Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
THE FOLLOWING work is the result of an attempt to do something for the cause of American literature, by calling into notice and preserving a portion of what is valuable and characteristic in the writings of our native poets. As a pursuit of mere literary curiosity, there exist no ordinary inducements to the prosecution of such an enterprise, but when we take into view the influence which an endeavor like this, to rescue from oblivion the efforts of native genius must necessarily have upon the state of letters among us, we shall have occasion to wonder that an undertaking of the kind has not sooner been entered upon. The truth is, that our neglect upon this point is in some degree a matter of reproach to us. The literary productions of our fathers have been held in unwarrantable disesteem by their descendants, who have reason to pride themselves upon the monuments of genius and learning left them by preceding generations. What though our early literature cannot boast of a Dante or a Chaucer, it can furnish such testimonials of talent and mental cultivation as are highly creditable to the country, and of sufficient interest to call upon the attention of those who are desirous of tracing the general history of letters, and their connexion with the development of the moral and intellectual character of a people; while to us, as Americans, they possess a double value, and deserve to be cherished, as the inheritance of a race whose virtues have consecrated whatever they have left behind them. Again, everything published among us must have some value, if not on account of its intrinsic merits, at least as affording some insight into the spirit and temper of the times, and illustrating the degree of social and mental improvement in the community. Hitherto we have paid too little regard to our native literature in this last relation, and while the polite letters of foreign countries have been studied in such a philosophical view by the most accomplished scholars of our land, the same interesting field of observation at home has been overlooked. We have known men familiar with the details of Tiraboschi, Bouterwek and Sismondi, who had hardly bestowed a thought upon the most gifted spirits of the soil where they were born and bred: as if the poets of the western world could not bear some characteristic traits of their day and generation as well as the Minnesingers and Trouvéres; or as if a lay of the pilgrim fathers of New England could not illustrate a point of national or individual character as effectually as the Gongorism of the Castilian rhymesters of old. This is surely a preposterous state of things. What has been produced in the shape of literature among us merits regard. It must furnish something worthy of note in respect to the intellectual character of our nation. If it exhibit no marks of originality, it must show something of imitation, and it cannot but interest us to know the fact, for even that must have its significance.
The object, therefore, of the work which I here present to the public, is to answer, so far as my opportunities would enable me to do it, the demand which has already been manifested, to know in a general and comprehensive view, what has been done in the department of poetry by American writers. Thus far we have seen no such thing as a collection of American poetry designed for such a purpose, nor a treatise designating with fulness and accuracy, the character of the various performances in verse of our native authors, nor even a tolerably complete list of their names. We are now becoming a literary people, and are already inquisitive upon all matters connected with our character and prospects in that relation. We begin to show a national spirit in letters, and deem it important not only to exhibit to the world what manner of men we are, but to cast an eye upon those who preceded us in the career of literary improvement, and look seriously into the grounds of the insinuation thrown out some years ago by our neighbors across the ocean, that there was no such thing as an American book worthy of being read. Our countrymen have done sufficient since that period to free us from the apprehension that the charge will be repeated; still it is a matter of interest to inquire whether nothing had been achieved before the days of Irving and Cooper and Pierpont and Percival, or whether, on the contrary, there were brave men living before Agamemnon.
I have endeavored to perform the task of supplying what seemed a desideratum. Whatever may be the estimation set upon my labors, I have the pleasure of presenting my countrymen with a collection of matter which no one can deny to be highly honorable to the land of our birth. The American reader will learn with surprise and gratification that a body of literature so respectable under all circumstances, as that contained in the following pages, can be gathered from the writings of our native authors. If, as I flatter myself, they may succeed so far as to make us better acquainted with the master spirits of our literature, and of consequence lead us to a more exalted appreciation of the intellectual capabilities of our countrymen, I shall reap a full reward for my exertions, in the reflection of having assisted in fostering a national spirit in a department, where, until such a spirit prevails, neither ourselves, nor the world will do full credit to the principles of our institutions, or the genius of our people.
That I have done entire justice to my task, I will not pretend. Were it allowed an author to go into a detail of the disadvantages under which he sets about his work, for the purpose of excusing its faults, I could furnish without difficulty in the present instance, a catalogue sufficient to account for the imperfections which I cannot help foreseeing, will be charged against these volumes. But with the greater part of a writers disabilities or disadvantages, the world has no concern, and very properly will not suffer them to be pleaded in excuse for the defects which mar his productions. I shall therefore speak only of the difficulties inseparable from the present undertaking. I allude chiefly to the collection of the materials for the work. When it is considered, that nothing similar to this enterprise has ever before been attempted, the reader must be aware of the laborious nature of the researches necessary to be made. The whole collection of American literature was to be explored minutely without guide or direction, and the difficulty of such a task can be estimated only by those who have attempted something similar. There was no where, as I before remarked, even a tolerably accurate list of American authors. Their works were scattered as diversely as the leaves of the Sybil, and many of them were about as easily to be procured. We have no collections of them in public libraries,1 and some had become so completely forgotten that I was indebted in many cases to accident for their discovery. The omissions therefore which may be discerned in these volumes the reader I trust will ascribe to the right cause. For inaccuracies in the biographical department, should any be discovered, I must plead for a similar indulgence. The best authorities however have been applied to for this species of information, and I feel confident in asserting that it may in general be relied upon. In the case of many of the most important subjects, the facts have been furnished by the authors themselves, in others, by their relations, or intimate associates. The additions thus made to the stock of biography by this original matter, forms not the least valuable portion of the work.
The plan upon which the latter part has been executed, will, it is hoped, meet the general approbation, although, perhaps, somewhat different from what the public had been led to expect. It was thought best upon mature consideration, to extend the work down to the present day, and embrace within it every one who had written with credit. On account of the rapid extension of literature among us within a short period, a fair representation could not in any other way be given of what we are likely to accomplish.
It will be perceived that I have left out the drama. It was originally intended to include all the dramatic productions in verse, but having learnt that a History of the American Stage was preparing by one who has been long conversant with the subject, and who possesses peculiar advantages for such a business, I deemed it most advisable to leave that part of the field untouched.
It remains for me to speak of the assistance which I have received in the course of my labors, and of the obligations due from me to those gentlemen who have so kindly lent me their aid in various shapes. Some of the biography and criticism, has been furnished by other hands. This will account for those slight discrepancies of opinion, which may be detected in two or three different pieces. To Mr Frederic S. Hill, who in the outset took the editorial charge of the work, I am indebted for all which relates to Mather, Wolcott, Wigglesworth, Colman, Mrs Turell, Adams and J. Osborn. A few other articles are also the contributions of my friends. For the general character of these portions of the work, however, I hold myself responsible.
In selecting the specimens it will be observed that I have extracted pretty liberally from the volumes of some of our most distinguished writers. It seemed the most eligible method to give entire pieces of some length, when this could be done advantageously, rather than short and detached portions of different poems. I have in all cases where it was practicable, applied to the authors for permission to make such an appropriation of their writings, and this they have in every instance been so obliging as to grant.
Under the persuasion that the American public will look with indulgence upon the effort here shown to turn their attention to the literature and talent of their own country, I now submit these volumes to their inspection. The undertaking is one which I think they cannot but contemplate with interest. With what degree of credit I have aquitted myself of the charge, it remains for them to determine.
Note 1. The principal libraries in Boston and the neighborhood, New York, Philadelphia, and Worcester, have been examined in search of materials for the work. In neither of these does there appear to have been any attempt made at such a collection. The most valuable one is in the possession of Professor Ticknor of this city, comprising about seventy volumes of the scarce old writers. That gentleman will accept my thanks for the readiness he has manifested to afford me all such assistance as his library could furnish. [back]