1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Trumbull

Anonymous, in Review of Kettell, Specimens of American Poery; American Quarterly Review [Philadelphia] 6 (September 1829) 251-52.



We descend rapidly to a surviving bard — no other than John Trumbull, of whom we learn with particular interest, that in 1825 he removed from his native state, Connecticut, to Detroit, where he has since continued to reside with his daughter. Few men alive, who have employed their pens directly for the public weal, deserve more of public gratitude and veneration than the author of M'Fingal. Mr. Kettell does not exaggerate, when he states that this burlesque poem has had greater celebrity than any other single inspiration of the American muse. 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 just then begun. Its immediate design was to bring into contempt and derision the British and their tory friends. The wit of Trumbull proved "a better reinforcement than regiments." More than thirty editions of the ingenious and merciless satire were published. Trumbull was, perhaps, the best and most efficient of all Butler's imitators, however inferior in powers to the prodigy of poetical and erudite wits. He served the cause of the puritans against the royalists, on this side of the Atlantic, as his great original did that of the royalists against the puritans on the other, when "civil dudgeon" had brought a crowned head to the block. We must refer the reader to Dryden and Johnson, for the character and chances of that species of composition of which Hudibras will ever remain the matchless standard. Mr. Kettell gives a commendable account of the design, story, and potency of M'Fingal, but he falls into the most absurd whine about satirical poetry, that we recollect to have encountered in all our bibliomaniacal career.

"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?"

Dryden never really wished that Butler had written a different work. He only expressed the regret that "our excellent Hudibras" did not choose the heroic metre, as "more proper for manly satire." It is wonderful that Johnson, who had perused his rich Discourse on the Origin and Progress of Satire, and particularly the passage relating to Butler, could have suggested the idea of such a wish. The most extraordinary of all Boston notions, is that of the degradation and prostitution of poetry, by employing it to expose and correct human follies and vices, — or, in other words, giving it the nature and ends of the most instructive, comprehensive, engaging, and efficacious, moral philosophy.