Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Benjamin Colman (16731747)
BENJAMIN COLMAN was born in Boston, October 19, 1673, and was the companion of Cotton Mather at the celebrated school of Ezekiel Cheever.1 He was admitted into Harvard College in 1688, and after receiving his degree of Bachelor of Arts commenced the study of Theology. In July 1695, he embarked for London, with the intention of qualifying himself for his profession by an observation of men and manners in a wider sphere of action than the thinly settled and almost desolate Colonies of New England. He embarked on board the good ship Swan, but in a few days she was found to be in a leaky condition, and the voyage was consequently prolonged to an unusual extent. Seven weeks had elapsed before the passengers could with safety indulge in the hope of a speedy relief from the tediousness of their situation, when an incident occurred which dimmed their brightest hopes. It was a fine morning in the early part of September; the breeze was just strong enough to allow all sail to be set to advantage, and the wearied inmates of the cabin, as they came on deck and received an answer in the affirmative to their often repeated inquiry whether the wind was fair, were gaily congratulating each other on the prospect of a quick passage to the desired haven. In a few minutes the cry, a sail, was heard, and far on the weather quarter a white spot could be seen, which before noon proved to be a light and fleet vessel bearing down upon the Swan with every yard of canvass extended. She was supposed to be a French privateer, and after the female passengers had been assisted to a place of security, the necessary arrangements were made for her reception.
There was a young man on board the English vessel who had often taken great pains to annoy his companions in the cabin by his malicious and atheistical sallies of wit. Before a gun was fired he informed Mr Colman, who was equipping himself with a musket and ammunition, that the passengers were seeking refuge below. Sir, was the reply, I shall use my poor endeavors in protecting this ship from the enemy. The other was so much abashed, and his shame so far surmounted his cowardice, that he determined to join in the fight. At the first discharge of small arms, however, he fell upon the deck, completely overcome by fear, and remained there till the Frenchman fell astern for a few moments to repair damages, when he lifted up his head and inquired where is the enemy? He lies by, answered Mr Colman, to charge anew with somewhat more vigor. At this the young man threw himself on his face by the hatches, and remained there till the boatswain giving him a hearty kick in the side, swore that he was in the way, whereupon our hero took refuge below and was seen no more till night.
As evening drew on, the contest ceased, and it was ascertained that the Swan had sustained great damage in her hull, masts, and rigging, and that the chance of escape from the enemy was almost hopeless. Five men were wounded,one of them mortally,but Mr Colman had suffered no harm. Great praise was bestowed upon him for his bravery, which was not expected in a slender youth, to whom constitutional weakness had given the appearance of effeminacy. To the encomiums bestowed on him, he replied by a frank confession that he had been in constant apprehension of danger through the day. He had been told that his courage would increase as the action grew hot, and he therefore loaded and discharged his piece with all possible despatch; yet after three or four broadsides he could not help wondering when this courage would come. The boatswain and the men who were managing the gun on the quarterdeck, often called on Mr Colman for assistance in charging, and made sport of the whole affair, forgetting, for the moment, that they were indulging their profanity in the presence of a minister. He did not cease from his labors, but reproved them for their wickedness while tugging with them at the breech of the same cannon, with his coat off, his sleeves tucked up, and his hat and wig thrown aside.
Early on the following morning the Swan was surrendered to the enemy, having maintained a long and gallant contest with a vessel of more than thrice her number of men and weight of metal. When Mr Colman was taken aboard the privateer, he was robbed of his money, left almost destitute of clothes, and thrown into the hold with the sick and dying; yet his cheerfulness and resignation not only lightened his own sufferings, but dispelled much gloom and useless repining among his companions. In a few days, having reached the shores of France, they were imprisoned at Nantz, and afterwards at Dinan. On the road to the latter place, the officer to whose care Mr Colman and the other captives were committed, halted at a little village, and the rabble immediately surrounded them, led on by their priest, who approached our young divine, and, holding up a crucifix, asked him if it were an object of worship. He was answered in the negative. The other, with genuine Catholic zeal, declared that he would prove it was, but here the French Provost interfered, and said his prisoner was a minister. O diavole! shouted one of the crowd, on hearing this intelligence; whereupon Mr Colman desired the priest to reprove the man. No, said he, it is too true; all heretics are out of the holy church, and therefore belong to the devil, are going to the devil, and are devils. Mr Colman then begged that his antagonist would not undervalue himself by holding conversation with the devil, and bade him farewell.
An exchange of prisoners between the French and English took place at the expiration of two months, and Mr Colman was transported to Portsmouth. Very fortunately one of the female passengers in the Swan had concealed several pieces of gold for him; these she had conveyed to his hands at Nantz, and their amount was more than enough to carry him to London. At the city he was kindly received by his relatives and several dissenting clergymen, who rendered his abode in England both pleasant and profitable. He was appointed to take charge of a church in Bath, where he remained for two years. Here he formed an acquaintance with Miss Singer, then celebrated as a poetess, to whom, but for his assertions to the contrary, we should believe he became attached with more than a Platonic regard. His eulogies on her beauty and accomplishments, his constant mention of her in letters to his friends, and the occasional recurrence of her name in his private memoranda, evince an anxiety for her happiness more fervent and frequent than that milder solicitude which friendship excites. His first visit to her rural retreat, where she was accustomed to meditate and compose, called from him a poem (what further proof of his affection for the lady is needed?) commencing thus:
So Paradise was brightend, so twas blest,
When innocence and beauty it possessd.
Such was its more retired path and seat,
For Eve and musing angels a retreat.
Such Edens streams and banks and towering groves,
In 1699, Mr Colman returned to New England, and commenced a new career in the land of his nativity, as pastor of the church in Boston, now called the Brattle Street Society. In this station he remained till his death, nearly a half century afterward.
In 1724, the corporation of Harvard College elected him to succeed President Leverett, but he declined the honor they wished to confer on him, alleging affection for his church, and unwillingness to undertake an office above his capacity, as his reasons for refusing their offer.2
Dr Colman was regarded in his day as a man possessing all those traits which constitute goodness of disposition, in its most comprehensive meaning. In the pulpit he was distinguished for his grace and dignity of manner, as well as for his powers of persuasion and argument. In the private walks of life, he was hailed as one gifted in an eminent degree with the nobler qualities of our nature. His interest in public business brought upon him the blame of many, and he was charged with an officious intermeddling in civil and secular affairs. Whether an individual, capable of rendering his country a service, should withhold his efforts because he has been appointed to minister to the spiritual wants of a few, is a question that has caused much dispute. If you acknowledge him a subject to the laws, and a member of the government, which he maintains in obedience to the divine command, Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsars, you cannot but allow him to resist any infringement upon his own rights.3 Dr Colmans opinion was, that opportunities to do good not only legitimate the application of our capacities to do it, but also oblige and require us to do it.
His successor in the pulpit of the Brattle Street church,4 has thus delineated Dr Colman: Among the worthies of the Massachusetts clergy, we can perhaps select no character, which we may regard with more thorough esteem, than that of Dr Colman; and not much more may be said of any man. If his mind was not of that class, by which great revolutions are produced in the intellectual or social world, it was still one of uncommon comprehensiveness, penetration, wisdom, and activity; and it had been cultivated by an enlarged acquaintance with books and men. His writings, besides giving token of a liberal spirit, a well disciplined understanding, various knowledge, and a warm heart, show, for the period in which they were produced, a remarkable acquaintance with the true beauties of composition. To nature and to opportunity he was probably alike indebted for a manly and winning address.
His poetic remains are few. Two or three letters in rhyme addressed to his daughter, and Elijahs Translation, are all that we have found; but these place him far above his contemporaries in refinement of thought and language. His taste too, command of language, and skill in versification, are of a higher order than theirs, and incline us to the belief that had he cherished the muse with more fondness and attention, she would have bestowed her favors on him with a liberal hand.
Note 2. In a letter to Bishop Kennett on the subject, he says, I have to plead my long disuse of academical studies, and also that I am not well in the opinion of our House of Representatives, on whom the President depends for subsistence. [back]
Note 3. Tis a foolish thing, says Selden, to say the minister must not meddle with secular matters, because his own profession will take up the whole man. May he not eat, or drink, or walk, or learn to sing? The meaning of that is, he must seriously attend to his calling. [back]