John Barlow

John Barlow, the second poet included in the Library of American 19th century American Poetry collection, attempted a poem that, though he could not have known this, was destined to weather time poorly: a long epic, modelled after the Iliad and Aeneid, celebrating the beginnings of the United States of America: the Columbiad. I suspect that, today, even a well-written poem whose hero is Columbus is going to struggle mightily to find appeal. And Barlow’s Columbiad is not a well-written poem. The volume contains six selections from it. They do not recommend the rest.

The basic issue with the Columbiad is that it is dull, an unending sequence of words following words. It is written in the equivalent of a monotone, never modulating its pitch, regardless of the content being conveyed. There is no surprise, no drama, not even any descriptions of breath-taking beauty (though there are many words of breath-begging size). And this monotony is made worse by the fact that Barlow’s language is horribly fussy, loaded with adjectives. Nothing speaks for itself; Barlow editorializes everything.

Take, for instance, this passage, which follows immediately after a (dull) description of a death at sea:

Say, Palfrey, brave good man, was this thy doom?
Dwells here the secret of thy midsea tomb?
But, Susan, why that tear? my lovely friend,
Regret may last, but grief should have an end.
An infant then, thy memory scarce can trace
The lines, tho sacred, of thy father’s face;
A generous spouse has well replaced the sire;
New duties hence new sentiments require.

What this passage displays is a remarkable lack of trust in his reader. Palfrey has just died at sea, but maybe we don’t feel sad enough about this, so we are reminded that he was a “brave good man.” He is about to chide Susan, but maybe this will make us think he is callous toward her grief. Not so, she is his “lovely friend.” Nor does he trust Susan. He is telling her, in effect, to get over the grief she feels at her father’s death (now far in the past). Perhaps this will make her feel that he does not understand her. Thus he is quick to insist that he, too, thinks of her father as “sacred.”

In this manner, Barlow spells out in cloying detail every attitude he wants his readers—and his characters!—to adopt, thereby getting in the way of my ability to—as I might have wanted—actually feel anything.

The issue, I think, beyond a mere lack of talent, is that Barlow is more concerned with how things ought to be that he neglects how things are; thus he lapses into moralizing and in so doing effaces the humanity of his characters. There is much for the artist to explore in the character of one who has lost her father in infancy, but Barlow declines to explore any of it, opting instead to focus on her “duties.” She is thus reduced to a type, invented to convey a moral message. She is something less than a human being. Compare this now to a genuinely great epic such as Virgil’s Aeneid, where even the secondary characters are full-blooded humans who earn our sympathy—or non-humans, as the case may be.

A similar thing happens with Washington. After a description of a battle, Barlow turns to Washington:

Triumphant Washington with brow serene,
Regards unmoved the exhilarating scene,
Weights in his balanced thought the silent grief
That sinks the bosom of the fallen chief,
With all the joy that laurel crowns bestow,
A world reconquer’d and a vanquisht foe.
Thus thro extremes of life, in every state,
Shines the clear soul, beyond all fortune great,
While smaller minds, the dupes of fickle chance,
Slight woes o’erwhelm and sudden joys entrance.

Who believes this? That the scene is exhilarating, we must take on trust, for it was described in the same monotonous manner as everything else in this poem—indeed this is precisely why Barlow must fussily insist that it is exhilarating. Although, I suppose, Barlow’s failure in that regard does make it much more believable that Washington regards it with “brow serene”—after all, we have seen nothing that should disturb his tranquility. And lest you missed it the first time, Barlow is happy to remind you that Washington of the serene brow “regards unmoved” the scene and considers the grief it has caused with “balanced thought.”

But even leaving aside these failures of the writing, once again we see that Washington is reduced to a type, hardly real, hardly believable, something “beyond all fortune great,” yet, for just that reason, something less than human. I return again to the Aeneid: Aeneas is, in many ways, great, but he is also human, subject to human doubt and human frailty. He rises above this (with the help of the gods, of course), but that is just the point: he overcomes his frailties, whereas here we are asked to believe that Washington simply fails to have any. I, for one, do not believe it.

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