1858 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Trumbull

Charles D. Cleveland, in Compendium of American Literature (1858; 1859) 89-93.



JOHN TRUMBULL, the author of the celebrated poem McFingal, was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on the 24th of April, 1750. His father was a Congregational clergyman, of a family distinguished in the literary and political annals of Connecticut, and fitted his son for Yale College, where he graduated in 1767, the first in his class for genius and attainments, though but seventeen years of age. He then remained three years at college as a resident graduate, devoting himself principally to the study of polite letters, and forming many valuable acquaintances, among whom was Timothy Dwight, afterwards President of the college. In 1771, Trumbull and Dwight were elected tutors of the college, and exerted all their energies to introduce an improved system of study and discipline in the institution.

In 1772, Trumbull published the first part of The Progress of Dulness, — a satirical poem in Hudibrastic verse, exposing to ridicule the absurd methods of education that then prevailed. Tom Brainless, a dunce, is sent to college, and, with a little smattering of Latin and Greek, is transferred to a country minister to study theology, and in due time is "ground out" a preacher. In the second part a blow is aimed at the coxcombry of fashionable life in the person of Dick Hairbrain, a conceited and idle fop. The third part describes the life and fortunes of Miss Harriet Simper, who in ignorance and folly, if not in hooped rotundity, is the counterpart of the said Hairbrain, by whose charms she is captivated. But, failing in her efforts, she consoles herself in later years with the love of the profound Brainless, and their marriage concludes the poem.

THE FOP'S DECLINE.
How pale the palsied fop appears,
Low shivering in the vale of years;
The ghost of all his former days,
When folly lent the ear of praise,
And beaux with pleased attention hung
On accents of his chatt'ring tongue.
Now all those days of pleasure o'er,
That chatt'ring tongue must prate no more.
From every place that bless'd his hopes,
He's elbow'd out by younger fops.
Each pleasing thought unknown, that cheers
The sadness of declining years,
In lonely age he sinks forlorn,
Of all, and even himself, the scorn.

The coxcomb's course were gay and clever,
Would health and money last forever,
Did conscience never break the charm,
Nor fear of future worlds alarm.
But oh, since youth and years decay,
And life's vain follies fleet away,
Since age has no respect for beaux,
And death the gaudy scene must close,—
Happy the man, whose early bloom
Provides for endless years to come:
That learning seeks, whose useful gain
Repays the course of studious pain;
Whose fame the thankful age shall raise,
And future times repeat its praise;
Attains that heartfelt peace of mind,
To all the will of Heaven resign'd,
Which calms in youth, the blast of rage,
Adds sweetest hope to sinking age,
With valued use prolongs the breath,
And gives a placid smile to death.

THE BELLE.
Thus Harriet, rising on the stage,
Learns all the arts that please the age;
And studies well, as fits her station,
The trade of politics and fashion:
A judge of modes in silks and satins,
From tassels down to clogs and pattens;
A genius, that can calculate
When modes of dress are out of date;
Cast the nativity with ease
Of gowns, and sacks, and negligees;
And tell, exact to half a minute,
What's out of fashion and what's in it.
On Sunday, see the haughty maid
In all the glare of dress array'd,
Deck'd in her most fantastic gown,
Because a stranger's come to town
Heedless at church she spends the day,
For homelier folks may serve to pray,
And for devotion those may go,
Who can have nothing else to do.
Beauties at church may spend their care in
Far other work than pious bearing;
They've beaux to conquer, belles to rival;
To make them serious were uncivil.
For, like the preacher, they each Sunday
Must do their whole week's work in one day.
As though they meant to take by blows
Th' opposing galleries of beaux,
To church the female squadron move,
All arm'd with weapons used in love.
Like color'd ensigns gay and fair,
High caps rise floating in the air;
Bright silk its varied radiance flings,
And streamers wave in kissing-strings;
Each bears th' artill'ry of her charms,
Like training bands at viewing arms.

While acting as tutor, Trumbull gave all his leisure time to the study of law, and in 1773 was admitted to the bar of Connecticut; and soon his professional prospects were very flattering. But his heart was always more in literature than in law. In 1775, he published the first part of McFingal, and when he removed with his family to Hartford, in 1781, he completed it. This poem, in four cantos, which had such great celebrity in its day, is in the Hudibrastic vein, and an admirable imitation of the great satire of Butler. Its hero is a Scottish justice of the peace, a high Tory, residing near Boston; and the first two cantos are chiefly occupied with a discussion at a "Town Meeting" between him and one Honorious, a stanch Whig, who takes the American side in politics. The meeting ends in a riot. In the third canto, McFingal is seized by the mob, tried at the foot of the "Liberty Pole," convicted of Toryism, and sentenced to "tar and feathers." In the fourth and last canto, McFingal assembles his Tory friends in a cellar, harangues them upon their disastrous prospects, and, by virtue of his second-sight, foretells the calamities that would befall the British arms, and the sure success of the cause of freedom. His speech is suddenly interrupted by an invasion of his old enemies, the company is dispersed, the hero escapes to Boston, and the poem closes.

CHARACTER OF MCFINGAL.
When Yankees, skill'd in martial rule
First put the British troops to school,
Instructed them in warlike trade,
And new manoeuvres of parade,
The true war-dance of Yankee reels,
And manual exercise of heels;
Made them give up, like saints complete,
The arm of flesh, and trust the feet,
And work, like Christians undissembling,
Salvation out, by fear and trembling;
Taught Percy fashionable races,
And modern modes of Chevy-Chases:
From Boston, in his best array,
Great Squire McFingal took his way,
And graced with ensigns of renown,
Steer'd homeward to his native town.

His high descent our heralds trace
From Ossian's famed Fingalian race:
For though their name some part may lack,
Old Fingal spelt it with a Mac;
Which great McPherson, with submission,
We hope will add the next edition.

His fathers flourish'd in the Highlands
Of Scotia's fog-benighted islands;
Whence gain'd our 'squire two gifts by right,
Rebellion, and the second-sight.
Of these, the first, in ancient days,
Had gain'd the noblest palm of praise,
'Gainst kings stood forth, and many a crown'd head
With terror of its might confounded....

Nor less avail'd his optic sleight,
And Scottish gift of second-sight.
No ancient sibyl, famed in rhyme,
Saw deeper in the womb of time;
No block in old Dodona's grove
Could ever more orac'lar prove.
Nor only saw he all that could be,
But much that never was, nor would be;
Whereby all prophets far outwent be,
Though former days produced a plenty:
For any man with half an eye
What stands before him can espy;
But optics sharp it needs, I ween,
To see what is not to be seen.

MCFINGAL'S VISION OF AMERICAN GREATNESS.
And see, (sight hateful and tormenting!)
This rebel Empire, proud and vaunting,
From anarchy shall change her crasis,
And fix her power on firmer basis;
To glory, wealth, and fame ascend,
Her commerce wake, her realms extend;
Where now the panther guards his den,
Her desert forests swarm with men;
Gay cities, towers, and columns rise,
And dazzling temples meet the skies:
Her pines, descending to the main,
In triumph spread the wat'ry plain,
Ride inland seas with fav'ring gales,
And crowd her port with whitening sails:
Till to the skirts of western day,
The peopled regions own her sway.

These specimens will give the reader some idea of the merits of two poems that, in their day, had a wide celebrity, but which are new very little read.

After filling many honorable offices, in 1801 Trumbull was appointed a Judge of the Superior Court. In 1820, a collection of his poems was made, in two volumes octavo, to which he prefixed a memoir. In 1825, he removed to Detroit, to reside with his daughter, the wife of Hon. William Woodbridge, with whom he remained till the time of his death, which took place in May, 1831.

Judge Trumbull maintained through life an honorable and upright character. As a scholar, a wit, a gentleman, be was greatly admired by all who knew him, and he has left a name which must always sustain a conspicuous place in the early history of American letters.