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Flashing Eyes and Floating Hair: The Visionary Mode In Early American Poetry

ISSUE:  Spring 1989

In 1807, there were simultaneously launched in the United States Robert Fulton’s first successful steamboat, the Clermont, and Joel Barlow’s last attempt at an epic, The Columbiad. With the launching of the Clermont, there began a transportation and technological revolution in America that within half a century had linked most major centers in the East and Midwest by rails, rivers, or canals, and was fast forming a connection with the Pacific Coast. Nothing similar followed upon the launching of The Columbiad, an ambitious work on which Barlow had labored for years only to watch it sink below the waters of public acknowledgement with barely a ripple. Though dissimilar in outcome, these two events had a certain interrelatedness: Barlow and Fulton were good friends, and where the poet had assisted the inventor in his first experiments with steam navigation when both men were residing in France, so Fulton had executed a portrait of Barlow to be used as the frontispiece for The Columbiad and had overseen the engraving of the illustrations for the book. Both the book and the boat were signal expressions of the Enlightenment faith in universal progress, certified by Barlow’s having dedicated his epic to Fulton, who seemed the progressive spirit of the age personified. But with the success of the steamboat, the two men drifted apart, and the plan to collaborate on a long poem celebrating the triumphs of modern technology, “The Canal,” never got beyond a single canto written by Barlow.

This parting of the ways may be read as an allegory foretelling the fate of poetry in Republican America, a world which put its highest value on mechanisms motivated by caloric not the muse, but then too it must be said that as an epic The Columbiad seems to have had its fate sealed in its many faults, which are so numerous that the book has suffered less neglect than contumely. “Fulton’s Folly” they called the boat before it began to move, and so it might have been also with Barlow’s book, “Folly” being an architectural epithet connoting expenditure beyond worth, size beyond function, a ruinous exercise of misspent minor talent. Well, The Columbiad certainly presents, like the statues of sundry university founders and presidents, a handsome target of opportunity, nor has there been a successful attempt to rescue it from ridicule. Barlow has his admirers, but they are generally drawn to his personal qualities and his enlightened political views, and even Hyatt Waggoner, in praising the lightness of wit and flexibility of numbers in Barlow’s heroic verse somehow resembles Colonel Mulberry Sellers regaling himself with a banquet of raw turnips. Most critics who admire Barlow’s big book tend to speak in gentle generalities and quote sparingly. We are seldom moved by what we hear to open and actually read the book. The Columbiad is honored rather much in the manner of the Union ironclad lying deep in the treacherous waters off Cape Harteras, namely by exhibiting a few choice relics rescued from the wreck and for the rest, by pointing to a buoy marking where it sank.

Nor do I intend to devote much space to a discussion of Barlow’s long poem, but duty dictates we start there, at full fathom five, because we shall in time end back at the buoy. First of all, though historical interest in the Monitor is dictated by the experimental nature of the gunboat, by its revolutionary and prophetic design, Barlow’s Columbiad recommends itself to us because as a literary form it was by 1807 an anachronism. Historians still differ as to the details of design in Fulton’s steamboat, and John Fitch is honored by some as the “first” inventor of same, but no one would disagree that the Clermont (or whatever it was called) was something new under the sun. The Columbiad by contrast was an omnium gatherum of literary tropes that characterize the poetry written in America during the last part of the 18th century, figures and forms that would disappear in the 19th century, as American poets yielded to the Romantic impulse. Though often employed to nationalistic ends, those tropes were borrowed from British and continental models, while the Romantic example in Europe encouraged a newer generation of poets to strike out on their own (if often timidly at first), with examples as wildly egregious as John Neal’s Battle of Niagara (1818) and as truly revolutionary as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855 et seq.).

Secondly, although Barlow’s grandiose and Whitman’s grand poem would seem essentially unlike, sharing only superficial qualities of size and epical intention, like Fulton’s primitive steamboat and the magnificent Mississippi riverboats of the 1850’s, they have similar agents of motivation. There is therefore something down below worth saving, after all. Buried in the sheer bulk of Barlow’s poem and in the collective works of his fellow poets of the Revolutionary and Republican era we can detect elements of a unique if not entirely new poetic genre, a form that was not only suited to the regnant spirit of the Republic during the last years of the 18th century but which recommended itself to Whitman’s far greater talent a half-century later. It is a genre moreover with antecedents stretching back to the very origins of American literature, generally identified with Puritan culture in New England. As we peer down through the murky depths of nine score years, we may see in the outlines of Barlow’s Columbiad, as through a glass darkly, the shape of things past and yet to come. Finally, if only because we are approaching the cinquecentenary of Columbus’ first voyage to the Western Hemisphere, some reconsideration of Barlow’s celebration of that event is in order, most particularly since the bicentennial of Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus (1787), which sketches out the design of his subsequent effort, is already behind us.

Let us begin by defining what The Columbiad is not, a process of elimination made necessary by its frequent identification with the epic mode. Even sympathetic critics of the poem have had difficulty with Barlow’s obvious violation of epic decorums: both León Howard in his study of the Hartford Wits (1943) and Roy Harvey Pearce in his magisterial The Continuity of American Poetry (1961) have complained that the action has no proper hero: the eponymous Columbus is a passive spectator, a built-in audience to an action in which he plays no part. More recently, Donald Stauffer in his comprehensive A Short History of American Poetry (1974) has observed that where the classical epic is a form “rooted in a stable society with clearly defined aims and purposes,” Barlow’s poem, having been written while the United States was undergoing rapid change, is not, and instead of presenting “recognizable aspects of the society,” The Columbiad provides “projections—possibilities of the society that was to come.” “It was too early,” Stauffer concludes, “for an epic poem” in the United States. Stauffer it seems to me is on to something, but after a brief sortie in a promising direction, he heads off along the path too frequently taken. We may agree with Stauffer—and with Pearce and Howard also—concerning the inadequacies of Barlow’s poem as an epic, but that is only if we agree with them that it is an epic. Though it has certain definably heroic qualities, the projective nature of The Columbiad as Stauffer observes is a definitive difference. The poem is not an epic, at least not in the classical mode.


Just what Barlow’s long poem is may be found in the earlier version, The Vision of Columbus, which for all practical purposes can be used as a convenient vehicle with which to approach—if not actually board—the vasty sequel in its darkling bed. Let us start with the title: “The Vision” of Columbus. Where the title Columbiad misleadingly evokes the Iliad or the Lusiad or the Henriad or the Aeniad, “The Vision of Columbus” suggests something else, not the heroic adventures by land and sea of a great soldier-sailor but a much more transcendent experience, a prophetic glimpse which, because of the magnified character of the beholder— the Great Admiral—promises to be of magnificent value and lustre. Upon first opening the poem (and thinking upon Keats’s Chapman’s Homer), we might picture Columbus peering from his masthead across the misty isthmus of Darien, staring westward at cloud-shaped domes and dreaming of Cathay. For that certainly was the Admiral’s erroneous vision, having stumbled across a new world and mistaken it for the oldest world of all.

But that was not what Barlow had in mind. He did not wish to fix Columbus for us at a high moment of mistaken triumph, but rather to give his poem both aesthetic interest and greater truth by presenting Columbus at the lowest point in his career. His intention, as stated in a lengthy preface, was to solace the impoverished and disgraced Admiral as he lay in prison at Vallodolid waiting to die. He would comfort the great man by revealing to him the events that would result from his having discovered the New World, by making his prison wall a marvelous window into the future, showing a panorama of three centuries of progress, events luminous with promise. Enhanced by the dungeon setting, Barlow’s “vision” expresses a highly optative mood, imposing a progressive view of history on the signal events of America’s past and projecting a millennial moment identified with the United States.

Although the founding of a nation may be considered an epic action (in the present instance with a communal rather than a single hero), what distinguishes Barlow’s effort from classical precedent is its passive frame (Columbus is reduced to a spectator) and its visionary emphasis. Still, if we can add the Old Testament to the list of epical precedents, then the communal (or tribal) action and the apocalyptic and millennial elements can be identified with Old World literary tropes. If, as Sacvan Bercovitch argues, the Jeremiad was a dominant genre in early American literature, then its millenarian strategy is most certainly reflected in Barlow’s Vision of Columbus, and Ernest Lee Tuveson in Redeemer Nation (1968) draws on Barlow’s poem to substantiate his thesis concerning the role of millennialist theology in promoting the doctrine of manifest destiny in America. Tuveson and others have also demonstrated the extent to which Barlow was inspired by radical thinkers like Britain’s Dr. Richard Price and the Scottish historian William Robertson, who regarded America as fulfillment of Bishop Berkeley’s prophecy concerning the westward course of Empire. The Vision of Columbus is thoroughly a product of Barlow’s age, but it is also a major representative of a nascent genre that was so short-lived as never to have been defined, which we for purposes of convenience may call the Vision, in Barlow’s work given epical sweep.

The Vision as an Anglo-American epic genre dates back as far as Langland’s Piers Plowman, an extended medieval complaint with an apocalyptic finale that anticipates Bercovitch’s “American” Jeremiad, but we may doubt that Barlow was aware of that great Anglo-Catholic precedent. As a graduate of Yale and an ordained Congregational minister, he was demonstrably operating within the context defined by Bercovitch and Tuveson, as well as by a number of more recent scholarly works, for millennialism in early American literature has become a fair field filled with busy folks. In terms of epic-length works, the millenarian tradition in America dates from Edward Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence (1654), a Bunyanesque exercise which used the amazing record of rapid progress in the Bay Colony to predict an imminent apocalypse on the western strand. Fifty years later, repeated postponements of that blessed event inspired Cotton Mather in his Magnolia to take a somewhat gloomier—if grimly hopeful—position regarding the millennium. For both Johnson and Mather, the locus of Christ’s literal return was identified with the environs of Boston, but during the course of the succeeding century, as the strong grasp of Calvinism found itself dislodged from the lectern by the lighter touch of the Enlightenment, notions of a glorious future for North America increasingly took a decidedly secular emphasis, more and more identified with regions west of the Alleghenies. This was most apparent in the propaganda urging a British victory over the French during the Seven Years’ War, most especially the Essays (1755) by the great American cartographer and friend of Dr. Franklin, Lewis Evans, who not only painted a glorious future for Great Britain in the Ohio Valley, but provided a map for General Braddock that he might the more easily effect it. Born in 1754, the year in which the Seven Years’ War began, Joel Barlow may be said to have taken in the golden glow of millennialism with his cornmeal mush (the New England equivalent of mother’s milk), ground out by the mills both of pulpit and geopolitical propaganda.

The contemporary mood following the Treaty of Paris, which certified Britain’s right to the rich western domain, was succinctly expressed by a dream dreamt by Deacon Benjamin Prat in 1763, a dream so remarkable that it was recorded in the diary of the dreamer’s young neighbor, John Adams. Prat had recently been called to the bench in New York’s Superior Court, and was preparing to leave his native Massachusetts for the western colony, a circumstance which accounts for the specifics of his dream: “He was seated on a rock,” wrote Adams, “in the middle of the sea, and reflecting on his journey to New York, leaving his family &c., when the clouds began to rise from all quarters of the horizon, and soon thickened and blackened over his head. The thunders began to roar and the lightnings to flash. At last the clouds opened and a glorious luminary, in the shape of an angel, made its appearance and addressed Mr. Prat in these lines; “Why mourns the Bard? Apollo bids thee rise, / Renounce the dust, and claim thy native skies”” (I: 241). Prat died that same year, lending a degree of ambiguity to his dream, yet it would prove prophetic where belles lettres in Revolutionary America were concerned: a mixture of Christian and pagan imagery, Prat’s dream dramatically demonstrates not only how obligatory were heroic couplets to poetic efforts of the day but the extent to which those couplets were bent to visionary exercises. From Prat’s Rock to Columbus’ Cell is a line direct.

The Deacon’s dream could have had little circulation, however, and a much more durable line of continuity is provided by the almanacs of Dr. Nathaniel Ames of Dedham, Massachusetts. Invariably, inevitably tied to the future through the mere fact of weather prognostications, the Ames almanacs like those of Dr. Franklin of Philadelphia were pervaded with the progressive, prophetic spirit of the age, evinced by the latest formulas for home medicines and manures and descriptions of new inventions, like the lightning rod and the orrery. Dr. Ames, unlike Franklin, had a talent for rhyming, and although most of his productions were, like his almanacs, decidedly ephemeral, the sheer amount of verse turned out by Ames, from 1726, the first year of his almanac, until his death in 1764, was considerable, and it was augmented by the work of his son, also Nathaniel, also a doctor, who continued to issue almanacs and almanac verse until the outbreak of the Revolution. Though “tradition” is too strong a word, we can most definitely detect a line of continuity running through a half-century of almanac prose and poetry that bisects Deacon Prat’s Rock and Columbus’ Cell, a penchant for visionary exercises that is of a piece with the prevailing Enlightenment faith in progress.


The close proximity of Enlightenment optimism and the prophetic spirit is suggested by one of Ames’ earliest poetic efforts, written in 1740. The poem purportedly records a dream-vision experienced by the poet, but it may be indebted also to a poem by an earlier bard of Dedham, Benjamin Tompson, the most indefatigable poetaster of Cotton Mather’s heyday. In 1699, Tompson wrote a broadside welcoming to New England the newly appointed Royal Governor, Lord Bellomont, which began by conjuring up the ghost of a long dead Indian Sachem, who is struck with amazement and terror by the evidence of civilized progress that has supplanted his forested domain. Ames replaced the Indian with the shade of William Blackston, one of the “Old Planters” who had settled on Shawmut before the arrival of Winthrop’s Fleet, and, like Tompson’s Sachem, Blackston is dumfounded by what he sees: “If ever I liv’d here, / Trees were as men, now men as trees appear!” Bewildered and dismayed by change, Blackston “willingly . . .re-dy’d.”

Like the Sachem, Ames’ Blackston is a figure from a past no longer relevant to New England’s future: he serves chiefly as a mute—because amazed—witness to the marvels of change, allowing Ames to prognosticate “what might be from what there had been,” i.e., more of the same is yet to come, assuring his reader that “Great Britain’s Glory buds and blossoms” in America. In 1758, Dr. Ames expanded on this ardently chauvinistic theme, casting his prophetic glance far beyond Massachusetts, and though his medium was not poetry but the essay, as he strove to descant on “the past, present, and future State of North America,” his prose took on a highly charged and rhythmic quality. Inspired by propaganda urging Great Britain to drive the French from the Ohio Valley, a subject to which he had devoted a poem of twelve monthly stanzas in his almanac for 1756, Ames identified the “future State of North America” not with New England but with the zone west of the Alleghenies, which he styles “”The Garden of the World!”“

Evoking the favorite figural trope of the Puritans, that “the celestial light of the Gospel” was pointed to the New England strand by “the finger of God,” Ames goes on to posit a parallel movement westward of those Enlightenment harbingers, “arts and sciences,” which “will change the face of nature in their tour from hence over the Appalachian Mountains to the Western Ocean; and as they march through the vast desert, the residence of wild beasts will be broken up, and their obscene howl will cease forever;—instead of which the stones and trees will dance together at the music of Orpheus.” As in so much propaganda inspired by the French and Indian War, we can detect in Ames’ prose rhapsody a nascent nationalism, for he envisions the springing up in the West of “great cities and states to perpetuate the honor of renowned heroes; even those who shall NOW save their country.————O! Ye unborn inhabitants of America, should this page escape its destined conflagration at the year’s end . . . when your eyes behold the sun after he has rolled the seasons round for two or three centuries more, you will know that in Anno Domini 1758, we dreamed of your times.”

Dr. Ames’ certainty that “great things are to come to pass in America, which every year gradually unfolds and opens more and more to our View,” was shared by his son and namesake, whose pen most definitely hardened the lines of the father’s latent nationalism. As early as 1766 the younger Ames invoked the “Columbian Genius” as his muse, an encoded patriotism that keys the son’s break from his father’s notion of America as extended (if independent) British empire. Nathaniel Ames Senior died in the symbolic year 1764, in the midst of colonial euphoria over the recent defeat of the French, but the son lived to inherit the debt—and protest the taxes— incurred by the Seven Years’ War. Denouncing the Townshend Acts, encouraging the development of local industry, demanding that tea be given up in the spirit of “our fathers” (who “lived upon boil’d corn and clams”), Ames the Younger had by 1769 sounded in his militant verses most of the dominant themes of anti-British pamphleteers during the pre-Revolutionary period of dissent and protest.

In that year, in a poem of 12 monthly stanzas, he wrote a counterpart to his father’s bellicose effort of 1756, commencing with an evocation of the “Forefathers” who “maintain’d the cause / Of true religion, liberty and laws,” and going on to sound familiar patriotic chords: “tyrants,” “shameful falsehoods,” “venal slaves,” and “chains,” the which are opposed by “religion, honor, fame, and honesty.” Having set up these alternatives, Ames Junior peers between them as it were and as through a water gap he looks west to “Ontario’s shore,” where he beholds “Science spreading her hallow’d store” and “Art’s fair empire rising”: Where the father saw cities blooming on “Smooth OHIO’S winding stream,” the son foresees great men being born there:

Some future LOCKE with Reason’s keenest ray, [will]
Pierce the rich font of intellectu’l day. . . .
Some second Newton [will] trace Creation’s laws,
Through each dependance to the sov’reign cause.

Some MILTON [will] plan his bold impassion’d theme,
Stretch’d in the banks of Oxallana’s stream,
Another SHAKESPEAR shall Ohio claim,
And boast its floods allied to Avon’s fame.

The allegiance to English models attests to Ames’ lingering loyalty to Great Britain, but as the tensions between Mother Country and the colonies increased, his poetry grew more belligerent. Having used the family inn as a meeting place for the Suffolk Convention of September, 1774, from which emerged the Resolves that established the tone as well as some of the actual wording of the Declaration of Independence, Ames, in his penultimate almanac and poem of 1774, called upon the seasoned veterans of the French and Indian War to take up arms against the British, “to stand forth the champions of your country’s cause.” This summons made the circle complete, attesting to the connection between the propaganda engendered in America during that earlier conflict and the rhetoric associated with the outbreak of the Revolution. More important to our present interest, as we have seen, is the visionary character of that propaganda as it was translated to the pages of the Ameses’ almanacs. By 1775, the burgeoning patriot muse had already inspired other, more able talents, and the rough Yankee doodlings of the Drs. Ames of Dedham gave way to the polished poetics of young dandies at Princeton and Yale. Yet what followed merely sustained and expanded the themes already sounded by the almanac makers, their westward gaze holding steadfast, the rising glory made more intense perhaps but no less pure.


The process of transference from annual almanacs to yearly commencement exercises may be dated from 1771, for a coincidental eruption that year of the patriotic spirit at both Princeton and Yale suggests an outbreak of aesthetic influenza. The most ambitious student effusion was the one produced at Princeton, a consensus poem written by Philip Freneau from New York and Pennsylvania’s Hugh Henry Brackenridge, The Rising Glory of America. Though written five years before the Revolution became a war, the poem evinces a clearly proto-nationalistic mood, for with the repeal of Townshend’s hated duties—save for the symbolic tax on tea—the colonies not only anticipated increased prosperity but enjoyed a new-found sense of unity—in large part because of the common effort that led to repeal. They were, in short, that much closer to nationhood than they had been in 1763 (literally half-again closer), and it was perhaps with a conscious touch of irony as well as the usual colonial congé that Freneau and Brackenridge chose Pope’s Windsor Forest as their model, for they departed radically from the master by using blank verse not heroic couplets.

The almanac verse of the Ameses may have helped establish the Vision as a native American genre, part-and-parcel of the Enlightenment mix that made up their annual publications, but we may doubt its influence on the young poets of academe. They were of course familiar with the Jeremiad tradition, but Windsor Forest was much more in harmony with Enlightenment values: written as a pastoral celebration of Queen Anne’s reign, following the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, it expressed ardent feelings of nationalism coupled with a generally progressive view of history. Still, as a model for native American visionary exercises, Windsor Forest presented certain strategic difficulties. Pope’s is a topographical poem modeled after Denham’s Cooper’s Hill, a genre that depends upon a locale rich in historical associations, and such places were harder to find than fairies in North America in 1771.

Thus Pope’s Thames meanders through a panorama of antiquity, while a Hudson or a Potomac flowed through regions rich in possibilities but very thin in chronicles. As a result, and also because of their proto-nationalistic burden, the Princeton poets emphasized the future not the past, and where Pope’s peep forward from Land’s End is relatively fleeting, Freneau and Brackenridge devote a sizeable portion of their poem to prophecy. In effect, they begin where Pope leaves off, except that where the Thames for Pope, in entering the ocean, will bring Britain’s glory to “Earth’s distant Ends,” for Freneau and Brackenridge, Britain’s glory is manifestly an American production, not an importation, an emphasis very much in keeping with the reaction urged on by the younger Ames against the Townshend Acts.

At the very start, the poets dismiss the relevance to their art of old-world poetic matters, and announce a “theme more new . . .the rising glory of this western world . . .where freedom holds her sacred standard high, / And commerce rolls her golden tides profuse.” Eschewing worn-out European conventions, the poets also assert the American “difference” by reviewing the chief events of a history that is (in contradistinction to Pope’s bloody chronicle in Windsor Forest) a steady forward march of progress: starting with Columbus, Cabot, and Raleigh, the poets allude to the American Indians chiefly to point up the superiority of their supplanters, then move on to rehearse the “glorious cause” of the forefathers. These are not, however, the Ameses’ forefathers, but their loathed rivals, the Quakers of Philadelphia, and other shifts in regional emphasis follow. Thus in describing Braddock’s defeat, the poets celebrate the veterans of that bloody battle, but where Ames Senior singled out young George Washington for praise, the Princeton poets select Sir William Johnson, the old Indian fighter from the Mohawk Valley.

But war in The Rising Glory is a minor theme; for although it is the subject of epic poetry, the Vision tends to concentrate on peace, and the Princeton poem is very much a case in point, emphasizing future harmonies not past conflicts. America is portrayed as a peaceful, tranquil zone, inhabited by humble, hard-working “swains” whose labors “crown our happy land” with plenty. The fruits of agriculture are carried throughout the land by “golden commerce,” “the mighty reservoir / From whence all nations draw the streams of grain./ ‘Tis commerce joins dissever’d worlds in one, / Confines old Ocean to more narrow bounds; / Outbraves his storms and peoples half his world.” Pope in Windsor Forest likewise saw commerce as an adjunct to a peacefully expanding empire, conveying Queen Anne’s rule “from Shore to Shore,” but where the sweet singer of Twickenham identified the flow of commerce with the outbound currents of the Thames, Freneau and Brackenridge celebrate their native Hudson and Delaware rivers.

Commerce as a universal bestower of peace and plenty is coupled by the Princeton poets with improvements in navigation, progress attributable to science, one of the several arts that seem along with religion to have left the old world for the new: “Ev’n now we boast / A Franklin skill’d in deep philosophy, / A genius piercing as the electric fire.” This evocation of the Prometheus of Philadelphia gives way to a two-fold use of glorious imagery with a prophetic implication, the “noble light / Of bold revelation” and the even more intense gleam that illuminates “the mystic scenes of dark futurity”: Snatching a “bright coal” from the altar of “seraphic fire” that lighted the way for prophets of old, the Princeton seers enter upon the main burden of their poem, envisioning the dim outlines of a thriving civilization rising westward of the Alleghenies: “where the Mississippi stream / By forests shaded now runs weeping on, / Nations shall grow and states not less in fame / Than Greece and Rome of old.” The rest of the poem, nearly a third of its length, is devoted to an extended look beyond “the past and present glory of this empire wide,” piercing the “mysteries of future days.”

The landscape of futurity as viewed by the Princeton poets resembles the vision of Nathaniel Ames Senior, being in large part defined by commodious waterways and figured by the growth of cities: “fair domes on each long bay, sea, shore or stream.” In the north a new Petersburgh rises while in the west a new Palmyra, past which “the slow pac’d caravan returns . . .from the Pacific shore,” and in the south, “a Babylon, / As once by Tigris or Euphrates stream” shall rise—presumably giving the Mississippi something to smile about. Like Ames Junior, Brackenridge and Freneau envision “a glorious train” of emerging patriots whose deeds will be sung by American Homers and Miltons, in effect transferring the ancient glories of the Old World to the New. There they will shine all the brighter, irradiating a millennial landscape through which “Another Jordan’s stream shall glide along/And Shiloh’s brook in circling eddies flow, / Groves shall adorn their verdant banks, on which / The happy people free from second death / Shall find secure repose.” Translated to the Middle Colonies, this is the old Puritan scheme, lending rising empire its definitive glory from a transcendent source and converting American rivers into sacred streams, a final note of triumph and a trump card as well, transferring to the New World the best hope of the Old.

As an undergraduate exercise, The Rising Glory is quite an accomplishment: observing the deference due the British Crown (and Pope), the poets nevertheless go on to stress the potential of the American continent not as a tributary of Great Britain but as a nursery of new, independent empires, and as Freneau’s subsequent, post-Revolutionary revisions to the poem demonstrate, it was easily converted to serve the Republican cause. The same holds true for Yale’s contribution to the Spirit of 1771, Timothy Dwight’s America . . . A Poem on the Settlement of the British Colonies. Though explicitly in debt to Windsor Forest, and locked into steely couplets, Dwight’s poem like The Rising Glory portrays the flow of empire and progress as a westward movement, and his poem likewise ends with a vision of the future—conveyed by a glorious luminary called “FREEDOM”—which promises that America, “land of light and joy,” shall grow in power, extending its glory throughout the world, resulting in a millennial age. But where for the Princeton poets millennialism is largely secular in implication, Dwight remained true to Yale and God by emphasizing the divine nature of American destiny: Enlightenment improvements are only a gleaming glimpse of Christ’s glorious return.

The conventional Congregational prospect remains a constant feature in Dwight’s subsequent visionary exercises, at times casting a chiliastic halo over an unlikely landscape. In his most ambitious poetic achievement, the epical Conquest of Canaan (1785), Dwight inserted a lengthy episode into the Biblical story of Joshua’s invasion of the Promised Land, introducing an angelic visitor, who comforts Joshua on the eve of battle by treating him to a sight not only of the Canaan he is soon to repossess for his people but a “Prospect of America” and a vision of “The Glory of the Western Millennium.” This is carrying typology a trifle too far, for not only is the Hebraic hero inspired to do battle by a prophetic glimpse of the Messiah his people have yet to accept, but the glory of his forthcoming victory is considerably dimmed by the gleam from the Canaan still farther to the west, where “Empire’s last, and brightest throne shall rise; / And Peace, and Right, and Freedom, greet the skies.”


Still, though perhaps unsuited to the decorums of his subject, Dwight’s officious Miltonic angel is an important contribution to the development of the visionary mode in America, providing another intermediary step between Deacon Prat’s dream and Barlow’s Vision of Columbus. Dwight was Barlow’s tutor at Yale, a period during which he was composing his Conquest of Canaan, and the younger man’s early attempts at the vision poem show the clear marks of influence. Thus Barlow’s commencement poem, The Prospect of Peace, composed and delivered in 1778 as the prospect remained as yet uncertain, shares with Dwight’s America a vision of glorious prosperity for the newborn Republic, crowned with the long awaited Millennium. In his next visionary exercise, composed in 1781 and bleakly entitled, A Poem, Spoken at Yale College, Barlow borrowed from Dwight the Miltonic device of a seraphic visitor who serves as a prophetic medium, in this instance named “Learning.” Prophesying peace, Learning consoles gloomy Yalensians with a glorious prospect of America’s future. As if from the top of West Rock in New Haven, Learning opens a wide geopolitical vista westward, for, turning his back on New England, he points to “Lands yet unknown and streams without a name,” “Where Mississippi’s waves their sources boast, / Where groves and floods and realms and climes are lost.” Though the device of the prophesying angel is borrowed from Dwight, the western vista is not, for the prospect of Barlow’s former tutor became increasingly limited to the view from his beloved Greenfield Hill, in Connecticut. The difference is definitive, for in marked contrast to Dwight, who clung to the parochial geopolitics that were typical of the Federalist mind during its last, most conservative phase, Barlow moved steadily into ever wilder territory, entertaining increasingly radical, Republican views. That the vision conveyed by “Learning” in 1778 resembles America’s Rising Glory as envisioned by the Princeton poets in 1771 says perhaps less about Barlow’s Jacobinism, however, than it does about Dwight’s declining influence. Barlow was merely picking up what had become traditional themes.

Most important, he made those themes his own, and where Freneau, Brackenridge, and Dwight moved on to other things, the visionary poem became Barlow’s poetic obsession. It was his fate as well as his forte, and he mounted, remounted, then mounted again a developmental sequence of visionary exercises which blended geopolitical expansion with the progressive élan of the Enlightenment and which finally resulted in a poem monumental not only in scope but poundage. Thanks to the sheer bulk of The Columbiad, the vision poem emerged as a dominant genre of the post-Revolutionary period, but, thanks to its sheer bulk also, the genre went into a sharp decline. To trace the evolution of that massive poem is in effect to draw a map of evolving Enlightenment thought in America and Europe—Leon Howard long ago demonstrated that fact—yet the paradox remains that Barlow’s tremendous capacity for intellectual and political growth was not matched by his poetic talents. Long after he had abandoned the narrow bounds of Yale and Congregationalism for Paris and cosmopolitanism, Barlow clung to the old-fashioned, derivative poetics handed down to him by Timothy Dwight. There is something analogous, perhaps, in Jefferson’s use of Palladian rules as he designed the palladia of Republicanism, for even the wildest architectural visionaries of the French Revolution persisted likewise in reverting to neoclassical norms. Where the French were reacting to rococo (and royal) extravagance, Jefferson and Barlow seem rather to have been seeking the sanction and authority of neoclassical (i.e., republican) models, but we must admit that the results of a uniform motive were diverse: The Columbiad is no Monticello.

Although we will never, I think, reconcile ourselves to Barlow’s unwieldy art, perhaps at this point we can understand the extent to which he was working in, and thereby was held to, an emerging tradition, the terms of which were not only inherited but self-dictated. Thus if we return once again to the old complaint concerning the unheroic passivity of Barlow’s Columbus, and recognize that in both the Vision and its massive revision a tutorial role is played by a visiting angel (unnamed in the first poem, called Hesper in the second), we must acknowledge the influence of Dwight’s example in the shaping of the genre. Moreover, from Benjamin Tompson’s amazed Sachem to the undergraduate body at Yale in Barlow’s poem of 1781, the “passive beholder” is a dominant characteristic of the visionary genre. Either a symbolic individual (an aborigine, an ancestor, an Admiral) or representative groups, these function as agents of amazement, a built-in claque. Furthermore, the Angel and Auditor pairing, borrowed by Dwight from the interview between Adam and Michael in Paradise Lost, lends a providential cast to cosmic events. And it is the events, finally, which are the subject of the poem, whether as retrospective chronicles displayed as a progressive series of improvements or as an actual forecast of advances yet to come. The hero figures not as Actor but Audience.

In 1788, Philip Freneau published a long poem, The Pictures of Columbus, a gallery of eighteen scenes from the great explorer’s life, including a prophetic glimpse of the New World as seen in a magical mirror provided by an old-world “Inchantress.” Freneau claimed to have composed the poem in 1774, and Barlow’s Vision of Columbus of 1787 is in many ways a response to the wish made by Freneau’s Columbus, last seen as he languishes in prison, that “Some comfort will attend my pensive shade, / When memory paints, and golden fancy shows / My toils rewarded, and my woes repaid; / When empires rise where lonely forests grew, / Where Freedom shall her generous plans pursue.” The dates of publication give Barlow’s poem priority, but the parallels help reinforce the convention which dictates the passive frame of Barlow’s epic. The action is not dominated by a single epic champion, for the “hero” as such has already carried out the action which results in the succeeding events, a sequence for which he is responsible but in which he cannot participate. This “second” action, moreover, is not carried out by a single exemplary person but serves chiefly to attest the inevitability of Progress (divinely assisted). True, the inexorable forward march of Improvement is exemplified by a series of illuminati—Franklin, Rittenhouse, Washington, et al—refulgent with the glow of the Enlightenment, but they make up a corporate entity, reminding us that among the greatest literary products of the age were, in Europe, an Encyclopedia and, in America, a Constitution.

Where the classical epic is invariably anchored in the matters of the past, identified with the definitive deeds of the hero, the vision poem by its very nature must deal chiefly with the future, even if that “future” by 1787 was largely a transacted past, a future past-perfected by hindsight. Thus the Vision presents a progressive panorama, starting with the initial settlement of America, the successive wars between Indians and Europeans, the gradual spread of civilization, the pivotal French and Indian War, then the outbreak of the Revolution and the triumph of Liberty and George Washington (characteristically depicted as a figure of light) followed by the peaceful postwar spread of science and the arts. Christ’s return is foretold in Book III of the Vision (though it would be dropped from the 1792 [Paris] edition and from The Columbiad), but the subsequent and concluding Book puts forth a post-millenarian period that is thoroughly secular in character, promising a future when, through the agency of commercial exchange, the world will have attained a state of universal peace. This final “vision” resembles that of Freneau and Brackenridge, but in place of the Princeton poets’ vague notions of pax Americana, Barlow proposes a putative League of Nations which will promote the republican plan world-wide.

Barlow is likewise much more specific in spelling out the means by which the secular millennium will be affected: Freneau and Brackenridge credited science with speeding the exchange of commerce and Dwight saw that the spread of “light and joy” would be facilitated by “broad APPIAN ways” and “long canals,” but Barlow drew bigger designs on a broader canvas, forseeing not only the Erie Canal (“From fair Albania [Albany], tow’rd the falling sun, / Back thro’ the midland, lengthening channels run”) but both the Panama and the Suez canals. If it is commerce that will bring world peace, insuring that “mutual interest fixes the mutual friend,” then it is technology that will make the way straight for universal Republicanism. In this aspect of his poem, Barlow is truly prophetic; and although the Vision as a poetic genre virtually disappeared with the publication of The Columbiad, subsequent events suggested that Barlow’s influence persisted, in metaphors if not in fact. A check of the contents of the aptly named Columbian Orator, a popular school text compiled by Caleb Bingham in 1810 and kept in print for a quarter-century, reveals the extent to which the Barlovian mode prevailed, whether through excerpts from his poetry or in the tropes of Fourth-of-July orations and graduating-class exercises. By 1820, moreover, Barlow’s faith in progress and his penchant for visions had become the stock in trade of those statesmen-politicians, like Daniel Webster, who would become the leaders of the emerging Whig party.


One curious example of the life enjoyed by certain conventions of the Vision poem long after the genre disappeared is provided by the reception accorded General Lafayette during his triumphant tour of America in 1824. The venerable Frenchman was regarded by the Americans who cheered him along his route as a sacred relic, miraculous twice-over because still blessed with life: a bona fide hero of the Revolution and the adopted “son” of George Washington, Lafayette was honored for the role he had played in the War for Independence, yet there is also a subtle undercurrent running through much of the pageantry and speeches which in effect placed the aging hero in a cenotaph, as a representation of the living dead. Like Barlow’s Columbus, Lafayette again and again had his attention called to the marvels of civilized progress that resulted from his own actions a half-century earlier.

“The vain wish has been sometimes indulged,” said Henry Clay in his formal address welcoming Lafayette to the House of Representatives, “that Providence would allow the Patriot, after death, to return to his country, and to contemplate the intermediate changes which had taken place—to view the forests felled, the cities built, the mountains levelled, the canals cut, the highways constructed, the progress of the arts, the advancement of learning, and the increase of population. General, your present visit to the United States is the realization of the consoling object of that wish. You are in the midst of posterity!” The key word clearly is “consoling,” reminding us of Barlow’s purpose in having an angel visit Columbus in his cell and distinguishing Lafayette’s reaction to progress from that of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle in a short story published just three years before the Frenchman arrived. Rip, like Tompson’s Sachem and Ames’ Blackston, experienced something like future shock, but then Irving had a strong Federalist bent while Henry Clay would become a Whig.

The Whigs would be the most outspoken champions in America of progress in the form of technological innovation— “internal improvements” as they were called when in reference to roads, canals, and river navigation—and the planks of their political platforms seem at time to have been borrowed from the wood of The Columbiad. A companion volume to Barlow’s epic was the epochal report issued in 1808 by Albert Gallatin, as secretary of the treasury, which described the present state of roads, rivers, and canals in the United States, urging that steps be taken to continue improvements long delayed, thereby affecting a more perfect union. Though sponsored by Jefferson’s administration, the report was thoroughly Whiggish in spirit and was likewise future-oriented if not exactly visionary in mode. An important essay was contributed by Barlow’s friend, Robert Fulton, a longtime advocate of canal transportation, and through the efforts of Fulton (and the encouragement provided by Gallatin’s Report if not Jefferson’s administration), the Erie Canal was commenced in 1817 and was far enough along to be exhibited to Lafayette as one of the wonders of American progress in 1824, just such a waterway west as Barlow had envisioned.

A poet who as a small boy in Brooklyn was kissed by the great General wrote a long poem in 1871 which evoked the spirit of Columbus in celebrating three great marvels of modern technology recently completed, the Suez Canal, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the laying of the Atlantic Cable, the first of which Barlow had prophesied and the last two of which he most certainly would have championed. That poet of course was Walt Whitman, and the poem is Passage to India, the most significant poetic evocation of Columbus since Barlow’s, and like Barlow’s it too became part of a much bigger book. There has been a lurking suspicion among students of the continuities in American literature that some sort of connection exists between Barlow and Whitman, something that is other than mere prolixity. Roy Harvey Pearce has suggested that The Columbiad “at least distantly” anticipated Song of Myself: “It marks,” wrote Pearce, “a halfway point between poems like [Benjamin] Tompson’s New Englands Crisis (and also historical work like Mather’s Magnalia) and Song of Myself.” Pearce, having been sidetracked into quarreling with Barlow’s mistaken use of the epic, overlooks the line of continuity provided by the visionary mode (precisely that element which links Tompson to Mather, Mather to Barlow), but he is in the main correct: The Columbiad is a halfway point between the prophetic and hortatory books of the Puritans and Whitman’s great celebration of Self and Nation.

Much as Barlow’s epic provided a number of planks for the Whig platform, so Whitman transformed the Whig enthusiasm for mechanical devices promoting Union into his own idiosyncratic version of visionary poetics. Most important, in his magniloquent optimism, his abiding faith in democracy as a self-perfecting mechanism, the author of Leaves of Grass is assuredly writing in the great tradition of the American Vision poem. As such, it differs from both Tompson’s Crisis and Mather’s Magnolia in lacking the definitive preponderance of Puritan gloom, the Jeremiad emphasis on contemporary backslidings and corruption, modern decline measured against the shining example provided by the forefathers. This is an element largely missing also from the Vision poetry of Brackenridge and Freneau, Dwight and Barlow, all of whom acknowledge the heroism of the forefathers but place them in the larger perspective of universal progress, a foreshortening moreover which causes the exploits of the sons to loom larger than the accomplishments of the fathers.

Sacvan Bercovitch, following the lead of Perry Miller, has maintained that the Jeremiad is a determining genre not only in the 17th and 18th but the 19th century as well, a filament weaving its darksome way through Puritan sermons and histories until it becomes incorporated in the whole fabric of the American Renaissance, detectable in the work of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. Barlow figures only in a footnote in this metamorphosis. While it is certainly true that many American writers of the 19th century shared the Puritan anxiety concerning America’s destiny, while continuing to promote millennial expectations, the Jeremiad as a genre puts forth a specific dialectic, with an emphasis on the glorious accomplishments of the fathers, which must be emulated if the long-awaited millennium is to be attained. Though American Jeremiahs point to a glorious future, it is the kind of point that lies opposite the head of a needle, through the eye of which the present generation must pass before gaining the blessed kingdom beyond. Bercovitch regards the Jeremiad as an optative mode, but in terms of proportion and emphasis it is akin to the philippic and the complaint, being a faultfinding and pejorative genre, which in early American poetry had its ashen fruit in Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom not Barlow’s Columbiad.

Though Barlow’s visionary mode clearly depends on the millenarian aspects of the Jeremiad, like a number of the radical preachers of the Revolutionary era discussed by Bercovitch, Barlow seems more in debt to the prophetic language of the New than the Old Testament, more inspired by St. John than Jeremiah. Most important, Barlow’s poetry is cast in a form that provides an alternative even an antithesis to the Jeremiad, in that the Vision looks to the future to find an ideal society not to the past. Bercovitch’s scholarship is formidable, and there is no room here to sort out the categories which his rhetorical strategies assert, but leaving Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville aside, it does seem that Whitman is best understood as operating in the Barlovian which is to say the visionary tradition.

In conclusion, we can see that Barlow’s Vision of Columbus and The Columbiad are not to be read as epics in the classical form, but are best defined as stages in the emergence of a uniquely American genre—albeit one adapted from European models—the Vision Poem. With roots in the providential histories of New England, but employed by a number of regional talents who flourished during the turbulent years of the Revolutionary era, the Vision Poem was well suited to the regnant spirit of the age, blending Enlightenment optimism with the old Puritan dream of a millennium realized on the western strand. Irradiating that fading hope, it gave the millennial idea renewed life by associating it with the expanding territories beyond the Ohio River and by merging it with the Enlightenment faith in man’s capacity to perfect himself and his institutions.

The millennial notion would later become transformed into the national idea of Manifest Destiny, imperial necessitarianism without a terminal apocalypse. This metamorphosis occurred during a period of renewed expansion and national optimism, a period which also saw the emergence of perhaps the greatest and most innovative poet this country has produced, who so thoroughly revised the visionary mode that it is only with difficulty recognized. Yet Leaves of Grass is most definitely in the visionary tradition, substituting a Romantic celebration of the common man for Barlow’s Enlightenment celebration of an illuminati, and identifying in likewise radical fashion the subject celebrated with the author himself. I will not go so far as to say that without Barlow’s visionary poems Leaves of Grass would not have been written. As with a discussion of The Columbiad, I stop short of that, having gone I think far enough.


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