not yet know it,
Great nature form'd her loftiest poet.
But Dwight was absent at North-Hampton,
That bard sublime, and virtue's champion.
To whom the charms of verse belong,
The father of our epic song.

During his war scenes he had written his Address to the Armies of the United States of America in 1782, when he was encamped at Peekskill, and the foe was in possession of New York and Charleston. In this address he refers to President Davies's celebrated early prophecy of the greatness of Washington in Virginia, in the old French war.

Oh! raised by heaven to save th' invaded state,
So spake the sage long since thy future fate.

His battle-pieces are in an animated style, and that he could fight as well as write, is witnessed by the sword which Congress voted him for his bravery at the siege of Yorktown, of the standards taken at which place he was the honored bearer to the government. His poem, the Address, was translated into French by the accomplished courtier and soldier of the early period of the war, the Marquis do Chastellux. From the pictures of war in this production, the death-scenes of Scammel and Laurens, the author animates the soldiery by a view of the future bounty lands of the West, in a description, the tranquil contrast of which to the opening passages was much admired by a French critic. The poem was noticed in England, Chastellux speaking of its having been read there in clubs, to which the public was admitted.

In 1784, Humphreys, in the capacity of Secretary of Legation, sailed for Europe with Jefferson then proceeding to join his fellow commissioners, Franklin and Adams, in Paris. The vessel, the Courrier de l'Europe, left Boston in July, and Kosciusko was one of the passengers. Humphreys, always ready with his verses for the occasion, wrote on board ship a poetical epistle of the voyage to his friend Dr. Dwight, in which he celebrates

Our Polish friend, whose name still sounds so hard,
To make it rhyme would puzzle any bard;
That youth, whom bays and laurels early crown'd,
For virtue, science, arts, and arms renown'd.

The description of the cabin scenery would appear to have anticipated the glories of a Collins steamer.

See the great cabin nigh, its doors unfold,
Show fleeting forms from mirrors fix'd in gold;
O'er painted ceilings brighter prospects rise,
And rural scenes again delight our eyes.

Showing how a little elegance may be more profitable to a man with a faculty of being pleased, than a great display to a dull observer. Facts are so sumptuous now, on a voyage to Liverpool, that there is no room left for the imagination, and the man who should write verses about plush or gilded carving would be justly accounted a snob.

Dwight met this epistle by another dated Greenfield, the next year, in which he takes a higher strain of eloquence, and cautions his friend against the seductions of Europe. His picture of the Travelled Ape in this production, is one of the most vigorous passages of American satire. A Poem an the Happiness of America, addressed to the Citizens of the United States, was written by Humphreys during his residence abroad, and is the longest of his productions, extending to more than a thousand lines. It puts Washington's Farewell to the Army in verse, celebrates the purity and simplicity of American life, glances at the men of the old Continental Congress.

His list'ning sons the sire shall oft remind,
What parent sages first in Congress join'd;
The faithful Hancock grac'd that early scene,
Great Washington appear'd in godlike mien,
Jay, Laurens, Clinton, skill'd in ruling men,
And he, who earlier, held the farmer's pen.
'Twas Lee, illustrious at the father's head,
The daring way to independence led.
The self-taught Sherman urg'd his reasons clear,
And all the Livingstons to freedom dear;
What countless names in fair procession throng,
With Rutledge, Johnson, Nash demand the song!

And urges a naval crusade against the Algerines, in those clays the tyrants of the sea, and concluding poetically, and prophetically as it turned out when Decatur took hold of them, with a brilliant triumph over those marauders. In Humphreys's volume of 1804, the copy of this poem is set down as the tenth edition. Several of its topics are again handled in the author's Poem on the Future Glory of the United States of America; indeed a certain monotony of subjects and treatment runs through all his verses. He had little variety in thought or execution.

Humphreys returned in 1786 to Connecticut, where he was elected to the State Legislature, appointed to the command of a regiment for the western service, and where he joined his poetical friends in the composition of the Anarchiad.

We next find him on his second residence at Mount Vernon, about this time employing his leisure in translating, or, as his title-page calls it, "imitating" from the French of M. de Mierre, a tragedy (with a very happy ending) entitled, The Widow of Malabar, which was acted by Hallam's old American Company at Philadelphia, in 1790. It is a showy sketch of a play for stage purposes, full of intensity in italics, and shrieks ascending to small pica capitals. The lady, having just buried a husband whom she never loved, is about to be sacrificed, according to the custom of the country, on the funeral pile. The young Brahmin whom the high priest, in a brief summary stage style, orders to look to the performance of the ceremony, turns out her brother, which is crisis number one: then there is opportunely an invading army on hand, with one of whose officers the lady had once been in love when travelling from the Ganges. The preparation goes on with passionate arguments and expostulations touching the rite pro and con. The widow is at the pile, which she has ascended, when at the last moment for interruption the French general steps in to the rescue, and the curtain falls, but not until a very clever epilogue written by the author of M'Fingal is recited, which laughs at the agreeable termination of the painful affair, and pleasantly tells the audience, with a travesty of Pope's verses, how much better off Columbia's daughters are than ladies subjected to such heathen dispensations.

For here, ye fair, no servile rites bear sway,
Nor force ye — (though ye promise) — to obey:
Blest in the mildness of this temp'rate zone,
Slaves to no whims, or follies — but your own.—
Here custom, check'd in ev'ry rude excess,
Confines its influence to the arts of dress,
O'er charms eclips'd the side-long hat displays,
Extends the hoop, or pares away the stays,
Bedecks the fair with artificial gear,
Breast-works in front, and bishops in the rear:—
The idol rears, on beauty's dazzling throne,
Mankind her slaves, and all the world her own;
Bound by no laws a husband's whims to fear,
Obey in life, or burn upon his bier;
She views with equal eye, sublime o'er all,
A lover perish — or a lap-dog fall—
Coxcombs or monkeys from their chains broke loose—
And now a husband dead — and now a goose.

Mrs. Henry, who recited the prologue, had a word to the men, which marks the time.

Your vict'ries won — your revolution ended—
Your constitution newly made — and mended—
Your fund of wit — your intellectual riches—
Plans in the closet — in the senate speeches—
Will mark this age of heroes, wits, and sages,
The first in story to the latest ages!—
Go on — and prosper with your projects blest,
Till your millennium rises in the west:—
We wish success to your politic scheming,
Rule ye the world! — and then — be rul'd by women!—

Humphreys also wrote a comedy, which he failed in his attempts to get upon the stage. Dunlap, who saw the author and the play in Boston in 1805, relates how Humphreys endeavored to persuade the manager, Bernard, to bring it out, how "it was extremely unlike those comedies Bernard owed his fame to, and repaid by imparting the vivifying influence of his art," and how "the wary comedian heard the poet read, drank his Madeira, said 'very well' now and then — but never brought out the play."

In 1794 Humphreys was appointed the first American ambassador to Lisbon, where he resided for six years till 1797, when he became minister to Spain, a post which he held till he was succeeded by Pinckney in 1802. He then returned to America, and engaged in the importation of merino sheep from Spain. He wrote a dissertation on the subject in prose, and employed its capabilities in verse, in his poem On the Industry of the United States of America, which was composed, he tells us, "on the delightful banks of the Tagus, where his days were pleasantly passed in the enjoyment of health, happiness, and content."

Oh, might my guidance from the downs of Spain,
Lead a white flock across the western main;
Fam'd like the bark that bore the Argonaut,
Should be the vessel with the burden fraught!
Clad in the raiment my Merinos yield,
Like Cincinnatus fed from my own field;
Far from ambition, grandeur, care and strife
In sweet fruition of domestic life;
There would I pass with friends, beneath my trees,
What rests from public life, in letter'd ease.

His wish was gratified. He imported a hundred of the "white flock," a fact which the Massachusetts Agricultural Society records on a medal. When Madison, in 1809, took his oath of office as president, he was dressed in a full suit of American woollens, of which Colonel Humphreys's manufactory furnished the coat, and Chancellor Livingston's the waistcoat and smallclothes. He was also employed in agricultural improvements. The village of Humphreysville, situated on Naugatuc river, in Connecticut, the seat of a considerable manufacturing interest, was named after him. He was a native of the township.

Humphreys appears to have been something of a courtier at this time, keeping up an acquaintance with foreign princes by his dedications. His love of Country, in celebration of the twenty-third anniversary of Independence, which he wrote in Spain, and published on his return, is an admirable Fourth of July oration in verse, full of revolutionary story and patriotism. His last poetic tribute to his friend, and chief inspirer of his song, was rendered in a Poem on the Death of General Washington, pronounced at the house of the American legation at Madrid, on the 4th July, 1800. He had already written a letter to Mrs. Washington, dated on the 22d February — the day, says he, "signalized by his birth, and which was accustomed to be celebrated with heartfelt festivity throughout the United States;" — and so may it ever be!

In 1812 he was appointed to the command of two regiments of Connecticut soldiery, the "Veteran Volunteers." The rest of his life was passed in retirement. He died at New Haven, February 21, 1818.