Item of the Day: Inchiquin, The Jesuit Letters (1810)

Full Title:  Inchiquin, the Jesuit Letters, During A Late Residence in the United States of America:  Being a Fragment of A Private Correspondence, Accidentally Discovered in Europe Containing  a Favourable View of the Manners, Literature, and State of Society, of the United States, And a Refutation of Many of the Aspersions Cast upon this Country, by Former Residents and Tourists.  By Some Unknown Foreigner (Charles Jarred Ingersoll), New York:  Printed and Published by I. Riley, 1810.

Letter VII.

From Inchiquin.

Dated at Washington.

Though the literature of this country seems to have incurred the scorn of Europe, there certainly are two works, which as literary compositions on national subjects, are at least comparable, if not superior to any that have appeared in Europe since the independence of the United States:  I mean Mr. Barlow’s epic and Mr. Marshall’s history; of which, as they have been grossly misrepresented by what are called the critics of Europe, I propose, in this letter, to take a transient review.

To begin with the Columbiad, of which the American press has just put forth a splendid edition, ornamented with rich engravings, and executed altogether in such a style as to place it decidedly at the head of American typography.  The poet with a venial, if not a laudable partiality, has himself contributed larges sums from his private fortune to the embellishment of this work, which does great honour to its author and his country; yet I cannot help regretting that so excellent, dispassionate and benevolent a writer did not bestow the time, talents and expense appropriated to poetry, on some theme better suited to his genius, and which might have been more extensively useful.  Mr. Barlow is yet only a living poet, and fame seldom gives the whole scope of her clarion but to the dead.  He has every reason to be satisfied with his ltierary rank; though his pen is probably capable of productions superior to the Columbiad.

Poetry is so much the language of nature, that almost every youth of any fancy ventures a flight into its realms, but so exclusively the prerogative of a peculiar genius, that from the age of Miriam down to these unharmonious days, the number of its elect is extremely precious.  “Many have been called but few chosen.”  The facilities of [printing have added to the number of poets, without improving their melody or sublimity.  Smoothness of numbers, regularity of measure, skillfulness in short in the business of rhyming, are more common since the invention of types:  but when we see all these prerequisites so frequently combined without creating a captivating or lasting poem, the inference is so much the stronger that genuine poetry is the offspring of a native genius.  Of the great quantity of literary matter afloat good poetry constitutes a small proportion.  By poetry I mean not generally the language of harmony or fiction, but a metrical disposition of articulate sounds varying according to the taste of different nations, but so distinguished from all other writings as to be universally designated poetry.

Of all others the epic is that department of the divine art, which fewest have successfully attempted.  Lyrical, dramatic, satiric, didactic, and other species, have had their shrines crowded with votaries, and with some, of almost all ages, who have been distinguished.  But the epic poem is universally allowed to be of all poetical works most dignified, and at the same time most difficult of execution.  An epic poem, the critics agree, is the greatest work nature is capable of, and genius is its first qualification.  Many nations celebrated for learning and refinement have flourished for centuries, without producing an epic poem; and one, perhaps the most enlightened of modern nations, after remaining till a very late era without this honour, seems at last to have made the effort, only to show its incapacity to accomplish it.  Critically speaking, Homer, Virgil and Milton occupy exclusively this illustrious quarter of parnassus, and time alone can determine whether Barlow shall be seated with them.

The design of the Columbiad is vast and bold, more so than any other except Milton’s.  The discovery of a new world, involving all the noble images arising out of the first passage of the Atlantic ocean, affords a broader foundation for the sublime than any poet, except Milton, ever built upon.   And the subject being national and even political, adds considerable interest to its essential grandeur.  The conquest of America, its magnificent rivers, stupendous mountains, immense wealth, and the avultion of these states from their mother country, afford as fruitful and fine an argument, as could be imagined for epic operation.  But the story of the Columbiad is at once one of the noblest and the most arduous that could have been essayed.  To make men heroes, they should be exhibited through the magnifying medium of time; for familiar characters and recent dates are hard to fashion to the epic standard.

The moral interwoven with the story is unexceptionably beautiful; and in respect to design and moral, the poem may be pronounced perfect.  It is difficult for a lover of the Iliad and Eneid to subscribe to Mr. Barlow’s opinion, that they are calculated to provoke wars and sustain tyrannies; though it may be admitted that they are not such systematic inculcations, as the Columbiad, of peace, virtue and the amelioration of mankind. When we reflect that Mr. Barlow has lived through the most tempestuous epoch of politics, that he participated in the revolution of is own country, and was a zealous coadjutor to the revolution in France, that he has always professed very decided sentiments relative to these thorny topics, and that, like other men, he must have his prepossessions and antipathies connected with them, it is impossible to applaud too highly the candour and impartiality with which he has treated the living personages and contested principles introduced into his poem.  In benevolence and liberality he is pre-eminent.  The good of mankind, much more than their pleasure, seems to have been the end of his work: and with a strength of reason and abstraction from all prejudice, worthy so glorious a purpose, he pursues his aim in a strain purely and truly philosophical.  There are many philosophising poets, and those who blend the useful with the sweet:  but where shall we find a poem, in which the best interests of humanity are as steadily kept in view, or displayed with as much fascination, as in the Columbiad?


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Filed under 1810's, Early Republic, Poetry, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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