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.