Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
James Abraham Hillhouse (17891841)
JAMES ABRAHAM HILLHOUSE is the son of the Hon. James Hillhouse of New Haven. He received a degree at Yale College in 1808. After this he engaged in business as a merchant in New York; but latterly, we believe, has attended to no occupation but that of letters. His first publication was Percys Masque, a dramatic poem, which came out first in London, and was reprinted here in 1820. In 1821 appeared at New York, Judgment, a Vision, a descriptive poem in blank verse, and in 1825, Hadad, a dramatic poem.
Mr Hillhouse, as a poet, has rare qualities, and such as would gain him high commendation at the hands of the most rigid criticism. He has a refined and mature taste, and his writings are remarkable for correct sentiment and a clearness and masculine vigor of language that form a striking contrast to the vapid wordiness which infects so much of the poetry of his cotemporaries. He makes no lavish and unseasonable display of ornament. Everything is natural, appropriate, and happily adjusted. With a few trifling exceptions, he may be quoted as a model of chaste and finished versification. His writings are not disfigured by any of those crudities of language which result from a hasty execution in the mechanical department of composition. His diction is polished, and regulated with the nicest care. He has an animation of style, and a fulness and condensation of thought, that never suffer his pages to grow languid. Hadad, his last performance, is the chief in merit. It is a master-piece of its kind, and for just and skilful arrangement of parts, dignity of sentiment, and propriety of character, is, we think, exceeded by no poem founded on a scriptural theme. We are not certain that any one among the great masters of English verse of the present day, would have come off with equal success from the bold attempt upon which he has ventured in this work. Scriptural poems are undertakings peculiarly hazardous. They do not in general appear to have been treated very happily. They venture into a region which abounds with every requisite material for the most exalted poetical contemplation; but a study and wariness more than common are to be exercised in dealing with them. We are scrupulous to the last degree in exacting all the proprieties of character and niceties of circumstance, in matters which concern the objects of our religious reverence. We are struck here with failings which pass unregarded when they stand connected with other topics; for they occur to us in a double disadvantage, as offences against the common standard of taste, and as debasing the dignity of sacred writ. Hence the greater portion of scriptural poems have been unfortunate. They have either been managed with such a degree of diffidence and caution, inspired by the fear of committing trespass upon holy ground, as to cramp the powers of the writer, and debar him the proper use of his subject, or they have been marred by some anomaly of character or sentiment, or the commission of some violence upon the notions we are accustomed to entertain upon the matters in question, which is sufficient, in a subject of such peculiar delicacy, to produce an unfavorable effect.
But the work of Mr Hillhouse is an evidence of his ability to strive against all these disadvantages with success. He has escaped the faults which are attendant upon most performances of the same species, and seized with a bold hand upon the rich materials which the nature of his theme laid open before him.
We have enumerated what we conceive to be the distinguishing qualities of Mr Hillhouses poetry, and given an opinion as to the just rank to be assigned him. Should the question be asked, why, possessing so many excellences, he is not more read among us, (for he has much less popularity than many others,) we answer, that the form and substance of his productions are sufficiently dissonant from the general taste of the moment, to account for this; nay, his very freedom from the reigning faults of our modern poetry has not been without its influence to this effect. We are grown fond of light reading. Fugitive verses have more charm for us than long productions elaborately planned and finished with study and toil. Then the topic most in vogue with the great majority of our poets, and most acceptable, it would appear, to the readers of poetry now, is not one to which the present author has mainly trusted for the interest of his compositions. Amatory and sentimental strains are now predominant. The favorite poetry of the day is of this character. It has in general a cast of effeminacy, as before remarked. Mr Hillhouses verse is of a different order. It is not designed for immediate popularity by according with the momentary whim and fashion in literature, but for an endurance more lasting than the qualities which recommend the greater part of our most popular compositions would secure to it.
His two chief productions, though cast in the dramatic form, were not designed for representation on the stage. Though, in accordance with our plan in the outset, we have not entered so far into the province of the drama as to give any passages from works of that description, we shall not, for the reason just stated, be considered as departing from our limits by presenting the reader with a scene from Hadad. It would be unjust to resort to any other pages for an extract designed to represent this author fairly.