Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Robert Treat Paine (17731811)
ROBERT TREAT PAINE1 was born at Taunton in Massachusetts, December 9th, 1773. His father was the Hon. Robert Treat Paine, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In his eighth year his father removed to Boston, and he entered Harvard University in 1788, where he began to write verses on the occasion of having been the subject of some satirical lines scrawled upon the walls of the college. His success prompted him to further endeavors, and he soon acquired a high reputation for poetry among his associates. After a temporary suspension in consequence of refractory behaviour in certain matters connected with the discipline of the seminary, he was graduated in 1792. On leaving college, he was placed in the counting room of a merchant in Boston, most probably rather in accordance with the wishes of his parents, than his own inclination, as he does not appear to have applied himself to business with any degree of industry or good will. He continued for a year or two penning stanzas when he should have engrossed, till his minority was expired, when he bade adieu to the leger, and began his career as a man of letters, by setting up a weekly newspaper in Boston, with the title of The Federal Orrery. His ambition for excelling in poetry had before this received a new stimulus by the reception of a gold medal for a prize poem, at the opening of the Boston Theatre in 1793. This was the foundation of an attachment to the pleasures of the stage which exerted a powerful influence upon his fortunes. In 1795 he married Miss Baker, a beautiful and accomplished actress, who belonged to the first company of comedians that occupied the Federal street boards. The match produced a separation between him and his father, whose prejudices against the character of a public performer could not be overcome, although Mrs Paine never appeared upon the stage after her marriage.
The Federal Orrery was not successful in his hands. A large subscription was first obtained for it in consequence of the high opinion entertained of the talents of the editor, but the public expectation was disappointed. Paine gave hardly any attention to the concerns of the paper. Amusements and indolent habits consumed his time, and he suffered a work with which he had connected his name and reputation, to sink into disregard. During this period, he wrote the Invention of Letters, a poem which he delivered at Cambridge on receiving a Masters degree. This was printed, and obtained such a popularity as to pass through two editions, and bring the author a profit of fifteen hundred dollars. In April 1769, he gave up his paper, and devoted himself to the business of the theatre, where he had been appointed Master of Ceremonies, an office to which was attached a salary sufficient for his maintenance. He was selected in 1797 by the society of Phi Beta Kappa to pronounce a poem before them; on which occasion he produced The Ruling Passion, which has been the most highly esteemed of his larger poems, and was nearly as profitable to him as The Invention of Letters. The song of Adams and Liberty written shortly after this, was still more so, considering the comparative quantity of matter. The sale of it yielded him the sum of seven hundred and fifty dollars, more than eleven dollars for each line of the piece, a munificence of reward for literary labor, which has rarely been equalled in any age or country. And considering the real merit of the performance, certainly no rhymes were ever more generously paid for. His friends at this time prevailed upon him to abandon his connexion with the theatre, and devote himself to the law, a career in which it was judged his splendid talents and wide reputation, would secure him an undoubted success. He removed to Newburyport, and began as a student under the direction of Theophilus Parsons, afterwards chief justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. The next year Mr Parsons removed his office to Boston, whither Paine accompanied him, and in July 1802, he was admitted to the bar. He had a good flow of business in the outset, but his interest and resolution in the pursuit soon languished, and after neglecting his occupation for a few years, he gave up his office. A course of dissipated habits, which we have no inclination to dwell upon, but which the kind officiousness of his biographer has detailed to the world in a pretty ample catalogue, broke his health and reduced him to the lowest state of penury. He died November 13th, 1811, in his thirty-eighth year.
No writer of our country has enjoyed a higher flow of popularity during his lifetime than Paine, and no one has more rapidly sunk into neglect. His poems gained him enormous sums of money, and the most extravagant praise, but a volume of his works could not now be sold. His prose writings in the shape of orations, occasional addresses, and the like, which received no less applause than his effusions in verse, are among the most remarkable specimens of bad taste which that species of writing can exhibit. Some of his most elaborate pieces rise above mediocrity, but the bulk of his poetry has about the same degree of merit, as the common run of magazine rhymes. His stage prologues and epilogues, are next to one or two of his smaller pieces, perhaps the best of his works. His national song of Adams and Liberty is the most widely known. The patriotic spirit of the piece gave it a currency which its merits as a literary production alone, would have failed to secure. There is an approach towards a poetical idea in a single stanza, but the general strain of thought and expression, is quite commonplace.
Paine was immoderately overrated in the heyday of his popularity, yet his talents were respectable. His fancy was rich and lively, but not reined in by a proper taste. We are told he endeavored to form his style of composition after the manner of Dryden; it is surprising that the study of such a model should not have rendered him more attentive to the correctness and polish of his diction.