Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Thomas Godfrey (17361763)
THOMAS GODFREY was born in Philadelphia, in the year 1736. His father, Thomas Godfrey, was a glazier of that city, and possessed a great talent for mathematics: of this he gave a splendid and durable testimony to the world by the invention of the quadrant now in common use, which has been generally called Hadleys quadrant. Godfrey, the father, died when his son was very young, and left him to the care of his relations. By these he was placed in an English school, and received, as we are told, a common education in his mother tongue. In his youth he displayed a strong inclination for poetry and painting, and was very desirous of being bred to the latter profession. His guardians, however, wished to dispose of him in another way, and he was put apprentice to a watchmaker of Philadelphia. In this employment we do not find that he evinced any of that propensity for the mechanical arts which had enabled his father to gain such distinction. His partialities lay in a different direction, and he devoted himself to the study of polite letters with great zeal and assiduity in his private hours. In the latter part of his apprenticeship he wrote several poetical scraps, which were published with great approbation in the American Magazine.
Upon the expiration of his apprenticeship he obtained a lieutenants commission in the Pennsylvania forces which were raised in 1758, for the expedition against Fort Du Quesne. What services he performed during the campaign we have no means of knowing; but it appears that his military duties did not altogether abstract his thoughts from the muses. A poetical epistle, addressed to one of his friends, was written while he was in garrison at Fort Henry, on the frontier.
At the end of the campaign, the troops were disbanded, and Godfrey went to North Carolina where he resided three years engaged in mercantile transactions. While in this employment he composed a tragedy in blank verse designed for representation at the Philadelphia theatre: what success it met with we are not informed. Godfreys employer dying, he returned to Philadelphia, and shortly after, embarked for the island of New Providence, in which place he spent some months, but meeting with disappointments in his business, he returned to North Carolina. A few weeks after his arrival, he was attacked by a fever occasioned by riding into the country on a very hot day: of this illness he died on the third of August, 1763, in the twenty-seventh year of his age. An amiable disposition, an unpretending modesty of manners, a warm heart, and spotless integrity of conduct, endeared him to all who shared his acquaintance.
If we consider the circumstances of Godfreys youth, his employment, and his scanty education, we must allow that his works do him great credit. The Court of Fancy, his principal poem, will give the most favorable specimen of his powers. A single glance at the work will apprize the reader that the design is taken from Chaucers House of Fame. To powers of invention Godfrey can lay no claim; his great talent lies in description; his images are selected with taste, and clothed in verse generally harmonious and correct.
His tragedy of the Prince of Parthia, is, we believe, the first attempt at dramatic composition which the annals of our literature can furnish, a circumstance sufficiently remarkable to entitle it to notice. The story of the piece is to this effect: Artabanes, the king of Parthia, had conquered Armenia, married the queen of that country, and bestowed the crown upon her son. The new made king revolted, and was defeated and slain by Arsaces the eldest son of the king of Parthia. The queen was inflamed with revenge, and determined upon the ruin of Arsaces, a design in which she found a ready accomplice in Vardanes, the king of Parthias second son, who is driven by his ambition to plot against his brother. These brothers are moreover rivals in the affections of Evanthe, a captive Arabian princess, and Vardanes is heated in his enmity by scorned love as well as incited by the thirst of dominion. Meantime the queen makes the discovery that her royal husband is also captivated by the charms of Evanthe, a piece of knowledge which inflames her lurking wish for vengeance into open rage. It must be granted that the author has furnished the personages of his drama with motives sufficient for every tragic incident. Vardanes persuades the king that the prince, his brother, is conspiring against his throne and life; Vardanes seizes Evanthe. The king is then put to death at the instigation of the queen, who also attempts the murder of the prince, but is deterred by the appearance of the ghost of her husband, whereupon she becomes distracted. The prince arrives at the head of the army to quell the conspiracy. A battle ensues and Vardanes is killed. Evanthe during the conflict deceived by a false report of the death of Arsaces, swallows poison, but lives sufficient time to learn the victory of her love and her fatal precipitancy. She expires in his arms and the unfortunate Prince of Parthia falls by his own hand.
Godfrey was twenty-two years of age when he finished this work, and with this fact in view, we ought not to wonder at the moderate degree of taste shewn in the selection of the subject, or the want of skill manifested in the construction and developement of the story. The tragedy written by Pope in his youth would probably, had it been preserved, have done as little credit to the author, as the Prince of Parthia does to Godfrey. To write a tragedy is to attempt a species of composition for which the highest powers of human genius are requisite. That conjunction of the greatest inventive faculties with a profound knowledge of the workings of those passions and sympathies which control every variety of human action, and a skilful perception of the nice peculiarities of character, which operate unseen and unsuspected in directing the destiny of men, is a rare accomplishment even among those who possess undeniable claim to the character of true poets. It is needless to say that the Prince of Parthia is a failure. We are little moved by the incidents of the story, notwithstanding they are of the most tragic description. The characters are uninteresting, although marked by strong shades, and placed in every requisite advantage of situation. The execution is hardly more felicitous than the design. The dialogue is heavy, the sentiments commonplace, and the language stiff and prosaic.
If, however, we can find little to admire in his tragedy, his other works give us a favorable opinion of his talents. The natural powers which produced the Court of Fancy, under the disadvantages of comparative youth and a stinted education, would in maturer age, and with proper cultivation, have produced a work of high credit to American literature.