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James Kirke Paulding is the second author in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry to attempt a grand epic of his still-young country… in heroic couplets. The happy optimism at but recently gained independence appears to have generated a desire to enshrine the country’s origin and its virtues in poetic form. Whatever the results, I appreciate the impulse, and the attempts. But there are still the heroic couplets to deal with.

Paulding’s poem, The Backwoodsman, (at least the selections herein included) is not the disaster that Barlow’s Columbiad is—it is merely mediocre. The first selection, from very early in Book I, makes clear its grand ambition:

Neglected Muse! of this our western clime,
How long in servile, imitative rhyme,
Wilt thou thy stifled energies impart,
And miss the path that leads to every heart?
How long repress the brave decisive flight,
Warm’d by thy native fires, led by thy native light?
Thrice happy he who first shall strike the lyre,
With homebred feeling, and with homebred fire…

And he goes on to explicitly contrast declining Europe with the vigorous youth of America: “And all the splendours of [Europe’s] bright career / Shall die away, to be relighted here…”

The attitude here is at once bold and insecure. Bold for the obvious reason: he wishes to write the grand American epic, the one that will mark the birth of a new and great American poetic tradition. But also insecure, for Paulding recognizes that even if Europe is declining, it is still she who has had the great career, and America as yet has nothing to its name except “servile, imitative rhyme.” Paulding thus diagnoses the same failure of American cultural self-reliance that Emerson would later enshrine in “The American Scholar.”

Unfortunately, this is not the poem to inaugurate the new American poetry. Like with Barlow, the fussy adjectives browbeat the reader, leaving no room for original feeling. There is also a strain of hyperbole that I find difficult to take seriously, as in this description of “our native Eagle”:

Oft in the warring of the whistling gales,
Amid the scampering clouds, he bravely sails,
Without an effort winds the loftiest sky,
And looks into the Sun with steady eye:
Emblem and patron of this fearless land,
He mocks the might of any mortal hand,
And, proudly seated on his native rock,
Defies the World’s accumulated shock.

This is so overwrought that the eagle appears not as majestic but as caricature. We’ve got “warring,” whistling,” “scampering,” and “bravely” before we’ve even cleared two lines, and it just goes on. The eagle flies “without an effort,” staring into the sun to boot (this absurdity is where it really collapses into caricature for me). None of the Eagle’s grace comes through here—only Paulding’s frothy admiration thereof.

The lack of nuance in the depiction of the eagle points toward a more general failing of the poem. It exists entirely in moral black and white (another feature it shares with Barlow’s Columbiad). There are the good guys and the bad guys. The eagle, as the “emblem and patron of this fearless land,” is good. Benedict Arnold is bad. And so forth. Compare this to that greatest of nation-origin epics, Virgil’s Aeneid, where even the central obstacle in Aeneas’ path, his foe Turnus, is a deeply sympathetic character, despite his flaws and despite the fact that he fights on the “wrong” side.

Paulding also has a tendency to overuse certain words. Here is a sampling of lines from the second selection in the volume, Book II lines 61-122:

(61) In truth it was a landscape wildly gay
(65) Save where some rocky steep aloft was seen
(66) Frowning amid the wild romantic scene
(68) Our native Eagle makes his high abode
(71) Without an effort winds the loftiest sky
(75) And, proudly seated on his native rock
(78) His winding way majestic Hudson found
(79) And as he swept the frowning ridge’s base
(83) Now might be seen, reposing in stern pride
(89) Beneath its frowning brow, and far below
(110) Two lofty promontories darkly frown’d
(113) Grimly they frown’d, as menacing the wave

I had initially meant only to highlight the five (five!!) descriptions of some feature of nature “frowning,” but reviewing the selection to find them all revealed several further examples of Paulding’s repetition. It gives the poem an air of imprecision, as if Paulding had certain words ready to hand and used them whenever they were close enough to the needed meaning.

I have considered here only the first two selections in the volume, but the others suffer from the same flaws: overbearing hyperbole, overuse of favorite words, and unsubtle moralism.

So Paulding, like Barlow, cannot be considered to have written the great American epic poem. But I do not hold this against him. As he put it himself:

Come then, neglected Muse! and try with me
The untrack’d path—‘tis death or victory;
Let Chance or Fate decide, or critics will,
No fame I lose—I am but nothing still.

If I cannot admire the results, nonetheless I salute the attempt.

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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.