Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Richard Alsop (17611815)
RICHARD ALSOP was born at Middletown, in Connecticut, in 1761, and resided in that place during the most of his life. He was bred to the mercantile profession, but devoted himself occasionally to letters, from a native taste for the pursuit. His object in writing appears to have been amusement rather than distinction, as few of his productions were given to the world under his name. His works are numerous, and embrace a great variety of subjects. He published various translations from the French and Italian; among others, a portion of Bernis Orlando Inamorato, which was printed in 1808, under the title of The Fairy of the Enchanted Lake. He left a large number of unpublished works behind him, one of them a poem of considerable length, called The Charms of Fancy. He died at Flatbush, on Long Island, August 20th, 1815.
Mr Alsop made too little effort for literary distinction to acquire much credit or notoriety as a writer beyond the circle of his own acquaintance. His talents have not been displayed to the world at large, nor perhaps sufficiently appreciated by the few who were admitted to his intimacy. His powers were certainly above the ordinary level of our native authors, and had they been prompted to exercise by a strong endeavor to establish a name, rather than an occasional desire for recreation with the pen, would have placed him in a conspicuous rank among his countrymen. Many of his pieces show him to have been possessed of a luxuriant fancy and a happy facility of poetical thought and expression. Others exhibit a talent at light raillery and the treatment of humorous subjects, which we do not often see equalled. We are disposed to believe that the publication, at the present day, of his best performances would be alike honorable to his memory and creditable to the country.
He was one of the contributors to the Echo, a work, which on several accounts is deserving of particular notice. This is a medley of burlesque and satirical pieces, designed originally to expose the pedantry and affectation of newspaper writers; and is executed by turning into rhyme such paragraphs in the public journals as presented a proper scope for ridicule, and setting their extravagance of style or sentiment in a ludicrous view, by arraying them in a mock-heroical dress. The plan of the work owed its origin to an accidental and momentary freak of literary sportiveness, in this manner.In the year 1791, some young gentlemen, consisting of Alsop, Theodore Dwight, Dr Cogswell, and a few others, were casually met one evening, at the office of William Brown, in Hartford. The editor of the Connecticut Courant had just taken his papers from the post office, and as he passed by, threw a number of them in for the amusement of the party. An inflated description of a thunder-storm at Boston caught the eye of one of the gentlemen, who read it aloud for the diversion of his companions. This turned the conversation upon the absurd and conceited productions with which most of the newspapers of that day were filled; and the notion was suggested of ridiculing this bad taste by versifying some extravagant piece of that sort. The Boston thunder-storm was fixed upon; each contributed a few lines, and a considerable part of the work was soon executed. Alsop took the writing home, gave it a few finishing strokes, and sent it to the editor of the Hartford paper. The performance was happily executed. The solemn bombast and bathos of the gazetteers eloquence were dressed out in a figure of the most ludicrous cut, and the public were so much entertained as to induce the authors to execute other pieces in the same strain. Hopkins, Trumbull, and others, soon united in the business, the work gained an extensive notice, and the appellation of the Hartford wits became a widely known and honorable designation.
The novelty of the plan, and the high degree of talent which the writers of the work brought to the undertaking, were singularly effectual in accomplishing the designed object. The Echo obtained great influence. No scheme could have been devised better fitted for casting derision upon the wordy and bombastic nonsense so common in the newspaper effusions of that period. The plan of the work was soon extended. From ridiculing affectations of style, the writers passed to a wider field for the exercise of their satiric weapons, and levelled their shafts against the political doctrines of which they were opponents, for party dissensions had begun to wax warm. The Echo soon became principally occupied in responding travesties of public speeches, and writings of a political cast. It took sides with the Federal party, and inveighed zealously against the principles of the French revolution, and Mr Jeffersons administration. The satire which it dealt in, is not without severity, but is in general free from that coarse, illiberal abuse, and bitterness of animosity, which characterize most of the party writings of the same stamp. The humorous part is very happy in its way, and the general execution of the work spirited and easy. Its defects are a want of harmony and correctness occasionally in the versification; faults however, which the critic will be less disposed to quarrel with, upon the reflection that the main object of the work left out of sight and significance these minor perfections. The wit and sarcasm adapted for popular effect, were relied upon by the writers, rather than the grace and euphony of the numbers, if indeed the harsh and rugged style of versification in which the Echo is written, were not purposely selected as the most appropriate to its character and purpose.
The politics of the Echo, we do not feel called upon to criticise. We speak of it in its literary character alone, without the intention of having our remarks construed into approbation or disapprobation of the doctrines which it was the principal design of that performance to uphold. The originality of plan which it exhibits, and the reputation and ability of its authors, call it into notice as the most remarkable production of the poetical kind which our country has seen. The several pieces of which it consists were collected into a volume, and illustrated with some excellent designs by Tisdale. The volume was published in connexion with some other poems by the same authors, in 1807.
Alsop wrote a greater portion of the Echo than any other contributor, though it is impossible to assign the separate authorship of more than one or two pieces. Dr Hopkins, who excelled his associates in bold and inventive genius, furnished many original thoughts to Alsop, and devolved upon him, on account of his readiness at versification, the task of clothing them in numbers. The poem of Guillotina and the first of the new years verses, which accompany the Echo, were principally the work of Hopkins. The Political Green-House in the same volume, was written for the most part by Alsop. These display much of the characteristic talent of their authors, but are too deeply involved in matters which have lost their interest, to be read with satisfaction at the present day.