Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
John Blair Linn (17771804)
JOHN BLAIR LINN was born at Shippensburg in Pennsylvania, March 14th, 1777. His father removed with him to New York about nine years after his birth. Having passed two or three years at school in Flatbush on Long Island, he entered Columbia college in New York, where he completed his education. He studied law under the direction of Alexander Hamilton, but at the end of a year discovered that he had no inclination for the pursuit. He had imbibed a strong partiality for the stage, and before quitting his legal studies, produced a play called Bourville Castle, which was represented with success, but the plans which this might have led him to form, were quickly laid aside for an undertaking of a totally different cast. The religious impressions which from his earliest life had at intervals occupied his mind, now took such powerful hold of him, that he determined to embrace the ministry. As he had a repugnance to exercise his new profession at New York, amid the scenes of his juvenile gaieties, and in an intimacy with the companions who had been familiar with the light amusements of his former life, he removed to Schenectady, where he completed a course of theological study, and was settled as a preacher in the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, in 1799.
The vacillation of purpose which he had displayed in changing his pursuits from the law to the stage, and from the stage to the desk, seems not to have left him at any period of his life. He had assumed the character of a clergyman in obedience to one of those strong impulses of feeling which lead a man of ardent and sanguine temperament to the hasty adoption of any novel object of pursuit. His disposition was warm and enthusiastic, and his fervid imagination gilded the prospect which opened upon him with the splendor which a youthful fancy will confer upon the scenes of its own creating. But in his new profession he was still doomed to disappointment. The recurrence of his wavering inclination disturbed his repose, clouded his fond anticipations. It is easy to perceive that while prosecuting his studies of divinity, he was dissatisfied and gloomy; but in adopting his last profession ho had taken a step which he felt scrupulous in retracing without a more specious and solid reason, than an abatement of zeal in the undertaking. He evidently struggled hard to reconcile himself to his situation, the strong sense of duty prevailing over the transient inclinations of which his mind was susceptible. He exerted himself with unwearied assiduity in the discharge of his clerical functions, mingling the elegant avocation of a poet with the grave and severe duties of a minister, paying court to the muses, and dealing in the subtilties of polemical argumentation. Dr Priestley had published a religions tract which called forth the animadversions of the theologians, and Linn was among the foremost who strove for the distinction of breaking a lance with the great champion of Utilitarianism, He received the degree of doctor of Divinity from the university of Pennsylvania at an earlier age than the same honor had ever been bestowed upon another.
He was married to the object of his early attachment, but the endearments of his domestic circle, could not charm away the effect of those melancholy broodings, in which he was accustomed to indulge. His temperament had a strong hypocondriacal cast, which under the pressure of ill health, at last settled down into an incurable melancholy. A violent fever, occasioned by an exposure to the sun during a journey, seized him in 1802, from which he experienced a temporary amendment, but its effects were too deep to be removed. The constitutional bias to consumption, which had long been the object of his dread, received a potent aid by this accident, and he soon began to sink rapidly under his disease. The exertions of medicine, relaxation from his employment, and travelling, were of no avail. Neither his bodily ailment, nor the tone of his spirits, showed any symptoms of improvement, and he formed the resolution of abandoning his ministerial pursuits, for some occupation better suited to the feeble state of his powers. What particular design he contemplated, he did not live long enough to show. His disease continued to advance, and his mind to droop, presenting a scene of melancholy suffering to the last, which is mournful to contemplate. He died on the 30th of October, 1804.
Linn is best known as a writer, by his Powers of Genius, a poem which has gone through repeated editions in this country and England. It is of the didactic order, and the design in the words of the writer, is to draw the general outlines of genius, to describe its progress, to ascertain the marks by which it may be known, and to give the prominent features of those writers who have excelled in its different departments; a subject sufficiently copious and extensive, but which the author has not treated with any philosophical regularity of plan, or any very accurate conception of the matter which he attempts to illustrate. In the proper execution of such a work as his description gives us an idea of, it should be the writers aim to distinguish the higher intellectual powers from those of a common order, to mark the nicer shades of variety in the human faculties, and to illustrate the superiority of those rare and lofty mental endowments, which are the gift of nature, over those of a factitious and conventional stamp, such as are acquired by study and imitation. Linn makes some endeavor in his preface, at a regular analysis of that great power of the human mind which forms the subject of his work, but in the poem he is totally deficient in metaphysical accuracy. His ideas are vague and indistinct, and his attempts to illustrate them, embarrassed by a great incorrectness of style and confusion of imagery. His poem is not as it purports to be, a philosophical view of the development and operation of the highest power of the soul, but a string of desultory sketches made up by glancing indiscriminately at the various phenomena which the works of human intellect, of whatever degree or nature, exhibit.
In the argumentative part of the poem, he has certainly failed, but in some of his descriptive passages he gives evidence of considerable imaginative power. His posthumous poem of Valerian, which his friends considered it due to his memory to publish, has little to recommend it to our notice.