Digitization of this item is currently in progress.
Rhetoric and American poetry of the early national period
Full Citation
Permanent Link:
 Material Information
Title: Rhetoric and American poetry of the early national period
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Bigelow, Gordon E
Publisher: University of Florida Press
Place of Publication: Gainesville
Copyright Date: 1960
 Record Information
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: Copyright by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida. This work is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit You are free to electronically copy, distribute, and transmit this work if you attribute authorship. However, all printing rights are reserved by the University Press of Florida ( Please contact UPF for information about how to obtain copies of the work for print distribution. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. Any of the above conditions can be waived if you get permission from the University Press of Florida. Nothing in this license impairs or restricts the author's moral rights.
Resource Identifier: oclc - 1394788
lccn - 60063133
System ID: UF00101198:00001

Full Text


by Gordon E. Bigelow

University of Florida Monographs
No. 4, Spring 1960


Humanities Monographs

Professor of English

Professor of Art

Professor of Philosophy

Professor of English

Associate Professor of German






B before the new recruit has worn his uniform
long, he will encounter the advice, "never
volunteer," which implies that he will find trouble
enough in what he is required to do without
exposing himself to more. That same advice
should be given to any student of literature who
attempts to say anything about the relationship
of rhetoric to poetry. The safest thing for him
is to stay away from the whole war, the next
safest thing is to so limit his terms that no one
can take exception. Most studies in this area do
limit themselves to elocutio or stylistics, but I
have violated that precaution by using a broader
definition of rhetoric. I have adopted the classi-
cal conception of rhetoric as oratory, the art of
persuasion, having five qualitative divisions of
which elocutio is only one, and including the
three major branches-deliberative, forensic, and
epideictic. The concept of rhetoric here had to
be inclusive because we are dealing with a large
body of verse, some of which is rhetorical in some


ways, some in other ways. It would have been convenient to limit
the definition to deliberative or persuasive rhetoric, except that the
epideictic branch, whose chief purposes are praise and blame and
one of whose chief marks is ornate style, is of equal importance
with the deliberative. I could not restrict the definition at this
point without eliminating a large portion of the poetry with which
the study attempts to deal.
It might also have reduced the task to deal only with oratory
and not with rhetoric as theory, except that the poets of the early
national period were involved with both and there is no easy way
to separate the effect of one from the effect of the other on their
verse. Because this generation of poets made no sharp distinction
between the rhetorical and the poetic modes of discourse, rhetoric
often infiltrated from within the literary tradition as well as through
more obviously rhetorical channels, and while pointing this out
I have made no attempt to distinguish one sort of rhetorical in-
fluence from the other in drawing conclusions.
I like to think of the concept of rhetoric adopted here as sane
middle ground. Kenneth Burke conceives of it in much broader
terms, as did George Campbell in the late eighteenth century.
I have chosen the classical conception because it is not only suffi-
ciently inclusive, but also sufficiently stable and widely known to
serve as a useful standard. I have also felt it necessary to deal with
the common pejorative meaning of rhetoric, which connotes bom-
bast or excessively ornate style.
"Poetic" is taken to mean chiefly poetry, though in a broad sense
which includes novels, short stories, or other writings which are
belle-lettristic in their emphasis. This term will appear more stable
than rhetoric because we start with a given body of writings which
were offered by their authors and accepted by their readers as
The main task of definition has been undertaken in Chapter 1,
the most controversial portion of the study, though perhaps one of
the most valuable. This chapter attempts a distinction between
rhetoric and poetic as modes of discourse, an old and vexing prob-
lem which has been dealt with before, sometimes by critics of great
eminence, but never very satisfactorily. Without expecting every-
one to agree with the solution offered here, I will defend it because
I am acquainted with no other which works as well in answering
the questions raised by this study. Those who disagree will prob-


ably do so because they would like to adopt other concepts of
rhetoric or of poetic. The distinctions made here probe into dis-
putable areas involving the essential nature of rhetoric and poetic,
where one can hardly walk without treading upon toes. Those who
find this solution imprecise will probably find it possible to be more
precise only by narrowing the scope included in the categories
"rhetoric" and "poetic." One can draw sharper boundaries around
smaller, more homogeneous areas. In all humility I offer this por-
tion of the study as a challenge to someone else to turn up better
working distinctions than those offered here.
The other limits of the study are quickly stated. The date 1775
was chosen as an initial point because it is a good approximation of
the time when most poets writing in America considered themselves
definitely Americans rather than British colonials. The terminal
date 1815 indicates the approximate time when Bryant had finished
his apprenticeship and was soon to publish Thanatopsis, with which
the flood of more significant American poetry of the nineteenth
century began. The period encompassed by these two dates, though
nearly barren of poetry of great intrinsic worth, is nonetheless of
importance to the literary historian and critic, for it witnessed the
birth of many of our national tastes and ideals. It was a period of
cultural as well as political and social ferment, in which a young
America strove to assert her individuality in many fields of en-
deavor, and it was a time when rhetoric played an especially im-
portant part in American life. It has been, moreover, a period rela-
tively neglected by literary scholars, and the present study, besides
providing critical tools for working in a later period of higher
literary importance, should shed light on some aspects of this inter-
esting period in American literary history.
Except in Chapter 1 where I draw upon a rather diverse body of
materials, I have concentrated on the poetry and the critical writings
of the early national period, and a chart of my path is included in
the bibliographical note at the end of the study. The poetry posed
a problem: there was so much of it that to deal with the whole
corpus would have been unwieldy, and the verse subjected to close
scrutiny was limited to the writings of the poets thought most im-
portant by their contemporaries and those thought most important
by posterity. These were Freneau, Barlow, Humphreys, Dwight,
Trumbull, Hopkinson, and Robert Treat Paine. It seemed justifiable
to concentrate on the poetry which represents the most serious at-


tempts of the most capable poets to produce verse of high literary
It is a pleasure to record my debt to Professor Charles R. Ander-
son, who wisely and patiently saw this study through in its original
form as a doctoral dissertation at the Johns Hopkins University.
My senior colleagues, Professors Frederick W. Conner, T. Walter
Herbert, and Harry R. Warfel, generously read the manuscript
and offered many helpful suggestions for its revision. Only one
portion of this study has previously been printed. The first chapter,
"Distinguishing Rhetoric from Poetic," was published in essentially
its present form in the December, 1953, issue of Southern Speech
MARCH, 1960


1. Distinguishing Rhetoric
from Poetic 1

2. Feeble Poetry
and Lusty Rhetoric 15

3. Close Alliance of
Rhetoric and Poetic 28

4. Didacticism 40

5. Propaganda and Declamation 48

6. Poetry by Formula: Style 60

Bibliographical Note 76


During most of Western 'literary history, rhetoric and poetic have
lain close together, sometimes merging so completely for cen-
turies at a time as to be virtually indistinguishable. In the ancient
world Aristotle was almost the only critic to make any thorough-
going distinction between the two, and even this was more implicit
than explicit in the simple fact of his having published both a
Rhetoric and a Poetics. As C. S. Baldwin has shown, the nearly
universal tendency of classical antiquity, especially in Rome where
rhetoric came to dominate the whole of education, was to merge
the two, with poetic commonly becoming subservient to rhetoric.
"In the thought of Horace's circle," Baldwin writes, "the distinction
between rhetoric and poetic as two movements, two ways of com-
posing, seems to have been inactive. . Grammarians, rhetors,
philosophers, men of letters seemed thus to converge under the
Empire toward a poetic strongly tinged with rhetoric, no longer
distinct as a movement having its own technique."1 D. L. Clark
has shown that this mixture of the two modes was inherited by
the Middle Ages and that it persisted in England at least until the
middle of the seventeenth century.2 Essentially the same condition
seems to have been true of the eighteenth century, though there
is as yet no authoritative study.3
Real dissociation of rhetoric and poetic does not seem to have
come about until the nineteenth century and the Romantic Move-
ment, but here the break was sharp and deep. Romantic writers
returned to a view of poetic discourse much like that of Aristotle,
with renewed emphasis on its esthetic and pleasing qualities rather
than on its moral and persuasive elements, though their poetic type
was not the tragic drama which Aristotle had dwelt upon in the
Poetics, but the personal lyric. The rebellion of the Romantic poets

1. Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic (New York, 1924), pp. 244-246.
2. Rhetoric and Poetry in the Renaissance (New York, 1922).
3. So distinguished a student of eighteenth-century literature as R. S. Crane
finds Roman rhetoric to be the single most important shaping force on literary
theory of the age. Dictionary of World Literature, ed. Joseph T. Shipley (New
York, 1943), p. 195.


from the literary ideals and practices of the eighteenth century
takes on new meaning when it is realized that what this rebellion
amounted to in the main was a rejection of the rhetorico-poetic
tradition stretching back some 1,500 years to late classical antiquity,
a tradition which embraced nearly all of the great poets of Rome,
of the Middle Ages, and of the English Renaissance. It is significant
that Coleridge and other Romantic critics should derive their prin-
ciples not from the Roman rhetoricians but from philosophic sources.
This long and close association of rhetoric and poetic renders any
attempt to distinguish between them unusually difficult. Past at-
tempts to define these two great modes of discourse and to discrimi-
nate between them have never been satisfactory for two chief
reasons. First, critics have assumed that there are such things as
"pure" rhetoric and "pure" poetry, whereas in practice there are
few if any speeches which are not in some way poetic, or poems
which are not in some way rhetorical. Second, critics have too
often tried to capture the whole essence of a mode in a single
definition and to oppose it to the whole essence of another mode
without being aware that these modes are not simple but complex
in nature, that they defy epitomization as wholes, and that they
cannot be made mutually exclusive except on a special basis. For
this reason most attempts to distinguish between the modes have
screened out only certain classes of poems or speeches and have
let others fall through the sieve. For example, John Stuart Mill's
much quoted distinction between poetry and eloquence, "eloquence
is heard; poetry is overheard,"4 has this limitation, since it is based
on a consideration of how the maker of discourse stands toward
his audience, and neglects other considerations.
The approach I shall describe in the following pages involves
two simple innovations: first, an assumption that absolute or cate-
gorical distinctions between the two modes cannot be made, but
that the only real distinctions are relative ones-those of degree

4. "Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties," in Dissertations and Discussions
(New York, 1874), I, 96-97. Cf. Fred Newton Scott's formula for expressing
the difference between prose and poetry: "Prose is expression for communica-
tion's sake; poetry is communication for expression's sake." "The Most Funda-
mental Differentia of Poetry and Prose," PMLA, XIX (1904), 263. The dis-
cussions of this problem of distinction which come closest to the approach
outlined in this paper are by Bower Aly in "Rhetoric and Poetic," Dictionary
of World Literature, and by Hoyt H. Hudson, "Rhetoric and Poetry," Quar-
terly Journal of Speech Education, X (April, 1924), 143-154.


or emphasis; second, that ordinarily no single distinction will serve,
but that in each case a number of distinctions must be sought on
various levels. These levels I have ascertained here by determining
certain basic elements or conditions of discourse which both modes
have in common. They are six in number: (1) a maker, (2) a pur-
pose (which includes both a motive and a function), (3) an audience
and an occasion, (4) a method, (5) a medium, and (6) a subject
matter. It cannot be stressed too strongly that in the following
analysis my intention is not so much to define rhetoric and poetic
as to show how the two are most distinct from each other when
considered in terms of the elements of discourse just listed. If
someone were to gather up the distinctive characteristics of each
mode as here set forth, he might be able to compile definitions of
a sort, but they would be of unreal entities-a hypothetically "pure"
rhetoric or a hypothetically "pure" poetry which exist rarely, if
ever, in practice.
The element of purpose, since it governs to some degree the
nature of most of the other elements of discourse, is perhaps the
most useful means of distinguishing between the two modes and
deserves first consideration. And since purpose is so intimately
connected with "maker," I shall discuss the two together in a
single section.

The distinction between the two modes in terms of "maker" has
been expressed most commonly in terms of the ancient adage:
"Poeta nascitur, orator fit." Of course it would be foolish to take
this completely at face value and claim that the orator is never a
man of genius and the poet never anything but a genius. That is
one reason why I have insisted that only relative and not absolute
distinctions should be sought. Here, as at most of the other levels,
the real distinctions are found to be a matter of degree or emphasis.
Many critics have insisted that the truly great orator, like the truly
great poet, must have a generous portion of natural talent or genius.
But while the orator who was only competent has been accorded
at least respect, the poet who was thought to be only competent
has seldom received anything but scorn. The theoretical insistence
that the poet be a man of genius has been nearly universal-even
during times when reason has been accorded unusual respect, as
in the English neoclassic period. Few critics have claimed that a


man could become a poet solely by learning the poetic craft from
a textbook.
The basic assumption of rhetoricians has often been quite differ-
ent, and the difference can be seen in the fact that the rhetoricians
have produced innumerable manuals in which their art is reduced
to a system so that it might be learned by any man of average gifts.
While the elements of style-figures of speech, rhythm, grammar,
syntax, and the rest-belong as much to the poet's art as to the
orator's, it is significant that the manuals of style have been written
not by poets but by rhetoricians and that they are called not
"poetics" but rhetoriccs" The ideal orator of antiquity, especially as
described by Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, was a man of the
widest and most intensive learning and experience. Quintilian, for
example, conceived of the whole of man's education from earliest
infancy as being centered on the one aim of developing his capa-
bilities as an orator. Yet only seldom in the Institutio are there
suggestions that genius is an indispensable element in the orator.5
The whole conception of the book works against this; it was in-
tended to outline the ideal education for all Roman noblemen, and
is permeated by the assumption that men of ordinary gifts, if they
followed its teaching, could become at least competent orators.
The poet, on the other hand, has seldom been considered any-
thing but the man of exceptional genius. In its extreme form, this
view of the poet sees him as a kind of raving maniac, sometimes
half divine, a man possessed and torn by the gift of prophecy over
which he has little or no control. Plato sees the poet thus in the
Ion and the Phaedrus,6 and Aristotle said that "poetry demands a
man with special gifts for it, or else one with a touch of madness
in him,"7 and that "poetry is a thing inspired."8 Horace expresses

5. The Greeks apparently felt the same way. See R. C. Jebb, The Attic
Orators (London, 1898), I, lxx: "In the Greek view, a man who speaks may,
without necessarily having any first-rate natural gifts for eloquence . yet
deserve to be distinguished from his fellows by the name of a speaker." Quin-
tilian takes the common classical position that both art and nature are necessary
to the best oratorical expression, but he seldom emphasizes nature. For one
such passage, however, see Institutio Oratoria, trans. by H. B. Butler (London,
1932), II 19, 1-3.
6. The Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (London, 1892); Ion, 533;
Phaedrus, 245.
7. Aristotle's Art of Poetry [Poetics], ed. W. Hamilton Fyfe (Oxford, 1940),
8. The Rhetoric of Aristotle, trans. Lane Cooper (New York, 1932), 1408b.


this vatic view in milder form: "I will take my name from the list
of such as I allow to be poets. For you would not call it enough
to round off a verse, nor would you count anyone a poet who writes,
as I do, lines more akin to prose. If one has gifts inborn, if one has
a soul divine and tongue of noble utterance, to such give the honor
of that name."9 Centuries later Sidney echoes this idea: "Onely
the poet," he says, ". . lifted up with the vigor of his own inven-
tion doth grow in effect into another nature."10 He cites the Roman
word for poet, vates, "which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or
But there is no need here to insist on the extreme view; perhaps
we need go no further than Wordsworth's more temperate remarks.
Wordsworth thought that the poet differs from other men not so
much in kind as in degree: "The poet is chiefly distinguished from
other men by a greater promptness to think and feel without im-
mediate external excitement, and a greater power in expressing
such thoughts and feelings . ." He is a man "endowed with more
lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a
greater knowledge of human nature and a more comprehensive
soul."12 This is far from the Roman vates, but it still sees the poet
as an exceptional man. The point, however, need not be argued at
greater length. The poet, if the nearly unanimous opinion of the
most thoughtful critics can be relied upon, may very well resemble
the orator (or other men) in most ways, but he has something which
sets him apart from other men-his genius.
To turn now to purpose. The purpose of rhetoric has most com-
monly been considered to be persuasion; this is twofold and involves
a motive which is usually the desire of the maker to achieve some
practical end, and a function which is usually to move men by
means of persuasion to action in accordance with the desire of the
maker.13 An illustration might make this more concrete: a dictator
9. Satires, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough (London, 1929), I iv, 38-48.
10. Philip Sidney, "Defense of Poesie," Works, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Lon-
don, 1923), III, 8.
11. Ibid., p. 6.
12. "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads," The Poetical Works of William Words-
worth, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (Oxford, 1933), p. 937.
13. D. L. Clark sums up the general opinion of the ancient rhetoricians on
the purpose of rhetoric as follows: "To the Greeks and Romans, rhetoric
meant the theory of oratory. As a pedagogical mechanism it endeavored to
teach students to persuade an audience . Thus to the Greeks and Romans
rhetoric was defined by its function of discovering means to persuasion." Rhet-


covets the fertile lands of a tiny neighboring country; he therefore
directs his propaganda minister to prepare a campaign of radio
addresses and newspaper articles to persuade his people that the
tiny neighbor is planning to make war on them; influenced by these
appeals, the dictator's people eventually act in accordance with his
wishes and go to war. In this instance the motive which leads to
the discourse is lust for power or for nationalistic expansion; the
function of the various forms of discourse, written and spoken, is
to provide the dictator's people with a good reason for attacking
their neighbor. The motive is determined rationalistically, and the
function is a quite practical one.
The motive and function of poetic discourse cannot be so easily
specified. Samuel Johnson said that a man who wrote for any other
reason than to make money was a fool. No doubt many poems
and other literary works have been written to catch the eye and
loosen the purse strings of some patron-be it a nobleman or the
general public. And some literary works of great worth have been
produced "on order," to celebrate a wedding or mourn a death.
But it will hardly do to stop there and claim that all poets write
because they must eat or must satisfy the demands of a patron.
Too many, like Chatterton, have written in spite of hunger, and
some, like Virgil or Lucretius, have written great verse who never
had to worry at all about their next meal. The characteristic motive
behind poetic discourse, and the motive which distinguishes it from
rhetoric, is the "divine gift," the exceptional genius, the muse. It
is not usually determined self-consciously or rationalistically like
the motive of rhetoric; it is more apt to be innate, spontaneous, in-
voluntary; the poet writes poetry because he is in some degree a
"dedicated spirit." In poetic discourse, moreover, motive may be
relatively independent of the function. One strong component of
the poet's motive is simply that the discourse shall be, without refer-
ence to what it shall do. Many of the great poets-Dante, Spenser,
Milton-conceived the end of poetry to be moral suasion, or the
inculcation of religious or virtuous principles, a practical end simi-
oric and Poetry in the Renaissance, p. 6. While persuasion is the most
characteristic purpose of rhetoric, it applies chiefly to the deliberative and
forensic branches. Praise and blame have commonly been designated by the
rhetoricians as the chief purposes of the epideictic branch, though these rarely
exist without some admixture of persuasion. Even the so-called "new rhetoric"
of Kenneth Burke has persuasion, or "identification" (Burke's more inclusive
term) at its base. See A Rhetoric of Motives (New York, 1950), pp. 19 ff.


lar to that of rhetoric. But it was not this end which determined
that their discourse should be mainly poetic rather than rhetorical;
it was the "divine gift" which determined it.14
To turn now to the function of poetry, the other part of purpose.
In brief terms, the distinctive function of poetry is to give esthetic
pleasure rather than to persuade, to express or exhibit rather than
to communicate. This is, however, an unlikely and theoretical ex-
treme which should be modified to conform more nearly to actual
practice. As W. S. Howell has shown, all poetry is in some degree
communicative and in a sense persuasive, since no poem, if it is
read with understanding, leaves a man exactly as it found him.15
It might also be said, conversely, that many speeches give pleasure
as well as persuade. Still there is a characteristic difference be-
tween the modes in their emphases on persuasion or pleasure. Rhet-
oric may propose both to please and to persuade, but the emphasis
is on persuasion; poetry may also propose both to please and to
persuade, but the emphasis is on pleasure. Horace's famous lines
express this basic paradox concerning the function of poetry: "Poets
desire either to profit or to delight, or to tell things which are at
once pleasant and profitable.""1 Dryden, who oscillates between
claims that pleasure is the chief end and that instruction is the chief
end of poetry, states the typical compromise critics have made be-
tween these two: "Delight is the chief, if not the only end of poesy;
instruction can be admitted but in the second place; for poesy only
instructs as it delights."17
14. That the motive of poetic discourse is innate, spontaneous, involuntary,
rather than rationalistic and deliberate, we can gather from the testimony of
a number of poets. Shelley, for example, said that "Poetry is not, like reason-
ing, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will ....
The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like
an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from
within . and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of
its approach or its departure." Cf. Philip Sidney, "Defense of Poesie," Works,
III, 36-37.
15. "Literature as an Enterprise in Communication," Quarterly Journal of
Speech, XXXIII (1947), 417-426; see also Roland M. Frye, "Rhetoric and
Poetry in Julius Caesar," Quarterly Journal of Speech, XXXVII (1950), 39-48.
16. Ars Poetica, lines 333-334.
17. "Defense of an Essay of Dramatic Poesy," Essays of John Dryden, ed.
W. P. Ker (Oxford, 1926), I, 113. I am not unacquainted with the great mass
of evidence which seems to militate against this view that the characteristic
function of poetry is to give pleasure. Critics in the ancient world almost
unanimously insisted on a didactic function for poetry; so did critics in the
medieval world, and to a lesser extent so did critics in the Renaissance and


Next to purpose, a consideration of audience and occasion is the
most useful means of discriminating between rhetoric and poetic
discourse. Rhetoric implies a specific audience and a specific oc-
casion, both of which exert an immediate and important shaping
influence on the nature of the discourse. According to Aristotle,
it is the hearer who determines the speech. "The kinds of Rhetoric
are three in number," he wrote, "corresponding to the three kinds
of hearers to which speeches are addressed."18 The orator, if he is
to persuade successfully, must constantly be aware of his audience
and must shape his discourse in accordance with his estimate of
its effect on the audience. In a similar way, the orator's discourse
is determined to an important degree by a specific occasion-the
threat of an enemy invasion, the need for a higher tax, the prosecu-
tion of an accused criminal, the celebration of a great man's birth.
Both audience and occasion tend to place fairly definite, even nar-
row, limits on the context of the discourse.19
If rhetoric is commonly designed for a specific audience and a
specific occasion, it would be absurd to claim that poetry is written
for no audience and for no occasion-though some poets and critics
have suggested as much. Shelley said that "a poet is a nightingale
who sits in darkness and sings to cheer his own solitude with sweet
sounds"20-a typical overstatement which Shelley did not follow
himself. Statements of this sort commonly go along with a strong
belief in the vatic theory of poetic inspiration, and I am far from

neoclassic periods. But it should be remembered that during all this time
rhetoric lay very close to poetry, sometimes edging so close for centuries at a
time as to be virtually indistinguishable from it. I am inclined to believe with
C. S. Baldwin that this general insistence upon a didactic function for poetry
is the result of poetic acquiring a rhetorical characteristic. See his Ancient
Rhetoric and Poetic, pp. 225, 240.
18. Rhetoric, 1358b. Cf. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, pp. 38-39.
19. Some speeches, of course, do have a more general audience and occa-
sion. Isocrates' Panegyric, for example, a great piece of rhetoric which was
reputedly written over a period of ten years, has an audience much more
general than a group of men clustered about a speaker's rostrum, and an
occasion much broader than a specific contemporary event. But it would be
generally admitted, I think, that this piece in several important respects re-
sembles poetic discourse more than it does rhetoric; and perhaps it should be
mentioned that this "speech" belongs to epideictic oratory, which as a class
tends to be closer to poetic discourse than the other two main branches of
20. Defense of Poetry.


insisting on that belief here. The poet, insofar as he seeks to com-
municate (and what poet who uses intelligible language does not?),
is aware of some audience and some occasion, but these are both
much broader than in rhetoric, and they exercise far less immediate
control on the nature of the poet's discourse. The poet might speak
to anybody, or as in some soliloquy to himself, or to nobody; he
often appears to be speaking to all mankind and for all time. But
neither audience nor occasion shapes his discourse except in a
comparatively broad sense.

The method of discourse is closely dependent upon the other ele-
ments of discourse, especially purpose. One of the basic laws of
rhetoric, growing out of its purpose to persuade, is that the orator,
before he employs other devices of persuasion, such as appeals to
emotion, must first convince his audience of the reasonableness of
what he is saying. Emotional appeals and ethical proofs have gen-
erally been considered among the most powerful means of per-
suasion, but it is usually presumed that they move within an orderly
framework of facts and ideas.21 The characteristic instrument of
rhetoric, especially of deliberative and forensic rhetoric, is the en-
thymeme-the rhetorical syllogism-and the basis of persuasion is
an enthymematic chain, by means of which the orator proceeds
from one point to the next in establishing his argument.22 The
method of rhetoric, whatever recourse may be had to other means,

21. Longinus, for example, when discussing the orator's use of imagination,
says that it introduces vigor and true feeling into a speech "when combined
with practical arguments." On the Sublime, XV, trans. by A. H. Gilbert, in
Literary Criticism, Plato to Dryden (New York, 1940). The ancient rhetoricians
thought logic and orderly development important enough to make dispositio
one of the chief qualitative divisions of rhetoric. Cf. the statement of D. C.
Bryant: "Rhetoric, one way or another, has always run with logic. ..
There is nothing more than a good character which more persistently under-
lies . rhetorical teaching than the insistence upon intellectual processes in
the speaker and intellectual content in the speech and the preparation of the
speech." "Aspects of the Rhetorical Tradition," Quarterly Journal of Speech,
XXVI (1950), 169-176.
22. Exception must be made to this in the case of some epideictic speeches,
especially those in which display or virtuosity of expression is the end chiefly
sought; but there are many speeches chiefly epideictic, like those of Isocrates,
which also contain a strong deliberative element. These commonly show a deep
concern for dispositio and make considerable use of enthymeme, example, and
other persuasive devices.


is characteristically logical, a progression of ideas determined by
reason and appealing chiefly to reason in the hearer.
Poetry has its own order and organization, but its method is dif-
ferent from rhetoric. For one thing, it is less rigorously logical and
rationalistic; often its order is determined not so much by a chain
of enthymemes in an argument as by a chain of events in a narra-
tive, or by a sequence of associations, or by events or phenomena
dependent upon a character or a theme idea. Aristotle conceived
of the poet as primarily an "imitator," or a maker of plots, whose
chief office was to imitate actions. This in essence would make of
the poet a creator of life or a portrayer of life rather than, like the
orator, an influence of life. The poet's chief concern should be
not with what is or what has been, but with what may be, and his
method should involve an imaginative reconstruction of experience.
The order of events for the poet is bound not so much to logic as
to the necessities of plot and character.
Aristotle's remarks were attached to the tragic drama. Longinus
also made interesting comments about the method of poetry, center-
ing them not on drama but on one of Sappho's most intensely per-
sonal lyrics. He conceived of the characteristic method of poetry
as selective and combining, a fusion of the most important elements
of experience as opposed to the cumulation or amplification typical
of oratory. He cited as an example how Sappho to portray the
ecstasy of love chooses "the emotions that attend delirious passion
from its accompaniments in actual life."23 Her supreme poetic ex-
cellence is demonstrated by "the skill with which she binds together
the most striking and vehement expressions of passion."24 For Lon-
ginus the typical method of poetry was an imaginative realization
of the most significant facts, which it combines or focuses or sug-
gests in a flash. The method of oratory was amplification, a kind of
extension or cumulation as opposed to the compression of poetry.25
John Stuart Mill also found the method of poetry to be logical,
dependent upon emotions rather than on reason. "What constitutes
the poet is not the imagery, nor the thoughts, nor even the feelings,
but the law according to which they are called up. He is a poet,
not because he has ideas of any particular kind, but because the

23. Longinus on the Sublime, trans. by W. Rhys Roberts (Cambridge, 1907),
X, 1.
24. Ibid., XI, XII.
25. Cf. Baldwin, pp. 125-128.


succession of his ideas is subordinate to the course of his emotions."
He then points out the difference between the function of emotion
in the poet and in the orator. "In listening to an oration, or reading
a written discourse, not professedly poetical, when do we begin
to feel that the speaker or author is putting off the character of the
orator or the prose-writer, and is passing into the poet? Not when
he begins to show strong feeling; then we merely say, he is in
earnest; he feels what he says; still less when he expresses himself
in imagery; then, unless illustration be manifestly his sole object,
we are apt to say, this is affectation. It is when the feeling . .
becomes itself the originator of another train of association, when
it expels, or blends with, the former. . "26
In summary, the characteristic method of poetic discourse, unlike
that of rhetoric, is essentially logical, a movement from image to
image determined by imagination or emotion, and appealing to
imagination or emotion in the reader.27

Discrimination has often been made between rhetoric and poetic
on the basis of whether prose or verse is the medium of expression
employed, though this is one of the least dependable of criteria.
Expression varies radically in accordance with changes in any of
the other elements, especially that of purpose, and the medium of
expression may be arbitrarily selected by the maker without refer-
ence to any of the other elements, or it may be chosen for him by
convention. However, there remains little doubt that the customary
medium of poetic discourse is verse, prose being suited to the prac-
tical purpose and logical method of rhetoric, and verse to the
esthetic purpose and imaginative method of poetic discourse.28 Al-
though verse (i.e. regular metrical form, plus in modem times the
added feature of rime) has been a chief means of distinguishing
poetry from other discourse, many critics, including Aristotle, Cicero,
and Quintilian, have observed that all verse is not necessarily poetry,
indicating that they recognized the importance of other criteria in
defining the nature of poetry. Aristotle pointed out that the his-

26. Mill, I, 116. See also Aristotle, Poetics, XVII, 2.
27. Cf. Baldwin, p. 134.
28. Within the last 150 years another distinction between the two modes
has emerged, one which could hardly have been applied to earlier times; that
is, that rhetoric is predominantly spoken, while poetry is predominantly written.


torian and the poet do not differ mainly because one writes prose
and the other verse, for Herodotus' history could be put into verse
and would still be history, not poetry. The historian, like the rhet-
orician, is mainly concerned with what has happened, the poet with
what might happen; what chiefly distinguishes the poet is that he
is an imitator, not a mere maker of meters.29
Aside from meter, extensive use of figures of speech has been con-
sidered more suited to poetic than to rhetorical discourse. Aristotle
thought extravagant use of figurative language appropriate to poetry
and inappropriate to rhetoric.30 Cicero spoke of poets being more
licensed to use "grand and figurative language," and of their having
a "greater freedom in the formation and arrangement of words."31
Quintilian repeatedly allowed freer use of figures to poetry than to
rhetoric.32 Longinus goes further and connects with purpose the
use of figures in each mode. "You will be aware of the fact that
an image has one purpose with the orators and another with the
poets, and that the design of the poetical image is enthralment, of
the rhetorical-vivid description."33 "It is no doubt true," he added,
"that those [images] found in the poets contain, as I said, a tend-
ency to exaggeration in the way of the fabulous and that they
transcend in every way the credible, but in oratorical imagery the
best feature is always its reality and truth."34

From one point of view little distinction can be made between
the two modes in terms of subject matter, since speeches and poems
alike may in theory utilize any topic within human knowledge and
experience. Most attempts to make distinctions in such terms end
up by considering other things, such as the poet's special gifts or
the relationship of the maker to audience and occasion. Aristotle's
statement, already quoted in another connection, is typical: the
prose writer deals with facts, with what has been or what is, and
the poet deals with idealized facts, with what may be. What this
assertion implies is that the poet, because of his special gift, largely

29. Poetics, IX.
30. Rhetoric, 1405a-1408b.
31. Orator, trans. by H. M. Hubbell, (Cambridge, Mass., 1931), XX, 66-68.
32. Institution, VIII, vi, 20, 35, 40, 44-59, 60-62, 68.
33. On the Sublime, trans. Roberts, XV, 2.
34. Ibid., XV, 8.


creates his own subject matter, while the orator or historian takes
that furnished him by the course of worldly events.36
An illuminating variation of this distinction between what is and
what may be is provided by W. S. Howell. This variation, too, in-
volves a consideration of audience and occasion. "Words which
make up the rhetorical utterance lead the reader to states of reality,
whereas the words making up the poetical utterance lead the reader
to things which stand by deputy for states of reality. .... Our trans-
action with rhetorical utterance is complete when we have fully
connected its words with their referents.... Our problem in read-
ing . any work of fiction or of poetry becomes that of finding
the second set of references for its word.""6 Expository essays,
speeches, and the like can, according to Howell, be called the litera-
ture of statement; poetry, drama, fiction, and the like can be called
the literature of symbol. A simple illustration should make this
clearer: Consider Milton's Satan addressing his host of rebel angels
in Pandemonium. To the fallen angels, as they hear his speech,
Satan's references to the burning lake, to the horrors of the battle
just past, to God and to the Son are only too real; all are tangible
and vivid elements of their immediate experience. Yet to us, who
do not hear the actual speech but read it as an imaginative creation
by a great poet, these references can be only symbols pointing the
way to other referents somewhere in our own widely differing con-
cepts and experience. To the fallen angels, who are in an essentially
rhetorical situation with respect to Satan's speech, reason is quite
enough to apprehend the full meaning of his words; to us, who are
in an essentially poetic situation with respect to his speech, some-
thing else-perhaps imagination, perhaps Coleridge's "willing sus-
pension of disbelief"-is also necessary.
One statement concerning subject matter might be made, though
even this is a generalization to which there are many exceptions.
In keeping with the practical purpose, the specific audience and
occasion of rhetoric, rhetorical themes tend to be more limited in
application than the themes of poetic discourse; and conversely,
in keeping with the esthetic purpose and the more general audience

35. For two interesting variations of this by sixteenth-century Italian critics,
see Mazzoni, "On the Defense of Comedy" in Gilbert, op. cit., 360; and Castel-
vetro, "On the Poetics," ibid., 305.
36. "Literature as an Enterprise in Communciation," Quarterly Journal of
Speech, XXXIII (1947), 417-426.


and occasion of poetic discourse, poetic themes tend to be more
timeless and universal than rhetorical themes.
In summary, I have insisted that no single distinction provides
a net fine enough to sift out all of rhetoric from all of poetic, but
that in judging the characteristics of any particular piece of dis-
course, a number of distinctions must be made on various levels,
and that even on a particular level the differences between the two
modes are not absolute but chiefly a matter of degree or emphasis.
These criteria will be put to work in the ensuing chapters where
the rhetorical elements of American poetry of the early national
period are placed under close scrutiny.


reneau perceptively stated the literary spirit of his time when
he wrote that
An age employed in edging steel
Can no poetic raptures feel.'
Because it was the handmaiden of politics, most literature of the
early national period in prose or in verse was what we would today
call propaganda, a literature of polemic and invective, of exhortation
and persuasion. During the Revolution men of letters engaged in
a war of pens no less urgent and at times no less important than
the war of bullets. Even the ratification of the Constitution and
the formation of a true federal government brought with it no end
to controversy. Issues hotly contested in the dispute over the Con-
stitution served to crystallize American politics into two parties
which were continually at each other's throats during the remainder
of the period. If guns and bullets were laid by after the surrender
of the British in 1783, heated words continued to fly with unabated
vigor. Poets and essayists who had defended the cause of liberty
during the Revolution took sides and fought with equal rancor in
the cause of the Federalists or the Republicans. In the 1790's party
issues were fanned to new heat by the French Revolution, which
split the country into Francophiles and Francophobes, and these
cleavages had hardly diminished before the War of 1812 brought
in a new wave of controversial issues and a new wave of polemics.
Such demands on literature to serve urgent, utilitarian ends forced
it to adopt attitudes and techniques which would be best suited
to those ends. These were, understandably, the attitudes and tech-
niques of rhetoric.
It is true that there was no first-rate poetic talent in America at
this time, and this fact is sufficient to explain why there was so
little poetry of high worth, but it is also true that America did not
make the best of what she had. The main forces in American so-
ciety, far from cherishing poetic genius, were hostile to it. The best
1. "To An Author," The Poems of Philip Freneau, ed. Fred L. Pattee
(Princeton, 1902-1907), II, 333.


minds were attracted to politics. Jefferson, Madison, John Adams,
Hamilton, and Franklin-all wrote voluminously, but none thought
of himself as a man of letters; certainly none had any intention of
becoming a poet. Franklin remarked in his Autobiography, "I ap-
proved the amusing one's self with poetry now and then, so far as
to improve one's language, but no farther."2 Ezra Stiles, president
of Yale from 1778 to 1795, showed how poetry was regarded in aca-
demic circles: "The lower branches of polite Literature I have an
indifferent Opinion of; such as Poetry, the dramatic Writings, and
the profusion of modern Novels."3 He not only relegated poetry to
"the lower branches of polite Literature," but he included oratory
as a part of "the higher and more valuable branches." Nor was he
the only college president who had a low opinion of poetry. John
Witherspoon of Princeton had an interest in poetry which "was of
the slightest, and the few poetic quotations he made in his lectures
are used only to point some moral."4 James Madison, a famous pupil
of Witherspoon, held a similar view of poetry. He wrote to a young
friend that poetry, wit, and criticism had captivated him as a young
man, but that "something more durable befits a man of upper
years."5 Tom Paine wrote, "I had some turn, and I believe some
talent for poetry, but this I rather repressed than encouraged, as
leading too much into the field of the imagination"6--a remark not
unfitting one whose most famous work is entitled Common Sense.
Coldness to poetry on the part of many of America's important
men is only one sign that philosophical and religious attitudes of
the day were unfriendly to poetry and friendly to rhetoric. I. W.
Riley names five movements which dominated American thinking
during the period: Puritanism, deism, Berkeleian idealism, French
materialism, and realism or the common-sense philosophy.7 In none
of these does one find encouragement of the emotional intensity

2. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Collected and Edited with a Life
and Introduction, ed. Albert Henry Smyth (New York, 1905), I, 270.
3. The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles [1769-1795], ed. Franklin B. Dexter
(New York, 1901). The quoted passage is from a letter by Stiles to Mr. Tutor
Lewis of Yale College, included by the editor under the entry in the diary
dated February 16, 1775, I, 517.
4. Varnum L. Collins, President Witherspoon, A Biography (Princeton,
1925), II, 213.
5. Poems of Philip Freneau, I, lxix.
6. The Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Moncure D. Conway (New York,
1894-1896), IV, 63.
7. American Philosophy: The Early Schools (New York, 1907), p. 10.


and imaginative insight which are necessary to poetic expression.
The puritan clergy of New England, notoriously cool to the arts,
constituted one of the most fecund literary groups. One contempo-
rary critic said, "a larger portion of reputable American achieve-
ments in the field of authorship have been accomplished by persons
of this profession than of any other in the United States,"8 and an-
other said that "the public is indebted to their exertions for a large
proportion of our literary productions."9 The Calvinists were espe-
cially prolific, growing more vociferous as their congregations
Among the things they fought against was a growing rationalism
which fostered the practical and useful in the realm of literature,
where the only talents generally cultivated were those which could
be turned to direct utility.10 This meant that the writer should learn
to write clear, simple prose, after the manner of Swift or Addison."1
Joseph Dennie, editor of the Port Folio, found that "the coldness
of our vast atmosphere soon chills" the infant poem.12 Freneau
found America to be hostile to the muses and mourned that reason
was so strong that fancy could not survive.'1 He felt the time to
be so hostile to poetry and so favorable to prose that he predicted
a coming age in which common sense would make itself so strongly
felt that prose would triumph completely over poetry.14 His pre-
diction was quite accurate; the Scottish "common-sense" philosophy
became so influential that it has been considered the pre-eminently
American philosophy.15 Closely allied to this burgeoning of ration-
alistic thought was a growing interest in science and a commercial-
ism so strong that Samuel Miller in 1803 could name it as one of
the chief reasons for the inferior state of American literature.16

8. The Monthly Magazine and American Review, I (1799), 359.
9. The Massachusetts Magazine, VI (1794), 371.
10. J. H. Coberly found that "rather consistently, literature was given a
functional character; a utilitarian motive was attached to the esthetic." "The
Growth of Nationalism in American Literature, 1800-1815" (unpublished dis-
sertation, George Washington University, 1949), p. 145.
11. One critic made the unusual claim that the study of oratory is the best
way to achieve a good prose style. "Nothing contributes so much to polish
the style as the cultivation of oratory." Port Folio, V (1805), 257. This claim
was unique, however; other critics and rhetoricians advised the emulation of
some great stylist, such as Addison, as the best means of acquiring a good style.
12. Port Folio, V (1805), 126. 13. Poems of Philip Freneau, II, 333.
14. Ibid., III, 188. 15. Riley, American Philosophy, p. 477.
16. A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1803), I, 404-
409. Similar reasons for the low state of American letters are given in an


There was also a lack of cultural facilities. The sophistication and
leisure usually required to produce poetry had only feeble exist-
ence in the three or four largest cities. There were virtually no
public libraries except for the beginnings of subscription library
associations. Art galleries and museums were almost nonexistent
except for the artistic activity at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine
Arts in Philadelphia and similar stirring in New York and Boston.
Even though literacy was widespread, especially in New England,
it was for the most part bare literacy. The Port Folio stated in 1814
that one cause of the lowly condition of American literature was
"the small number of persons among us whose minds have been
disciplined by academical instruction," adding that law, politics,
medicine, and the clergy absorbed all the highly trained minds in
the country, leaving none for literature.17
There was a universal clamor for a great national literature, and
this clamor involved a paradox: Americans called for a great na-
tional poet, but they were unwilling to buy enough books to support
anyone who devoted himself to poetry. American inertia and in-
difference, as much as lack of international copyright laws, made
it cheaper and safer for publishers to reprint the latest books by
British authors of established reputation than to risk money on an
unknown American. Anyone wishing to become the great national
poet must be willing to starve in a garret-a price no American
was willing to pay. There were two opinions as to what this na-
tional literature should be. The first, fostered by Federalists like
Joseph Dennie, involved a reverence for things British. These men
claimed that the way to attain native excellence was to emulate the
British poets, especially Milton and the great Augustans, the great-
ness of the American product being measured in terms of its like-
ness to the original. The second opinion, held by many Democrats
like Freneau, insisted that American literature should break com-
pletely with England and devise its own poetic method and use
only American subject matter.
This hue and cry of nationalism had several damaging effects on

article in the Monthly Magazine and American Review, I (1799), 15-19. See
also Daniel Webster's Phi Beta Kappa Address delivered at Dartmouth in
1809, The Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster (Boston, 1903), XV,
576-581; and H. H. Clark, Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences,
Arts, and Letters, XXV (1930), 48.
17. II (1814), 45.


American literature. First, it created an urgent sense that a great
poetry must be produced at any cost, lack of genius or other limita-
tion notwithstanding; and it provided a strong motive for adopting
the prescriptive methods of the British neoclassic poets. Second,
nationalistic bias made critics in America either too lax or too strict
in their judgment of American poems. One set of critics heaped
extravagant praise on the sleaziest literary performance as long as
it was American, accepting any bombastic, over-decorated senti-
ment or any versified commonplace as poetry. Another set, equally
convinced that they were acting in the national interest, subjected
American productions to the severest judgment based on the per-
formance of the British poets. The one tended to cheapen the
product and the other to deter prospective poets who feared public
ridicule. Finally, nationalism resulted in a mass of poetry on pa-
triotic themes, which was highly rhetorical.
A glance at the publishing scene tells the same story of esthetic
sterility. One striking feature of publication was the large number
of brief works in periodical or in pamphlet form. Charles Brockden
Brown, the novelist, commented in 1806 that the United States was
a land with few books but many publications, and added as if by
way of extenuation that America was still "in a literary view, no
more than a province of the British Empire."8s Samuel Miller had
been so impressed a few years earlier by the great preponderance
of pamphlets and periodicals that he felt the century could be
"emphatically called the age of periodical publications."19 Among
longer works the most successful kinds of publication were three:
theological, political, and educational. A great many of the prin-
cipal "authors" of the time were preachers publishing their ser-
mons, or lawyers, teachers, politicians, and orators publishing their
speeches. Aside from the reprints of English poets and novelists,
only a small part of the total output of the presses was "literary."
Out of thirty-eight works reviewed by C. B. Brown in the Monthly
Magazine for 1799, The Foresters, An American Tale by Jeremy
Belknap is the only American book which could be classified as
literary. It is interesting that of the same thirty-eight works re-
viewed, thirty-one, or approximately four-fifths, were sermons or
18. American Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and
Science, I (1806), 174.
19. Brief Retrospect, II, 246-247.


It is paradoxical that while there were virtually no professional
poets, there were hundreds of poems. Samuel Miller, referring to
both Europe and America, spoke of the eighteenth century as ex-
ceeding "all preceding periods with respect to the quantity of its
poetry."20 Dennie wrote in 1809 that among the pieces submitted
to him for publication, poetry outnumbered prose ten to one. Most
of the poetry, he added, was "scarcely less offensive than the com-
post heaps in a farmer's field."21 C. B. Brown, at about the same
time, found that "good poetry is the most scarce of all literary com-
modities, though poetry or matter that, by courtesy, bears the name
is sufficiently abundant."22 And in 1808 the editor of the Monthly
Anthology and Boston Review spoke bitterly of being
harassed with a class of authors . [who] degrade the name, who
are incomparably more numerous here .. than in any other coun-
try. We allude to those who have triumphed over an audience in
some species of occasional discourse, orations, sermons, etc., [or]
who have occupied the poet's corner . those well-meaning men
who have mistaken virtuous, patriotic sentiments in rhyme for
poetic inspiration ... 23

Since there were few versifiers who rose to the dignity of a volume,
the greater part of this verse appeared in the poetry columns of
the newspapers and periodicals.
Clearly poetry in America during the early national period was
in a sad way. But if there was a scarcity of good poetry and of true
poets, there was no lack of speechmakers; and if the age was hostile
to poetry, it was more than friendly to oratory. Americans early
acquired the reputation of being a speechmaking people. Some ten
years before the Revolution, Soame Jenyns, the English poetaster
and critic, objected facetiously to allowing American representa-
tives in Parliament, because,
I have lately seen so many specimens of the great powers of speech
of which these American gentlemen are possessed, that I should be
afraid that the sudden importation of so much eloquence at once,
would greatly endanger the safety and government of this coun-
20. Ibid., p. 231. 21. Port Folio, new [3rd] series, II (1809), 597.
22. American Register, I (1807), 205.
23. Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, VIII (1808), 4-5.
24. The Objections to the Taxation of Our American Colonies by the
Legislature of Great Britain, Briefly Considered (London, 1765), pp. 17-18,


Samuel L. Knapp's remarks in 1829 give some idea of the energy
Americans devoted to becoming effective speakers:
No country has ever laboured harder to make orators than our own.
In addition to fifty-three colleges, where classical educations are
given, there are hundreds of minor institutions in which every rule
of rhetoric is committed to memory; and every student can give
you all the maxims from Blair, Campbell, and others necessary to
make an orator; can tell you when to extend the arm, balance the
body, raise the eyes, quicken the utterance, elevate the voice, and
all the other golden rules to build up a Demosthenes or a Chatham.
We have had most of the great dramatic actors from Europe to
teach us. ... Teachers have swarmed upon our shores and we have
followed them and paid them extravagant sums for years.25
As might be expected, a great deal of the speechmaking centered
in politics. Both national and local governments of the United
States, with their democratic forms, placed a high premium on
speaking ability. In a country where nearly every man was sup-
posed to take some part in government, he almost literally had some
"voice" in the government. Freedom of speech meant freedom to
make speeches. To get elected to office a candidate had to elec-
tioneer, addressing as many of the voters as he could as often as
possible; and once elected, he was expected to be effective in
debate. But a citizen did not have to hold office to speak on political
matters; much of local government was carried on through the
debates and wrangling of ordinary folk.
Closely connected with politics was the profession of law. Bower
Aly says of Americans in the early national period: "In spite of a
native distrust of lawyers, they were perhaps as litigious as any
people who ever lived. They busied themselves in the courts not
only about such major crimes as murder, rape, and larceny but
also about such petty matters as property lines, damage done by
stock, and minor breaches of contract."26 A chief qualification for
any lawyer was an ability to speak effectively. Joel Barlow gave
up the practice of law because "his oratorical powers were by no

quoted in M. C. Tyler, The Literary History of the American Revolution (New
York, 1941), I, 84-85.
25. Lectures on American Literature (New York, 1829), p. 218.
26. William N. Brigance, ed., A History and Criticism of American Public
Address (New York, 1943), I, 65.


means of a high order."27 In 1794 C. B. Brown mentioned as qualities
eminently subservient to the lawyer's purposes "a tunable voice,
a fertile fancy, dexterity in argument, and promptitude in speech."28
In a legal system where judges themselves were often barely literate
in the law, where the court might be held in the common room of
the local tavern, and where legal forms and etiquette, at least in
the backwoods, might be reduced to informality, the decision of
a case might rest upon the personality or the speaking ability of
the lawyer.
A third great area for oratory was the church. Under the Puritan
theocracy of New England, when the literary arts had been little
encouraged, the art of pulpit oratory had been cultivated with a
truly religious fervor. Preachers were trained to compose and de-
liver their sermons with careful skill, and audiences through long
experience came not only to listen for the spiritual message, but
to appreciate with real critical acumen the quality of the artistic
performance.29 By the end of the eighteenth century this tradition
of pulpit eloquence was nearly two hundred years old in New
England, and included such famous names as the Mathers and
Jonathan Edward.30 Even though the influence of the Puritan clergy
waned during the century, there was no lessening in religious ora-
tory, for as the strong current of Methodism and evangelical re-
ligion swept into America, a new and perhaps even more vigorous
tradition of pulpit eloquence arose.
There were many forms of public diversion in which speech-
making was the central attraction. Fourth of July orations, funeral
orations, and speeches on numerous other ceremonial or public

27. Samuel Kettell, Specimens of American Poetry (Boston, 1821), II, 4.
28. The Rhapsodist and Other Uncollected Writings, ed. Harry R. Warfel,
in Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints (New York, 1943), p. 108.
29. For scholarly discussion of pulpit oratory in seventeenth-century Eng-
land, which had close relation to the American tradition, see Caroline F.
Richardson, English Preachers and Preachings, 1640-1670: A Secular Study
(London, 1928); and especially W. Fraser Mitchell, English Pulpit Oratory
from Andrewes to Tillotson: A Study of Its Literary Aspects (London, 1932).
For the effect of pulpit oratory on American prose style of the eighteenth cen-
tury, see Howard M. Jones, "American Prose Style: 1700-1770," Huntington
Library Bulletin, No. 6 (November, 1943), 115-151, reprinted in Jones, Ideas
in America (Cambridge, Mass., 1944), pp. 70-106.
30. Cf. Bower Aly's comments in Brigance, American Public Address, I,
82-83. Chapter 11 of Perry Miller, The New England Mind (New York, 1939)
provides an excellent discussion of rhetoric in seventeenth-century New Eng-


occasions were nearly always assured of full and appreciative audi-
ences. There were so many orations given on every conceivable
public occasion that speakers often resorted to hackneyed formulae
or took to outlandish bombast in a wish to be original.31 Public
dinners were apt to include, in addition to orations, long sequences
of toasts accompanied by appropriate responses, cheers, and flour-
ishes from a brass band.32 Some persons were so willing to listen
to speeches that they would sit through hour-long orations in Latin,
Greek, or Hebrew at college commencement programs. These
graduation exercises in the college towns were another form of
public amusement indulged in by the parents of members of the
senior class and by townsfolk of all ranks and conditions as well.33
They customarily lasted from early morning to late afternoon and
included such a formidable number of speeches and rhetorical dis-
plays that one wonders at the fortitude of the audience.
But any discussion of the oratory of this period which attempts
to classify speeches by occasions is likely to give the false impres-
sion that Americans spoke only on occasion. The fact is, as Bower
Aly says,
Speechmaking went on in the daily exercises of life in situations and
under conditions that defy classification. And if no situation requir-
ing speechmaking was at hand, then one was invented. The literary
society, the "bee," the debating society and the lyceum were largely
given over to speechmaking in one form or another.84
With so great a demand for speakers, it was only natural that rhet-
oric should be an important study in the colleges. Varnum Collins
remarks in his biography of President Witherspoon of Princeton
that "the part. .. oratory played in the daily life of the College was
preponderant.... Oratory and the classics had been the backbone
of the Princeton curriculum when President Witherspoon arrived,
and he left oratory even more firmly entrenched."35 Rhetoric had

31. Monthly Anthology, II (1805), 319. One of the fullest and most informa-
tive accounts of speechmaking during this period appears in the Monthly
Magazine, I (1799), 241-244.
32. See for example the long sequence of toasts from the Missouri Gazette
and Public Advertiser, July 12, 1820, reprinted in Brigance, I, 86-88.
33. For the program at the Yale commencement in 1781, see Diary of Ezra
Stiles, II, 554-555.
34. In Brigance, I, 89.
35. II, 155, 209. For a thorough study of one phase of oratory at Princeton,
see Ruth E. P. Paden, "The Theory and Practice of Disputation at Princeton,


always been a part of the curriculum in the colonial colleges, but
until the middle of the eighteenth century it had been pursued
mainly in Latin and centered chiefly in the works of Peter Ramus
and his disciples, Talaeus and Dugard, who considered rhetoric an
auxiliary to the science of logic, a matter of style and ornamenta-
tion. After 1750 a number of important changes occurred: English
replaced Latin; the great classical rhetoricians replaced Ramus;
and a split occurred between the written and spoken phases of
rhetorical study, with "elocution," or the science of delivery, re-
ceiving more and more emphasis, and written rhetoric coming to
be more closely identified with criticism, belles-lettres, and the gen-
eral arts of literature.36 This split resulted in more time and atten-
tion, rather than less, being devoted to rhetorical studies, since
instead of one there were now two courses of study in which rhe-
torical principles were emphasized. It also meant that poetry was
lumped with grammar and syntax in a program usually based on
the ancient rhetoricians. Poetry in such circumstances tended to
become a technique which could, like grammar or syntax, be mas-
tered by anyone who followed the prescribed rules.37

Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania, from 1750-1800" (unpublished
dissertation, University of Iowa, 1944). See also Ota Thomas, "The Theory
and Practice of Disputation at Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth from 1750-1800"
(unpublished dissertation, University of Iowa, 1942). For a more general treat-
ment of the subject by Thomas, see Brigance, Vol. I, Chapter 5. Useful dis-
cussions of the college curriculum in early American colleges include Colyer
Meriwether, Our Colonial Curriculum, 1607-1776 (Washington, 1907); Louis
F. Snow, The College Curriculum in the United States, in Columbia University
Contributions to Education, No. 10 (New York, 1907). Other studies of oratory
in early American colleges include: David Potter, Debating in the Colonial
Chartered Colleges, An Historical Survey, 1642-1900, in Columbia University
Contributions to Education, No. 899 (New York, 1944); Mary M. Robb, Oral
Interpretation of Literature in American Colleges and Universities (New York,
1941), pp. 19-70; and Donald Hayworth, "The Development of the Training
of Public Speakers in America," Quarterly Journal of Speech, XIV (1928),
86. For much of the information on rhetorical theory in American colleges
I am indebted to Warren A. Guthrie's excellent study, "The Development of
Rhetorical Theory in America, 1635-1850" (unpublished dissertation, North-
western University, 1940); published in reduced form in Speech Monographs,
XIII (1946), 14-22; XIV (1947), 38-54; XV (1948), 59-71.
87. A. R. Humphreys shows in a suggestive article that many of the rhe-
torical characteristics in British neoclassic poetry are traceable to the almost
universal practice in the grammar schools of writing Latin poetry as a literary
exercise. "A Classical Education and Eighteenth Century Poetry," Scrutiny,
VIII (1939), 193-207.


these societies sprang from this attitude of rivalry. Each organ-
ization, jealous of its prestige and reputation, saw to it that whenever
a member made a public appearance he reflected only credit on
his society. In the secrecy of the society's rooms he underwent a
rigorous training in all phases of composing and delivering speeches,
from grammar and spelling to the niceties of gesture. Essays, poems,
and humorous pieces were often submitted anonymously to an
official reader to be read aloud at meetings. The importance of
these literary societies in training speakers and writers in America
during this period can hardly be exaggerated, and it is of especial
interest to note that poetry and oratory were mixed in these ac-
tivities, just as they had been mixed in curricular studies.
In the world outside the schools there were as many encourage-
ments for the orator as there were discouragements for the poet,
an effective speaker being virtually assured of success in that world.
As one contemporary critic said: "The true ambition of a man of
genius and of high aspiring mind . is to be an orator. It has
been correctly remarked that in such a government as ours oratory
is synonymous with wealth and fame and civic honours."41 Oratory
was as suited to the tenor of American life during this period as
poetry was unsuited, and if Americans felt inferior and provincial
toward Britain in the matter of poetry and the other arts, they had
no such feeling about their oratory. The periodicals are full of
prideful comments about the great number and the excellence of
American orators: "The nation at large is characterized by a greater
aptitude for public speaking, more generally diffused, and more
frequently displayed in flights of bold, nervous, and beautiful elo-
quence than any other that now exists-and, ancient Greece per-

141; and Edward B. Coe, "The Literary Societies," Yale College, ed. William
L. Kingsley (New York, 1879). See also Charles E. Cunningham, Timothy
Dwight (New York, 1942), pp. 248-252, for the severe restrictions on the use
of the college library by undergraduates. For an excellent contemporary
summary of rhetorical training in American colleges see Port Folio, new [3rd]
series, II (1809), 99.
41. Port Folio, new [3rd] series, VI (1811), 217. Cf. John Blair Linn's com-
ments: "Of the importance of oratory we need but slightly hint, for it is daily
exemplified at the bar, in the pulpit, and in the senate. It is this which so
much sways the passions of men, one while making them feel a soldier's
warmth, and now the soft emotion of sympathy. Do any of us wish to serve
our country in the cabinet or even in the field? This then is an essential
study." Miscellaneous Works, p. 27.


haps excepted . that ever did exist."42 One writer, impressed
by America's excellence in oratory and her mediocrity in the other
arts, recommended that all other arts should be set aside in favor
of oratory:
Eloquence seems to flourish well among us. Let us therefore en-
courage its growth till it becomes the distinguishing feature of the
American people. Let us, since we are excluded from many of the
means which advance the glory of a nation, endeavor to exalt our
fame by excelling in one of the noblest qualities of our nature.
Like a polished republic of antiquity, we will be content to be
characterized by our commerce and our oratory. The winds which
waft the redundant products of our industry to the remotest regions
may also bear our renown as the most eloquent people of the earth.43

42. Port Folio, new [3rd] series, V (1811), 391. For similar comments on
the excellence of American oratory see Port Folio, new [3rd] series, II (1809),
23-24; IV (1810), 216; VI (1811), 589; 3rd [i.e., 4th] series, IV (1814), 56;
V (1815), 175-176, 297-298; and Monthly Anthology, VI (1809), 382; VII
(1809), 148.
43. Monthly Anthology, II (1806), 502-503.


Not only must the booming voice of the omnipresent orator be
reckoned with, but also the quiet sibilance of rhetorical precept
whispering from within the literary tradition. This second voice
was lent considerable power in shaping American poetry because
both poets and critics failed to make more than the most super-
ficial distinctions between rhetoric and poetic as modes of discourse.
Because there was very little in the feeble poetic of the time to
resist the encroachments of a lusty and burgeoning rhetoric, the
boundary between the two became indistinct. As rhetoric washed
into the semivacuum left by the absence of a strong poetic, speeches
came to be an accepted vehicle for nearly all literary purposes-
including the presentation of poetry, if one can judge from the
extraordinary number of poems written to be declaimed before an
audience. The function of the poet and the orator tended to fuse,
and it is difficult to say today whether the works of such men as
Robert Treat Paine are more properly described as declamatory
poems or poetic orations. The after-dinner poet came to be as
standard a fixture at public celebrations as the orator himself, and
commonly their performances were distinguishable only because the
poet's speech was in verse.
America had no live poetic tradition, but she did have a vigorous
and time-honored tradition of oratory. Because people at this time
were far more capable of appreciating a fine speech than they were
of appreciating poetry of any kind, it is not unnatural that poetasters
like Robert Treat Paine should appeal to their public in the manner
which was most attractive to them. But it is damning evidence of
the deficient poetic taste of the time that Paine should be hailed
as a great poet, and it clearly illustrates how far rhetoric had come
to dominate public taste in literature.' Speeches seem to have been

1. Just how highly Bostonians in the last decade of the eighteenth century
regarded Paine's poetic talents can be seen by the high prices he was paid
for his poetry, and by the great demand for his pieces. For his poem entitled
"The Invention of Letters," for example, he received $1,500 exclusive of ex-
penses, and for his "Ruling Passion" a clear profit of over $1,200. The Works
in Prose and Verse of Robert Treat Paine Jun. Esq. (Boston, 1812), p. xiv.


composed as much for print as for oral delivery, often being equip-
ped with long and numerous footnotes. Critics tended to treat
speeches like any other composition, calling them to account for
style, diction, and even punctuation. None of this is new in the
history of literature. The close relationship between the spoken
and the written word in America during this period is analogous to
conditions in Greek and Roman antiquity. Orations had constituted
a chief literary genre in the sophistic periods of antiquity-periods
with which the early Americans were closely familiar through their
rhetorical schooling. The word "speech" to designate a legitimate
literary form was surrounded for them by all the prestige attached
to the works of Isocrates, Demosthenes, and Cicero. This emphasis
upon oratory as a "fine art" did not result in America, as it had in
ancient Rome, from a suppression of the functional modes of ora-
tory by an arbitrary act of government. In Rome oratory had neces-
sarily turned to an emphasis on style because this had been its only
means of survival. In America during the early national period
what could be called a "later sophistic" came about because of an
extension of functional oratory and not a curtailment. There was
every encouragement in America to the practical modes of oratory,
and the orator as artist or entertainer was at first an appendage to
the orator as the effective manipulator of public opinion. The
orator-artist arose in America as the result of a cultural need and
of the universal cultivation of oratorical techniques which had only
to be adapted to fill that need.2
Not all observers were content with the state of affairs in Ameri-
can literature, however, and some placed blame for the low state
of literature squarely on the vogue for oratory. The Port Folio in
1814 blamed the decadence of American literature on
the great prevalence of public speaking, both from the number of
our political and religious meetings, and the multitude of our courts
of justice. This very frequent exercise of oratorical talents, a natural
consequence of our form of government, not only occasions elo-
quence to be more cultivated and in higher esteem but imparts
a declamatory style to our writers. In fact the greater part of our
authors are also public speakers, and where they are not, they follow
the reigning humor, and strive to write beautifully, and eloquently

2. Much more will be said in Chapters 5 and 6 concerning the large body
of epideictic poetry which was one of the chief stocks in trade of these


and pathetically, in which attempt they insensibly fall into mere
rant and declamation (II, 192-198).
Undoubtedly the elocutionary training in the schools and colleges
helped to confirm the close relationship of rhetoric and poetry. As
exercises for this training in the art of "reading" (i.e., in the tech-
nique of oral delivery), extracts from poems, essays, or speeches
were used indiscriminately. The plan of James Burgh's Art of
Speaking3 was followed by most elocution manuals. This book be-
gins with a brief essay "in which are given the rules for expressing
properly the principal passions and humours, which occur in read-
ing or public speaking," followed by the major portion of the book,
consisting of "lessons taken from the ancients and models." In
the prefatory essay, each of the major passions is listed and its
main characteristics described; e.g., "Malice, or spite, sets the jaws,
or gnashes with the teeth; sends blasting flashes from the eyes;
draws the mouth toward the ears; clenches both fists, and bends
the elbows in a straining manner. . ." The poetry serving as lesson
exercises was then printed with marginal labels suggesting the
emotion which the reader should attempt to represent for each part
of the poem. Here is a portion of Burgh's reprint of Adam's address
to Eve from Book IV of Paradise Lost. The italicized words are
supposed to receive especial emphasis:
Awe Sole partner, and sole part of all these joys
Tenderness Dearer thyself than all. Needs must the pow'r,
Pity That made us, and for us this ample world,
Be infinitely good, and his good
As liberal and free, as infinite;
Gratitude That raised us from the dust, and plac'd us here
In all this happiness.4
And a passage from Ambrose Phillips' "A Lovesick Shepherd's Com-
Lamentation Ah well-a-day! how long must I endure
This pining pain? (1) or who shall speed my cure?
Anguish Fond love no cure will have; seeks no repose;
3. Published in London in 1761. The edition used in the present study was
printed in Baltimore, 1804. For a discussion of the most important readers
used in America and of the elocution movement in America during this period,
including analyses of the chief elocutionary texts, see Guthrie, "The Develop-
ment of Rhetorical Theory in America," pp. 189-196, 223 ff.
4. Burgh, p. 162.


Delights in grief, nor any measure knows.
Complaint (2) Lol now the moon begins in clouds to rise,
The brightening stars bespangle all the skies.5
(1) The words pining pain cannot be spoken too slowly.
(2) These lines are to be spoken slowly and with a torpid
uniformity of tone.
Burgh's method becomes clear from these extracts. The student
should not simply recite the lines, but should act them out accord-
ing to the marginal suggestions. The speaker's whole body shared
the discipline-the head, arms, legs, hands, and face each performed
its part according to the prescribed formulae. After such training
as this, a considerable amount of which every schoolboy received,
it should not be surprising that histrionic gesture and bombast were
connected to poetry by strong bonds.
This blending of rhetoric and poetic in practice was taken for
granted in the literary criticism, and although there are few direct
statements by poets and critics identifying the two, there are other
signs of the theoretical fusion. The blending was implicit in the
chief sources from which Americans of this period derived their
poetic and esthetic ideals, all of which sources were, roughly speak-
ing, classical. The most important of these was the neoclassic
tradition inherited from England, which made itself felt in the
literature chiefly through emulation by Americans of the poetic
practice of the great Augustan poets, and through widespread adop-
tion of the works of the Scottish rhetoricians, especially Kames and
Blair. There was considerable independent study of the ancients
who still served as the basis of the educational system, especially
Horace, Cicero, and Quintilian. Such direct knowledge of the
ancients created no conflict with the reigning authority of the Scots,
whose writings were, after all, pridefully anchored in the classical
poets and rhetoricians.
Among the English Augustans, Dryden and Pope were the most
admired and the most frequently emulated by Americans. The
poetry of both contains important rhetorical elements. Mark Van
Doren, whose critical analysis of Dryden is perhaps one of the most
authoritative and the most sympathetic, says that
It was not until Dryden's time, when the inspiration of the Eliza-
bethans had in a way given out, and the full body of modem classi-
5. Ibid., p. 71.


cal doctrine was being received in its most systematic form from
France, that eloquence came to feel completely at home in poetry
. . Dryden was peculiarly fitted to lead the rhetorical grand march
in English poetry. Possessing all of Ovid's fondness for exhortation
and pleading, he possessed in addition unexampled power of classi-
fying and dividing his thoughts, hitting upon happy generalities,
thumping out bold new epithets, and accumulating stores of rhe-
torical energy. . He carried eloquence as high as it can go in
Elder Olson has demonstrated that some of the chief character-
istics of Pope's poetry are those of rhetoric rather than poetic. He
finds it curious that critics have not assumed that Pope is a rhet-
orician and attempted to explain his works in the light of rhetorical
rather than poetical principles. "The absence of this assumption,"
he says, "seems especially curious when we observe that the greater
portion of Pope's work, if we set aside the translations, is either
satire or didactic, and that satire and didactic, as invariably involv-
ing a consideration of audience, would fall not under poetics, but
under rhetoric." He shows that Pope's own critical doctrines "were
derived from men who either were rhetoricians, or who sought, in
their writings, what was primarily a rhetorical end."7
Americans in the late eighteenth century did not fail to note the
affinities of Pope's poetry to rhetoric, and according to Agnes Sibley
this is one of the chief reasons why he was so highly esteemed in
America. "They appreciated the close relationship between rhetoric
and morality. They believed that true oratory and poetry teach
men the way to virtue; and conversely, that instruction is most
effective when given in the form of persuasion which poetry and
oratory adopt."8 She demonstrates that Pope's poetry was used in
the grammars and rhetorical textbooks to illustrate figures of speech
or points of grammatical usage or to provide exercise material for
students' practice in declamation and oral recitation of verse.
Among the Scottish rhetoricians, Lord Kames with his Elements
of Criticism (1762), Hugh Blair with his Lectures on Rhetoric and
Belles Lettres (1783), and George Campbell with his Philosophy of
Rhetoric (1776) are of the greatest significance to this study.9 Kames'
6. John Dryden (New York, 1946), pp. 46-47.
7. "Rhetoric and the Appreciation of Pope," MP, XXXVII (1939), 13-35.
8. Alexander Pope's Prestige in America, 1725-1835 (New York, 1949), p. 73.
9. For the influence of the Scots on literary theory, see William Charvat,
Origins of American Critical Thought, 1810-1835 (Philadelphia, 1936). For


book was not, strictly speaking, a rhetoric at all, but a systematic
attempt to investigate the principles of the fine arts, and his treat-
ment of literary phenomena is of less importance than his deline-
ation of esthetic principles. His influence was strongest during
the early years of the period, but after 1790 he was somewhat over-
shadowed, though by no means replaced, by Blair.
It was not until after 1785 that Blair's Lectures began to exert
strong influence in America, but from 1790 on it was the dominant
work in the field of rhetorical and literary study until after the
Civil War. Blair was much indebted to Kames not only for his basic
approach to literary and rhetorical study, but also in many other
respects.10 Because of an extremely close relationship between the
two books, the following discussion of Blair can also represent the
position of Kames.1
Some idea of the theoretical fusion of rhetoric and poetic dis-
course in Blair can be gathered from the title of his book, though
a search for his specific statements as to their oneness is disappoint-
ing. His confusion of the two modes appears not so much in what
he says about their relationship as in what he implies in his discus-
sion of other things. That he recognized the problem is plain from
the following: "It is hardly possible to determine where eloquence
ends and poetry begins; nor is there any occasion for being very
precise about the boundaries as long as the nature of each is under-
stood."12 But poetry and eloquence for him had much in common.

their influence on the theory and practice of oratory, see Guthrie. The influence
of Kames on Trumbull, Dwight, and Barlow has been discussed at some
length by Leon Howard in The Connecticut Wits (Chicago, 1943).
10. Guthrie, p. 83. Blair's famous book was first published in 1783, though
the lectures contained therein had been delivered at the University of Edin-
burgh during the previous twenty-four years. Guthrie notes that the book was
ordered by Brown University in 1783 and that the first American edition ap-
peared in Philadelphia in 1784. Some idea of its popularity can be surmised
from the following list of some of the American printings during the period:
1789, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1802, 1803, 1804, 1805, 1807, 1809, 1812, 1815, 1817.
Guthrie claims (pp. 84-85) that by 1803 it had been adopted as a text by nearly
all American colleges.
11. See Helen W. Randall, The Critical Theory of Lord Kames, in Smith
College Studies in Modern Languages, XXII (1941), 82.
12. Lectures in Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Lecture XVIII. Because of the
large number of editions and printings of this work, some in one and some in
two volumes, with varying pagination, and because the individual lectures are
all comparatively short, reference will be made throughout this study to the
lecture number, which will be the same in all editions, rather than to page


For him both in their highest forms arise from heightened imagina-
tion or from inflamed passion and have essentially the same pur-
The ultimate end of all poetry, indeed of every composition, should
be to make some useful impression on the mind. This useful im-
pression is most commonly made in poetry by indirect methods; as
by fable, by narration, by representation of character .... The poet
must instruct; but he must study, at the same time, to enliven his
instructions by the introduction of such figures and such circum-
stances, as may amuse the imagination, may conceal the dryness
of his subject, and embellish it with poetical painting.'3

He felt that the purpose of poetry differs from that of oratory
mainly in degree or in the means employed.
The kinship of the two modes appears again in the concept of
taste, which was of central importance to his esthetics. To him
taste was "the power of receiving pleasure from the beauties of
nature and art"; it was a critical ability which could most easily
be acquired by a study of rhetoric, the word "rhetoric" becoming
for him an omnibus term meaning the entire field of language and
literature. Thus in his long discussion of taste, oratory and poetry
are treated as two slightly different aspects of the same thing. When
pushed to distinguish poetry from other discourse, Blair fell back
like many of his contemporaries on safe ground. Poetry is "the
language of passion, or enlivened imagination, formed most com-
monly into regular numbers,"14 and elsewhere the poetic style dif-
fers from that of prose "not in point of numbers only, but in the
very words themselves." Poetry is most fully to be distinguished
from prose (including oratory) by its meter, rime, and poetic diction.
Of deeper and more philosophic distinctions he had nothing to say;
he thought of such distinctions as "the minutiae of criticism, con-
cerning which frivolous writers are always disposed to squabble;
but which deserve not any particular discussion."16

number. This procedure will be followed with respect to Kames Elements for
similar reasons.
13. Lectures, XL. 14. Ibid., XXXVIII.
15. Ibid. Blair repeatedly stated that passion and enlivened imagination are
present in the higher forms of oratory just as much as in poetry. But I find
nothing in his remarks to suggest that he thought poetic diction appropriate
to oratory. It seems justifiable in view of this omission to suppose that he
thought of poetic diction as appropriate only to verse.


George Campbell went much further than Blair and made an
explicit identification of rhetoric and poetic. In the first chapter of
The Philosophy of Rhetoric he made the startling claim that
Poetry, indeed, is properly no other than a particular mode or form
of certain branches of oratory . The direct end of the former,
whether to delight the fancy, as in epic, or to move the passions,
as in tragedy, is avowedly in part the aim, and sometimes the im-
mediate and proposed aim, of the orator. The same medium, lan-
guage, is made use of, the same general rules of composition, in
narration, description, argumentation, are observed; and the same
tropes and figures, either for beautifying or for invigorating the
diction are employed by both. In regard to versification, it is more
to be considered as an appendage than as a constituent of poetry.
In this lies what may be called the more mechanical part of the
poet's work, being at most but a sort of garnishing, and by far too
unessential to give a designation to the kind. This particularity in
form, to adopt an expression of the naturalists, constitutes only a
variety, and not a different species.
Campbell was obviously thinking in terms at once more basic and
more inclusive than Blair. The versification on which Blair ground-
ed his distinction Campbell disallowed completely, but the result
was an even more explicit identification of the two through the
subsuming of poetry under rhetoric.'6 To him epic was oratory
appealing to the imagination; tragedy was oratory appealing to the
passions.17 Because for him the distinction between the two modes
of discourse had broken down, he saw nothing to hinder his trans-
ferring the whole poetic function and method over into rhetoric.
He represents the most extreme position, but the fact that no one
rose to denounce him as a heretic shows that he cannot have been
far out of touch with the temper of his time. Far from being de-
nounced in America, his book was adopted by a number of colleges
as a textbook to supplement Blair.18

16. Cf. Gordon MacKenzie's remark to this effect in Critical Responsiveness:
A Study of the Psychological Current in Later Eighteenth-Century Criticism,
University of California Publications in English, No. 20 (Berkeley, 1949), p. 61.
17. Campbell, p. 25.
18. According to Guthrie (pp. 88-89), Campbell's The Philosophy of Rhetoric
was known in America soon after its publication in 1776, but it did not be-
come widely popular until after 1820. After this date it began to rival Blair
somewhat as a college textbook, though even at this time it was often used
not as a replacement but as a supplement to Blair.


To these lines of rhetorical influence converging from the Au-
gustan poets and from the literary and rhetorical theorists must
be added another-the influence of such ancient poets as Horace.
There are signs of his influence everywhere. In the poetry sections
of the magazines appear dozens of translations or imitations of his
works; the critics in these same periodicals mention his name or
quote his critical precepts innumerable times, and always with
deference. The Ars Poetica as well as the Odes and Epistles was
a standard part of the college curriculum, and where rhetoric did
not come in the front door with Horace himself, it came in the back
door through his influence on the English Augustans. Perhaps of
equal importance with any first-hand American acquaintance with
his works was the fact that his critical precepts were spread in
America through the theory and practice of the English neoclassic
poets and critics. Caroline Goad has shown in her study of Horace's
influence on eighteenth-century English literature that in the work
of those poets and critics
Horace was the most frequently quoted and deferred to of any
classic author--deferred to even more generally than Virgil with
his . purer poetic genius, and more often than the much-quoted
Cicero . [There was] a noticeable tendency to use the Satires
and Epistles more than the Odes, and, where the Odes were used,
to select those parts that would have some utilitarian value.19
His influence, she found, was especially strong in providing rules
for the literary artist. And another scholar claims that Dryden's
criticism is so permeated with Horace that if the Ars Poetica should
by chance be lost, it could be largely reconstructed from Dryden's
references to it,20 and that to trace Dryden's influence on subsequent
literature is, to a large extent, to trace the influence of Horace.21
The significance of this strong influence of Horace can more readily
be appreciated when Baldwin's statement is recalled: that in Hor-
ace's circle the distinction between rhetoric and poetic as two
movements, two ways of composing, seems to have been inactive,
and that thus under the Empire grammarians, rhetoricians, philoso-

19. Horace in the English Literature of the Eighteenth Century, in Yale
Studies in English, LVIII (New Haven, 1918), p. 7.
20. Amanda M. Ellis, "Horace's Influence on Dryden," Philological Quarterly,
IV (1925), 42.
21. Ibid., p. 59.


phers, and poets seemed to converge toward a poetic strongly tinged
with rhetoric.22
American critics were generally unconcerned about the relation-
ship of rhetoric and poetic. There were a few notable exceptions,
particularly John Witherspoon who made clear distinctions between
the two modes in terms of maker, purpose, address, and method-
though not in any connected discussion, but in remarks scattered
here and there throughout the Lectures.23
In 1805 an anonymous contributor to the Monthly Anthology
made the following distinction between the two modes:
Poetry is the frolick of invention, the dame of words, and the har-
mony of sounds. Oratory consists in a judicious disposition of
arguments: a happy selection of terms, and in a pleasing elocution.
The object of poetry is to delight, that of oratory is to persuade.
Poetry is truth, but it is truth in her gayest and loveliest robes, and
wit, flattery, hyperbole, and fable are marshalled in her train. Ora-
tory has a graver and more majestic port, and gains by slow advances
and perseverance what the poet takes by the suddenness of his
inspiration and by surprise. Poetry requires genius; eloquence is
within the reach of talent.24
Such systematic statements as this are rare during this period, and
what is more important, they seem to have exerted no influence on
poetic practice. Most poets and critics would no doubt have ad-
mitted, if asked point-blank, that there were great differences be-
tween poetry and rhetoric, but they did not elect to discuss the
differences. They were more inclined to assume, as Blair did, that
there was no need for being "very precise about the boundaries as
long as the nature of each is understood." But there are many
signs that the two were closely associated in their minds. Through-
out the criticism, in any discussion of literary art in general, or in
any listing of the fine arts, poetry is almost invariably linked with
22. Charles S. Baldwin, Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic (New York, 1924),
pp. 244-246.
23. John Witherspoon, Lectures on Moral Philosophy and Rhetoric (Wood-
ward's 3rd ed., Philadelphia, 1810), pp. 185-187; see also pp. 152 and 202.
24. Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, II (1805), 636-637. The article
"Poetry" in the Encyclopedia or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and Miscellaneous
Literature (Philadelphia, 1790) distinguished between the two modes with
considerable acumen, and a discussion of poetry in George Gregory's Diction-
ary of Arts and Sciences (Charleston, 1815-1816), which apparently owed much
to the more comprehensive Encyclopedia, made a distinction with similar phil-
osophic detachment.


oratory, or "eloquence" as current usage had it. Even Witherspoon
associates them thus in his Lectures, and this is only one of the
respects in which his book resembled Blair's. Although "eloquence"
primarily meant oratory to Witherspoon, it did not exclude poetry;
his treatise discusses not only the art of composing and delivering
a speech, but devotes a great deal of space to the nature and kinds
of poetry. His chief emphasis throughout the book is on elocutio
or style, the element of discourse in which the two modes have
always had the most in common.
According to most American critics, the chief differentia between
poetry and prose (including oratory) was the same one Blair had
stressed-verse, or "number." A long article in The Lady's Maga-
zine and Repository of Useful Information (1792) found that poetry
and oratory have much in common, including "elevation of thought,
sublimity of sentiment, boldness of figure, grandeur of description,
or embellishment of imagination."25 The main conclusion of the
article is that poetry and prose "like two colors easily distinguishable
in their pure, unmixed state, melt into one another by almost imper-
ceptible shades till the distinction is entirely lost."26 Poetry is most
readily to be distinguished from prose by means of its "regular
Rime, meter, and poetic diction were commonly felt to be enough
by themselves to render any discourse poetic. Starting with the
assumption that "there is such a charm in metre and poetical lan-
guage that the weakest of matter is . often graced in rhyme,"27
poetasters of this time versified speeches, histories, the Psalms of
David and other passages of scripture, and even such things as
geography texts for school children.28 Apparently, no matter was
thought to be so "weak" as to be unfit for the graces of rime and
meter. Jonathan Sewall put Washington's Farewell Address into
verse because, he said, "verse commonly makes a deeper impression

25. These bear close resemblance to Longinus' listing of the chief elements
of the sublime. See Longinus on the Sublime, trans. by W. Rhys Roberts
(Cambridge, 1907), Chapter VIII.
26. The Lady's Magazine, I (1792), 151-159.
27. Charles Prentiss, A Collection of Fugitive Essays in Prose and Verse
(Leominster, Mass., 1797), p. 24.
28. See for example Chapman Whitcomb, Geography Epitomized. A short
but Comprehensive Description of the Terraqueous Globe, in Verse .. (Leo-
minster, Mass., 1796?); or Victorianus Clark, A Rhyming Geography, or, A
Poetic Description of the United States of America (Hartford, 1819).


and is more easily retained in the memory than prose."29 At the
same time he recognized that many subjects in the address were
"improper for poetry."
These versifiers derived sanction from Virgil's Georgics, from
the didactic works of Pope, and from the precedent set by such
popular poems as Erasmus Darwin's "The Botanic Garden" (1789).
The intention of such didactic verse was worthy enough-to im-
prove upon prose and to render worth-while subjects more delight-
ful. But the prose which they intended to improve upon lost its
integrity as prose, and the verse which they produced was debased
by being harnessed to prosaic materials and purposes.
Considering the large number of such poems, it is no wonder that
many persons felt that poetry in both England and America was
on the decline.30 Some echoed the primitivistic idea of Kames and
Blair that poetry flourishes best in the early ages of a civilization,
that it later achieves elegance, and finally declines into "nugae
canorae, or the tinkling of mere versifiers."31 They felt America
to be in a strange position: it was in its early age of development,
and yet it could produce no Homer because sophisticated and
decadent models of poetry from England had been inflicted upon
its poetry from without. They recognized that the performance of
contemporary poets in no way measured up to that of the giants
of the past, and insisted upon the sanctity of rime, meter, and poetic
diction as the last distinguishing marks of a poetry which, except
for these, would be swallowed up in the sea of oratory and other
forms of prose.32
Thus all roads through poetic practice and precept lead to the
conclusion that few persons saw any reason to make clear distinc-
tions between rhetoric and poetic discourse. Rhetoric dominated
literary theory partly because every major source from which theory
was drawn was either directly or indirectly rhetorical.

29. A Versification of President Washington's Excellent Farewell Address .
(Portsmouth, N. H. 1798), Preface. Reprinted in The Magazine of History with
Notes and Queries, extra no. 108, vol. 27, no. 2 (Tarrytown, N. Y., n.d.), pp.
30. For example, see Port Folio, V (1805), 193.
31. Monthly Anthology, I (1804), 507.
82. See The Lady's Magazine, I (1792), 158.


Few American poets of the early national period felt the innate
urge which seems to have motivated Spenser or Milton or other
great poets. No American poet spoke like Pope of "lisping in num-
bers, for the numbers came"; none was moved like Chatterton by an
urge to write poetry so strong that he was willing to starve to satisfy
it; none spoke like Shelley and Wordsworth of being "dedicated
spirits." Such a motive for writing poetry no American of this
period felt, with the exception of Freneau and Trumbull, and in
neither of these men was it strong enough to maintain itself for long
against the hostile forces in the American environment. This may
be one way of saying that American poets lacked poetic genius,
but it serves better than anything else to explain why so much of
the poetry lacks inner spirit or force, why so much of it seems hol-
low or contrived, rationalistically rather than imaginatively con-
Both Barlow and Dwight, whose epics constitute the most am-
bitious poetic works of the period, were moved mainly by rational-
istic, unduly self-conscious motives. A great epic seemed to them
essential to establish the dignity of America in the arts, and they
set about with determination to produce it; but their attention was
centered not so much on the poem as on the greatness of America.
Another of the Connecticut Wits, David Humphreys, whose poems
were popular in his own day, was driven to write many of them
by the practical desire of gaining advancement. Leon Howard says
of Humphreys that "his thoughts turned productively to literature
whenever he was threatened with the loss of a job or needed to
attract attention in order to gain preferment."' This utilitarian
motive was certainly one of the reasons why Humphreys' poems
are among the most rhetorical of those produced in this age of
rhetorical poetry.
The literary criticism insisted upon inspiration and "original
genius" in poetry, but the wide gap between theory and practice in
eighteenth-century England was also noticeable in America. In a
poem called The Powers of Genius (1795), John Blair Linn wrote that

1. The Connecticut Wits (Chicago, 1943), pp. 36-37.


The poet often gains a madman's name
When first he kindles with the muse's flame,
When wild and startling he appears in pain
And shows a moon-struck phrenzy of the brain.2
He found that in too much poetry of this time
Taste is confined to rules, it moves in chains;
Genius those fetters and those rules disdains.3
This is straight orthodoxy in theory, an idea with which all his
contemporaries would have agreed. John Blair Linn himself, how-
ever, did not notice, nor did any of his contemporaries call the fact
to his attention, that the very verse he uses to insist upon the pri-
mary place of genius is utterly conventional, fettered by the very
rules against which it speaks.
Genius may have been considered essential to the poetic function,
but no one in America was deterred by such a theoretical belief
from writing verse. Some versifiers who were aware of their de-
ficiencies went on writing poetry because they considered it a
patriotic and moral duty. Richard Snowden's remarks, in the preface
to his Columbiad (1795), go beyond the conventional modesty of
prefaces to an honest admission of his meager abilities as a poet.
He explains that he is writing the poem because no one else has
written a suitable poem on the American Revolution, and he hopes
that his effort will stimulate "someone more favoured of the muses
who will undertake the arduous task."4
Few poets, mediocre or not, care to admit a lack of genius, and
there are understandably few statements by American poets which
proclaim the fact as publicly as does Snowden. There is an unusual
sobriety and lack of humor in the American view of poetry. Notable
exceptions may be found in the Connecticut Wits in their more
satiric or playful moods, but even they ordinarily looked upon
poetry as a solemn business, and this general gravity permitted ex-
cesses which a better perspective would not have allowed. Even
when they did recognize the mediocrity of their best attempts, they
were unwilling to proclaim the fact because they feared that such

2. The Powers of Genius, a Poem in Three Parts (2nd ed., Philadelphia,
1802) p. 29. 3. Ibid., p. 37.
4. The Columbiad, or, a Poem on the American War in Thirteen Cantos
(Philadelphia, 1795), Preface. Not to be confused with Barlow's better known
Columbiad published in 1807.


an admission would diminish the greatness of Amercia and increase
the greatness of England. They believed so sincerely that under
the blessings of a free government all the faculties of man, includ-
ing his poetic abilities, would by nature develop to a higher per-
fection than under the corruption and oppression of the monarchies
of Europe, and they were so anxious to convince the rest of the
world of this, that they would do nothing to prejudice the idea. Un-
fortunately, as noble as this determination was, it could not raise
the quality of their poetry. Their theories of greatness in poetry
would not allow them to regard with seriousness the lighter forms
of verse-satire, mock-heroic, burlesque, minor lyric-in which they
sometimes did equal their contemporaries in England, and they con-
tinued in spite of their limitations to write poetry in the grand man-
ner, determined to raise the reputation of their country in the eyes
of the world.
This statement agrees with Herbert W. Schneider's observation
that the actions of American men of affairs during this period were
consciously shaped by the feeling that they were acting under the
scrutiny of the whole world. "The conspicuous fact about American
life then," he says, "was that not only were the eyes and hopes of
the world centered on America, but also American men of affairs
themselves were genuinely concerned with the wider, if not the
universal implications of their interests and deeds. They had, in-
deed, a 'decent respect of the opinions of mankind. . .' Never
was history made more consciously and conscientiously."5 It was
because of the poets' strong sense of mission, because the ends they
hoped to achieve were to them so noble and so compelling, that
they continued to write poetry, lack of genius and other limitations
notwithstanding. Their strong desire to achieve worthy ends seems
commonly to have served in place of deep poetic impulse. This
leads to an inquiry into those ends for which they labored with
such diligence and genuine disregard of self.
Neglecting light verse for the moment, the love-laments, the
clever epigrams, the rimed conundrums and puzzles, the conven-
tional eclogues, and the other vers de socidt6, and considering
only poems on serious subjects, we find that most American poetry
of this period was written for one or more of the following purposes:
(1) to glorify America, (2) to glorify democratic or republican prin-
ciples of government and society, (3) to lead men to virtue by
5. A History of American Philosophy (New York, 1946), pp. 35-36.


inculcating moral truth. All three of these ends, it can be seen at
once, are more readily served by rhetorical than by poetic tech-
niques. This estimate of purpose is based on the poetry itself; the
emphasis in the critical writings is somewhat different. The critical
statements of purpose commonly pivot around Horace's maxim that
poets either profit or please, or profit and please, at the same time;
and the evidence points to a nearly unanimous insistence that poetry
should inculcate moral truth. That poetry should please as well as
instruct was not denied, but this was considered to be its lesser
function or a function preliminary to the other. Some persons, like
Witherspoon, allowed the lesser forms of poetry to have a pre-
dominantly pleasurable function, but most critics did not yield
even this much and insisted that even comedy and satire should
"correct whilst they divert us and wage implacable war with vice
and folly."6
Patriotism was often closely associated with morality, and to
preach democracy was sometimes considered much the same as
preaching morality. This mixture shows plainy in Barlow who
wanted to "make patriot views and moral views the same."7 In
reply to the statement of the Bishop of Blois that the Columbiad
was detrimental to religion, Barlow made this assertion:
I believe, and you have compelled me on this occasion to express
my belief, that the Columbiad, taken in all its parts of text and
notes and preface, is more favorable to sound and rigorous morals,
more friendly to virtue, more clear and unequivocal in pointing out
the road to national dignity and individual happiness, more ener-
getic in its denunciations of tyranny and oppression in every shape,
injustice and wickedness in all their forms, and consequently more
consonant to what you acknowledge to be the spirit of the gospel
than all the writings of all that list of Christian authors of the three
last ages whom you have cited as the glory of Christendom .... I
judge not my poem as a work of genius. . But I know it is a moral
work; I can judge and dare pronounce upon its tendency, its bene-
ficial effect upon every candid mind.8

The blend of morality with democratic principles is seen most

6. The Boston Magazine, I (1783), 110.
7. The Conspiracy of Kings (London, 1792), reprinted in V. L. Parrington,
ed., The Connecticut Wits, p. 348.
8. Letter to Henri Gr6goire, Bishop of Blois, quoted in W. B. Otis, Ameri-
can Verse, 1625-1807 (New York, 1909), pp. 168-169.


plainly in the preface to the Columbiad where he says that the
object of the poem is
to inculcate the love of rational liberty, and to discountenance the
deleterious passions for violence and war; to show that on the basis
of the republican principle all good morals, as well as good govern-
ment and hopes of permanent peace must be founded. .. My
object is altogether of a moral and political nature. I wish to en-
courage and strengthen, in the rising generation a sense of the
importance of republican institutions; as being the great foundation
of public and private happiness, the necessary element of future
and permanent meliorations in the conditions of human nature.
Richard Beresford in 1793 pointed out that
poetry in other times and governments, wherein the rights of man
were unknown or trampled on, having sometimes taken a wrong
direction, misled and hurt mankind. The morals of the two great
epic poems of antiquity are bad in essentials, and took their com-
plexions from the licentious manners of the ages in which they
were composed.9

Proper morality and political principles in poetry were insisted
upon because these men believed that "the advantage of liberty ...
can be secured so well by nothing as by the aids of literature."10
They felt it their duty to substitute Christian principles of morality
and democratic principles of government for the barbarous morality
and tyrannous political philosophies contained in the epics of Homer
and Virgil. Beresford's general thesis was that since in a republic
the whole function and welfare of the state depends upon the virtue
of individual citizens, poetry and all other forms of literature should
be encouraged as a means of propagating virtue. "Virtue," he said,
"must not only be known but recommended; and the distinction
between the charms of truth attired in homely vestments, or graced
in all the ornaments of rhetoric and poetry, fails not to strike the
eye of an ordinary beholder . ."I Timothy Dwight, too, remarked
in the introduction to Greenfield Hill (1794) that poetry "will be
read by many persons who would scarcely look at a logical discus-
sion, and by most readers it will be more deeply felt and more
lastingly remembered."
9. A Plea for Literature: More Especially the Literature of Free States
(Charleston, 1793), p. 28.
10. Ibid., p. 72. 11. Ibid., p. 25.


This insistence on morality and constructive political views in
poetry is understandable in men who felt the eyes of the world
upon them. Nor should it be overlooked that many of them, in
spite of their acquaintance with rationalistic philosophers of the
enlightenment, were descendants of the Puritans and were still
actively professing their inherited Calvinism. Lewis Leary said of
John Blair Linn, "We can emphasize his confusion of poetry with
religion, which made the voice of the poet the distillation of the
voice of God, and the end of the poetry uncompromisingly moral."12
This identification of religion with poetry is apparent in Timothy
Dwight, especially in such places as the fifth and sixth part of
Greenfield Hill, where his declared purpose was "to excite [his
parishioners'] attention to the truths and duties of religion" and "to
promote in them just sentiments and useful conduct for the present
life."13 In 1789 Charles Brockden Brown remarked that "the en-
thusiasm of religion is little different from that of poetry and these
are with great difficulty distinguished from a sublime and rational
philosophy.... The effects of their several propensities are exactly
similar."14 John Quincy Adams stated quite bluntly that moral prin-
ciple "should be the alpha and omega of all human composition,
poetry, or prose, scientific or literary, written or spoken."15 Dryden,
Pope, Cowper, and the other British poets highly regarded by
Americans were praised above all for their moral teaching. A re-
viewer wrote, "In the Task of Cowper there is no licentiousness of
description. All is grave and majestic, and moral. A vein of re-
ligious thinking pervades every page, and he discourses in a strain
of the most finished poetry on the insufficiency of vanity of human
pursuits."16 Barlow's reputation among his countrymen rested even-
tually not on his ability as a poet, but on the worthiness of his aims.

12. "John Blair Linn, 1775-1805," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series,
IV (1947), 176.
18. Greenfield Hill (New York, 1794), Introduction.
14. The Rhapsodist and Other Uncollected Writings, ed. Harry R. Warfel,
in Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints (New York, 1943), p. 8.
15. Memoirs, ed. C. F. Adams (Philadelphia, 1874-1877), XI, 872. Other
statements that poetry should have primarily a moral and persuasive purpose
appear in: Port Folio, IV (1804), 166, 377, 398; V (1805), 171; new [3rd]
series, IV (1810), 453; Baltimore Repertory, I (1811), 1-3; The American Maga-
zine, I (1788), 471; Massachusetts Magazine, IV (1792), 4-5; V (1799), 227;
Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, II (1805), 168, 211; IV (1807), 185,
466-469; Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine, VI (1791), 318.
16. Monthly Magazine and American Review, III (1800), 226.


They forgave his lack of the one because of their approval of the
other. Charles Jared Ingersoll, wrote in 1810,
The good of mankind, much more than their pleasure, seems to
have been the end of his work. ... As a moral vision broadly based
in historical truth, with a due admixture of fiction and poetic
machinery, constructed of interesting incidents, intersected with
agreeable episodes, and conducted to an instructive catastrophe,
the Columbiad will always be admired. If the words could be
transposed so as to remove every vestige of versification without
impairing the sense and beauty of this composition, it would still
be read, and read with pleasure, as a chaste, moral and elegant per-
formance. But its charms lie more in the moral of the design and
force of the argument than in the poetic charm of the execution.'7

This strong insistence on the moral function of poetry Americans
could have found nearly everywhere present in English neoclassic
theory and practice from Ben Jonson to Charles Churchill. Nor
was there any lessening in emphasis on morality with the adoption
of the new ideas of taste and the sublime. The Scottish rhetoricians,
who were chiefly responsible for bringing these new ideas to Amer-
ica, had imbibed deeply of Shaftesbury's doctrines which insisted
on the close connection between esthetic good taste and moral good-
ness. One of Blair's chief arguments for studying rhetoric went
like this: the study of rhetoric results in a sharpened critical sense;
this leads to a refined taste; and this in turn leads to moral conduct."1
The cultivation of taste tends to bring out all that is good in a
man, and to weaken or suppress all that is evil. He sums up its
effect: "I will not go so far as to say that improvement of taste and
virtue is the same; or they may always be expected to co-exist in
an equal degree.... At the same time, this cannot but be admitted,
that the exercise of taste is, in its native tendency, moral and
purifying."" There are many echoes of this Shaftesburyan idea
in American critical statements, for example the following from
Dennie's Port Folio: "An intimate acquaintance with the good poets
17. Inchiquin; the Jesuit's Letters (New York, 1810), p. 81. Samuel Kettell
expressed the same opinion in 1829, in his anthology of American verse: "The
moral scope of the work, in spite of its miscarriage as an epic, will recommend
it to our regard as the earnest endeavor of a sincere philanthropist to further
the progress of the human race in their advances to political and moral per-
fection." Specimens of American Poetry (Boston, 1829), II, 13.
18. Lectures, Introduction.
19. Ibid., I.


will enable us to detect the faults of the bad; and let it be remem-
bered that this is no trifling accomplishment if it be true that a
good taste in literature generally leads to a correct taste in politics,
morals, and religion."20 One statement in the Monthly Anthology
claimed that the cultivated taste resulting from a close acquaintance
with literature can enhance a man's religious potential.21
Moral suasion was not the only function allowed to poetry, but
coupled as it frequently was with the glorification of America and
of republican principles, it appears to have been the most important
one. It is true that in the periodicals there were hundreds of little
narrative pieces, conventional eclogues, love laments, and humor-
ous or lightly satirical poems, which had as their chief purpose to
divert or amuse; but many even of these had some moral cast.
Public insistence on the moral element in art ran so strong in
Rhode Island during the early years of the Revolution that Shake-
speare's Othello could be performed only by being advertised as
"Moral Dialogues in Five Parts, Depicting the Effects of Jealousy,
and Other Bad Passions, and proving that happiness can only spring
from the pursuit of virtue." This handbill went on to promise that
"various other dialogues [i.e. plays by Shakespeare] ... all adapted
to the improvement of the mind and manners would be delivered.
Commencement at 7, conclusion at half past 10, in order that every
spectator may go home at a sober hour and reflect upon what he
has seen before he retires to rest."22 If Shakespeare had to be
soaked in so thick a molasses of moral sentiment to be made pala-
table, it should not be surprising that American authors felt moved
to be edifying.

20. IV (1804), 398.
21. IV (1807), 467.
22. John Bernard, Retrospections of America, 1797-1811 (New York, 1887),
pp. 270-271.


M ost poetry of the early republic, vigorous as it was, makes dull
reading today. We can hear in it the heightened voice of the
poet, speaking urgently or flamboyantly, but his words fall to the
ground before they reach our ears; they are only for that other
audience, now dead. We sense that the poet is thinking only of
them and is speaking of their crisis or their triumph, which is not
ours. We cannot feel moved to resist marauding Hessians, or to
hate Tories, or to join the armies of Washington as he marches to-
ward Yorktown. The urgency which gave this poetry its life is
gone, and if we can look at it with the same interest and curiosity
as we look at other parts of the historical record, we cannot be
much moved by it. This poetry is so little ours because it belongs
too much to its own time-which is one way of saying that it lacks
the universalized audience and subject matter which are typical
of the best poetry, and shows the more narrow awareness of audi-
ence and occasion which are typical of rhetoric.
Most of the serious verse of this time can be described as either
partisan or epideictic. Partisan poems are simply versified propa-
ganda, designed to move a particular group of men to some desired
action, to persuade them to believe in one cause or to reject an-
other. Such poems typically show a strong awareness of a definite
audience and occasion, and may have, in addition to a dominant
purpose to persuade, some admixture of praise or blame. In poems
of this kind there may be considerable heat of emotion, but the
language tends to be direct and fairly simple. Except for style,
similar elements are present in epideictic poems, but they are
combined in different proportion. The term "epideictic" itself, as
borrowed from classical rhetoric, implies definite occasion and
audience and a dominant purpose of praise or blame, along with
highly ornamented, extravagant style. Epideictic poems are usually
written "to order" to celebrate a wedding, or the opening of a new
theater, or a victory in war, to lament the passing of some great
man, or to heap abuse upon the head of some public villain.
Poems of both types are occasional in the sense that they are
attached to contemporary military, political, social, or religious


events. Freneau furnishes a good example; his writing career spans
the whole forty-year period under consideration in this study and
his poems consistently reflect contemporary events. The early revo-
lutionary years are represented by such poems as "General Gage's
Soliloquy" (1775), "On a Hessian Debarkation" (1776); the later
Revolution by "On the Memorable Victory of Paul Jones" (1781),
and by his many poems directed against the Tory printer, James
Rivington. The most stirring event of the nineties is represented
by such poems as "On the Prospect of a Revolution in France"
(1790), "On the Fourteenth of July" (1792), "On the Demolition of
the French Monarchy" (1792). One of the founding fathers is
mourned in "On the Death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin" (1790), and
ten years later another is lamented in "Stanzas upon the Memory
of General Washington" (1800). A threatened war is reflected
in "On the War Projected with the Republic of France" (1797).
The Alien and Sedition Acts are commented upon in "Stanzas to
an Alien" (1799). Jefferson's retirement from the presidency is noted
in "Lines Addressed to Mr. Jefferson" (1809), and many poems
record events connected with the War of 1812. Freneau's concern
with contemporary events and with democratic principles began
with the opening of his poetic career in 1768 and did not end till
his death in 1832.
The same occasional note pervades the poetry of all the other
chief poets of the period, though none was as prolific as Freneau.
Timothy Dwight wrote such poems as "Address of the Genius of
Columbus: To the Members of the Continental Congress" (1788?);
Trumbull vigorously protested the British blockade of Boston har-
bor in 1775 in a poem entitled "An Elegy on the Times"; Humph-
reys in "A Poem on the Happiness of America" (1785) painted
the horrors experienced by American seamen imprisoned as slaves
by the Algerian pirates. Robert Treat Paine's poems not only reflect
political or social events, but most of them were written to order
for various ceremonial occasions in and around Boston. Their titles
tell the story accurately enough: "Prize Prologue . spoken at
the opening of the first theatre in Boston, January 1794"; "Ode,
written for and sung at the Anniversary of the Massachusetts As-
sociation for improving the Breed of Horses, October 21, 1811."
Many poems were written for occasions of even more local or per-
sonal importance, such as Humphreys' sonnet "Addressed to my
Friends at Yale College, on my Leaving them to Join the Army."


Few poets can avoid giving some reflection of their own time
and place in their poetry, and it is illegitimate to expect that they
should. But the better poets are able to endow even parochial ma-
terials with larger significance-something which happens relatively
seldom in American verse of the early national period. It is difficult
to imagine another large body of verse which so universally begins
and ends in the occasions which prompted it.
As one might expect of poetry closely attached to occasion and
chiefly governed by purposes of persuasion, praise, or blame, most
of it also narrowed its appeal to specific audiences. Nearly all of
it faces toward an audience of Americans, or "Columbians." Even
the epics, those poems most intended by their authors to be for all
mankind and for all time, show that they are directed chiefly to
Americans and are concerned largely with contemporary affairs.
Barlow devoted four whole books of the Columbiad to events in the
American Revolution, and Timothy Dwight's Conquest of Canaan,
though it offends least in this respect among epic poems of the time,
indulges in thinly-veiled allegory in which the struggles of Joshua
in conquering the land of Canaan are supposed to suggest the
struggles of Washington in the Revolution.
Frequently, while writing for their American audience, these
poets struck out against some other audience, usually eschewing
the rapier of wit for the meat axe of scurrilous personal abuse, as
in these remarks directed by Freneau to Lord Cornwallis:
Quick, let the halter end thee or the knife;
So may destruction rush with speedy wing,
Low as yourself, to drag your cruel king;
His head torn off, his hands, his feet, and all,
Deep in the dust may Dagon's image fall;
His stump alone escape the vengeful steel,
Sav'd but to grace the gibbet or the wheel.1
Many poems were addressed to narrower audiences than Amer-
icans in general, especially after the Revolution when the unity
inspired by effort against a common foe began to disintegrate and
factions of many kinds began to take form. One of the most wide-
spread divisions in American society was that between "democrat"
and "aristocrat," a division which later crystallized in the Repub-

1. The Poems of Philip Freneau, ed. F. L. Pattee (Princeton, 1902-1907), II,


lican and Federalist parties. Of the poets supporting the cause of
democracy, Freneau was the most eloquent and prolific. In 1792
he made quite clear that his first book of verse (1785) had been
Hostile to garter, ribbon, crown, and star;
Still on the people's, still on Freedom's side,
With full determined aim, to baffle every claim
Of well-born wights, that aim'd to mount and ride.2
Another poet who became a vigorous champion of democracy
was Joel Barlow. His virile "Conspiracy of Kings" (1792) bore the
subtitle "A Poem Addressed to the Inhabitants of Europe from
another Quarter of the Globe"-and by "inhabitants" Barlow meant
the common people of Europe. That his poem was slanted to an
audience of democrats can be seen from the way he bloodied the
crowned heads of Europe and what he called their paid lackeys,
the ecclesiastics of the established churches. Other poets stoutly
defended the aristocratic position, among them Dwight, Trumbull,
Humphreys, Alsop, and Robert Treat Paine, and slanted their poems
toward a different segment of society.3
In the 1790's party and class views were often expressed in terms
of praise or dispraise of France, with Freneau the democrat, as
might be expected, consistently praising France and the Revolution,
though many voices were raised in protest after the Reign of Terror
and after the French armies began their march of conquest over
Europe.4 Still another type of special audience is revealed in Timothy
Dwight's Triumph of Infidelity (1788) which seems to have been
written for Protestants who espoused the same orthodox brand of
Calvinism as Dwight himself. Nearly every other important re-
ligious group in the Western world, and some in the Eastern, came
in for severe abuse, though he concentrated his fire on deists, athe-
ists, Roman Catholics, and Unitarians.
But there is no need here to fingerprint each separate variation
of audience and occasion; a simple numerical count can show how
much of this poetry is either partisan or epideictic. Of the 368
poems in Pattee's edition of Freneau's poetry, all but 83 are of these
two types. David Humphreys' principal poems are all epideictic,
2. Poems, III, 78-79.
3. Trumbull's McFingal, for example, looks away from the lower classes
and toward the Whig aristocracy.
4. See for example Robert Treat Paine, The Works in Prose and Verse
(Boston, 1812), p. 250.


as are the greater number of Francis Hopkinson's poems, which are
divided by his biographer into three groups: "(1) occasional lyrics,
elegies, birthday pieces, complimentary addresses and college exer-
cises; (2) 'political ballads,' written to check the despondency and
arouse the fighting spirit of his countrymen during the Revolution;
(3) songs for which he composed music."5 In the Works of Robert
Treat Paine, out of 87 separate poems, at least 66 are clearly epi-
deictic and many others have some epideictic cast. The poems on
which his rather considerable contemporary fame rested-and the
poems for which he is chiefly recalled today-are all epideictic
pieces: "The Ruling Passion, an occasional poem, written by the
appointment of the Phi Beta Kappa, and spoken, on their anniver-
sary, in the chapel of the university, Cambridge, July 20, 1797,"
"The Invention of Letters: a Poem, written at the request of the
president of Harvard University; and delivered in Cambridge, on
the day of annual commencement, July 15, 1795." Most of Trum-
bull's poems fall into these two categories, as do the lesser poems
of Barlow and Dwight. And even in the periodicals, poems of these
types are most numerous. In the Universal Asylum and Columbian
Magazine out of some 237 poems published in the poet's corer
during the years 1790-1792, 95 or nearly half were partisan or epi-
deictic pieces. The percentage was even higher in the second
volume of the Monthly Magazine and American Review (1800) in
which, out of 34 poems published in the poetry section, 21 were
odes with a decided epideictic cast. And besides these, three other
odes on the death of Washington were printed or reviewed in
other sections.6

5. George Hastings, The Life and Works of Francis Hopkinson (Chicago,
1926), p. 466. A contemporary critic wrote concerning the effect of Hopkin-
son's political verse: "the various causes which contributed to the establish-
ment of the independence and federal government of the United States will
not be fully traced, unless much is ascribed to the irresistible influence of the
ridicule which he poured forth, from time to time, upon the enemies of those
great political events." Massachusetts Magazine, III (1791), 751.
6. The findings of C. W. Coles in his study of literary nationalism during
the last quarter of the eighteenth century are of interest: "During the Revolu-
tion and the Period of Confederation [1775-1788], three out of every ten poems
which were printed in magazines contained some type of patriotic exploitation;
in the 1790 decade the proportion increased. These percentages reveal a con-
siderable preoccupation with native materials motivated by patriotic and
nationalistic impulses." "The Growth of Nationalism in American Literature
1775-1800" (unpublished dissertation, George Washington University, 1948),
p. 317. His figures are lower than those cited above since he was counting


So strong was the declamatory note that it invaded many poems
not intended to be primarily epideictic. Timothy Dwight undoubt-
edly thought of Greenfield Hill (1794) as a topographical poem after
the model of Denham's "Cooper's Hill," but nothing in Denham
licensed the full-throated extravagance of Dwight's panegyric to
New England (requiring more than half of Part I) or the extended
encomium to clergymen which he uses as a thumping peroration.
Nor was Dwight alone; the Columbiad of his fellow Connecticut
Wit, Barlow, was often a tissue of epideictic pieces, as witness the
following portion of the Argument to Book VIII: "Hymn to Peace.
Eulogy on the heroes slain in the war; address to the patriots who
have survived the conflict, exhorting them to preserve the liberty
they have established... Atlas, the guardian Genius of Africa,
denounces to Hesper the crimes of his people in the slavery of the
African.. ."
Not infrequently a poet pulled down all the barriers but verse
itself between oration and poem and unabashedly labeled his "poem"
an oration in verse. The extreme degree of influence from specific
audience and occasion can be seen in Hopkinson's poem entitled,
"An Oration which Might Have Been Delivered to the Students
in Anatomy on the Late Rupture Between the Two Schools in
Philadelphia" (1789); or in Trumbull's "Funeral Oration"; or in
Robert Treat Paine's "Dedicatory Address; Spoken by Mr. Hodgkin-
son, October 29, 1798, at the Opening of the New Federal Theatre,
in Boston." Twitch aside at any point the mantle of verse laid over
these "poems" and rhetoric appears nakedly beneath it.
It should surprise no one that poems which are so rhetorical in
purpose and address as those we have been discussing should also
be rhetorical in method, but distinction in method between rhe-
torical and poetic discourse is much less clear-cut than distinction
of purpose and address. To become aware of the rhetorical it will
help to recall several truisms about rhetoric: (1) that in deliberative
or forensic speeches, where persuasion is the chief end, an under-
lying logical structure can often be seen in a chain of enthymemes,
as well as in a relatively formal division into exordium, narration,
proposition, proof, disproof, and peroration; (2) that in epideictic
speeches, whose chief purpose is praise or blame, it is unusual to
only poems having a definite nationalistic bias. There were many partisan
and epideictic pieces on other themes, though those showing nationalistic
feeling were undoubtedly the most numerous.


find either the enthymeme chain or so elaborate an observance of
formal divisions. These same principles apply to the verse of the
early national period-the stronger the purpose of persuasion the
more one is likely to find the pattern of enthymemes and the use
of formalistic divisions.
The fact may be illustrated in a persuasive poem subjected to
fairly detailed rhetorical analysis. Freneau's "To the Americans"
(1775)7 provides a good subject (see opposite page).
It can be seen first of all that the poem contains five of the six
major divisions of a deliberative oration-narration, proposition,
proof, disproof, and peroration-lacking only a formal exordium,
an omission permissible to a persuasive speech which has to do
with war and the future.
Freneau employs here all three chief means of persuasion-ethos,
emotional appeals, and an argument proper. First, by assuming the
character of a good man, a man his audience can trust and believe,
he makes use from the very beginning of ethos, which Aristotle
calls the most powerful means of persuasion. He espouses the cause
of Freedom, Truth, and Justice against the cause of Tyranny, False-
hood, and Injustice. He represents himself as angered by the wanton
outrages of Gage and the British king, and he takes care to show
that his cause is the same as that of the audience-that he is one
of them: "If Britain conquers-we exist no more." "Such are the
devils that swell our souls with rage." His name-calling against the
British is justifiable since it is the result of the indignation and
righteous anger which any good man (in this case, any American)
would feel. His good moral character is further established by his
use of statements which resemble maxims or declaration of moral
No toils should daunt the nervous and the bold,
They scorn all heat or wave-congealing cold.
Second, he attempts to create the desired emotional responses
in his audience by outlining the enormity of their enemy's offenses
and by giving an example of British atrocity. In some instances he
allays their dread of the foe by calling Gage a "mock-imperial lord,"
the king a "mere imposter," and the Hessians "slaves that serve a
tyrant." In other instances he arouses their fear by reminding them
of the terrible consequences of failure. He seeks to render his
7. Poems, I, 185-187.


Rebels you are-the British champion cries-
Truth, stand thou forth!-and tell the wretch, He lies:-
Rebelsl-and see this mock imperial lord
Already threats these rebels with the cord.
The hour draws night, the glass is almost run,
When truth will shine, and ruffiians be undone;
When this base miscreant will forbear to sneer,
And curse his taunts and bitter insults here.
If to control the cunning of a knave,
Freedom respect, and scorn the name of slave;
If to protect against a tyrant's laws,
And arm for vengeance in a righteous cause,
Be deemed Rebellion-'tis a harmless thing:
This bug-bear name, like death, has lost its sting.
Americansl at freedom's fane adorel
But trust to Britain, and her flag, no more;
The generous genius of their isle has fled,
And left a mere imposter in his stead.
If conquered, rebels (their Scotch records show),
Receive no mercy from the parent foe;
Nay, even the grave, that friendly haunt of peace,
(Where Nature gives the woes of man to cease,)
Vengeance will search-and buried corpses there
Be raised, to feast the vultures of the air-
Be hanged on gibbets, such a war they wage-
Such are the devils that swell our souls with rage!
If Britain conquers, help us, heaven, to fly:
Lend us your wings, ye ravens of the sky;-
If Britain conquers-we exist no more;
These lands will redden with their children's gore,
Who, turned to slaves, their fruitless toils will moan,
Toils in these fields that once they called their own!
To arms! to arms! and let the murdering sword
Decide who best deserves the hangman's cord:
Nor think the hills of Canada too bleak
When desperate Freedom is the prize you seek;
For that, the call of honour bids you go
O'er frozen lakes and mountains wrapt in snow;
No toils should daunt the nervous and the bold, )
They scorn all heat or wave-congealing cold. M
Hastel-to your tents in iron fetters bring
These slaves, that serve a tyrant and a king;
So just, so virtuous is your cause, I say,
Hell must prevail if Britain gains the day.


nthymeme "Opposites"




Ethical Appeal Combined
with Calumny and

Enthymeme "Definition"

Enthymeme "Altered

- Enthymeme "Induction"

Sham Enthymeme

Enthymeme "Conse-

Sham Enthymeme


audience bolder and more courageous by appealing to their sense
of honor and by exhorting them to "scorn all heat and wave-congeal-
ing cold," holding before them at the same time the dangers they
will face if they quit themselves like men.
Third, while establishing himself in their favor, and producing
the desired attitude in his audience, he presents his main argument
in the form of an enthymematic chain. It is this aspect of the poem
which lies closest to rhetorical method. He deals at once with his
opponent's argument that Americans are rebels by employing an
enthymeme of the refutative type drawn from the topos "definition":
If to control the cunning of a knave,
Freedom respect, and scorn the name of slave;
If to protect against a tyrant's laws,
And arm for vengeance in a righteous cause,
Be deemed Rebellion-'tis a harmless thing:
This bug-bear name, like death has lost its sting.
This argument successfully performs a number of functions: first,
it places discredit on the enemy, by minimizing their accusations
and by implying once more that they are base and tyrannous;
secondly, it encourages the audience by magnifying its cause and
justifying its actions; and finally, by its paraphrase of scripture:
"This bug-bear name, like death, has lost its sting," it serves to raise
the ethos of the speaker and the cause he pleads.
Freneau next addresses Americans by apostrophe, employing at
the same time another enthymeme drawn from the topos "altered
choices." He argues that because Britain's former freedom has fled
and she has become tyrannous, Americans (who love freedom) no
longer owe allegiance to the British crown and are now free to
transfer their allegiance to the independent state of their own
Americans! at freedom's fane adorel
But trust to Britain, and her flag, no more;
The generous genius of their isle has fled,
And left a mere imposter in his stead.
The next element in the argument is a combined example, en-
thymeme, and sham enthymeme,8 though its function as an example
8. A sham enthymeme Aristotle defines as one that looks genuine but is
in reality spurious. He lists nine common varieties, the first and perhaps the
most common type arising from the structure of the diction in a compact and


is, perhaps, of greatest importance. He warns Americans that they
can expect no mercy from their British conquerors, and cites the
British treatment of the Scotch rebels who, like the Americans,
were closely related to the British. The first part of this argument
from example is in the form of an enthymeme drawn from the topos
If conquered, rebels (their Scotch records show),
Receive no mercy from the parent foe.
What follows resembles a sham enthymeme of the type called by
Aristotle "indignation." "Such means," he says, "are used when the
speaker, without having proved his case, elaborates on the nature of
the deed." Freneau has stated that the British are cruel to con-
quered rebels and has supported his statement by reference to their
behavior towards the Scotch. He then elaborates, employing more
"indignation" and imagination than facts:
Nay, even the grave, that friendly haunt of peace,
(Where Nature gives the woes of man to cease,)
Vengeance will search-and buried corpses there
Be raised, to feast the vultures of the air-
Be hanged on gibbets, such a war they wage-
Such are the devils that swell our souls with ragel

The next enthymeme, "If Britain conquers-we exist no more,"
is drawn from the topos "consequences," and enlarges upon an al-
ready established idea, the ferocity of the British as conquerors.
And following this, Freneau uses another sham enthymeme of the
same sort he has already used, by elaborating upon the conse-
quences of an event which has not yet occurred:
These lands will redden with their children's gore,
Who, turned to slaves, their fruitless toils will moan,
Toils in these fields that once they called their own.

Appropriately, he has reserved his strongest appeal for action

antithetical statement. Such sham enthymemes appear especially when a
speaker summarizes the results of his previous arguments, the juxtaposition
of several conclusions appearing to prove something about another conclusion.
Aristotle cites an example of this from Isocrates' Evagoras: "Some he saved";
"others he avenged"; "he liberated Greece." Each of these points has been
proved from something else; when they are brought together, they seem to
establish a novel conclusion. Rhetoric, 1401a.


until the issues have been painted in the bold colors of his own
choosing. For now he appeals to his audience by direct apostrophe,
as if the time for speaking were past and the time for drastic action
had come. He draws his appeal from the topos "turning one's
opponent's own words against him":
To arms! to arms! and let the murdering sword
Decide who best deserves the hangman's cord.

His exhortation continues, after an appeal to honor, with a strong
Haste!-to your tents in iron fetters bring
These slaves, that serve a tyrant and a king.

The last two lines in the poem are an enthymeme from the topos
"opposites" employing both antithesis and hyperbole for the final
emotional appeal:
So just, so virtuous is your cause, I say,
Hell must prevail if Britain gains the day.

In this persuasive poem Freneau has consistently followed the
method of deliberative rhetoric-whether consciously, as if with
rhetorical text open in one hand, or unconsciously, drawing upon
intuitive resources or previous academic training, it is hard to say
in the absence of external evidence. In any case, the poem illus-
trates the principle that in most of the partisan and epideictic poetry
of the period there is a visible use of rhetorical method in propor-
tion to the amount of persuasion.
Even the epideictic verse sometimes shows an attachment to its
own rhetorical prescriptions of form. In classical rhetoric epideictic
speeches, because they had no developed argument, dropped away
the divisions of proposition, proof, or disproof, and were commonly
divided into exordium, an extended narration which comprised
the main body of the speech, and a peroration, with some varieties
of epideictic having their own conventional divisions. Encomium
of person, for example, had exordium, peroration, and six named
subdivisions of narration.9 Apparently the poets of the early na-
tional period were acquainted with these conventions, for occasion-

9. For a thorough, scholarly treatment of this mode of discourse see Theo-
dore C. Burgess, Epideictic Literature, University of Chicago Studies in Classi-
cal Philology, III (1902).


ally some elegiac poem like Robert Treat Paine's "A Monody to
the Memory of W. H. Brown" will show many of these parts (Paine's
shows six).10 But encomia of this kind are rare among the other
epideictic poems which are more likely to resemble Francis Scott
Key's "The Star Spangled Banner" (1814), a poem mainly epideictic
but having a minor deliberative element. Such pieces are usually
organized according to some loose sequence of narrative or descrip-
tion with here and there a hortatory enthymeme, but they seldom
have any carefully articulated skeleton of argument. This is not
to say that such poems are not rhetorical, for most of them are
highly rhetorical in other ways than method.
Posterity has unknowingly separated the epideictic and partisan
poems from the other poetry of this period. Verse which those poets
took most seriously (the part we have just been describing) pos-
terity has rejected-the poems which helped to win the Revolution
have not been able to win the hearts of succeeding generations.
Almost the only poems much honored today either by the critics
or by the anthologists are those which were considered by their
makers as "minor" verse, those which carry little overt doctrine,
serve no utilitarian purpose, and are freest from attachment to
particular audience and occasion. Barlow's "Hasty Pudding," Trum-
bull's "Progress of Dulness," and Freneau's nature lyrics are among
such poems. Without knowing either these poets or their work,
Goethe accurately pronounced their fate in the last of his con-
versations with Eckermann: "If a poet would work politically,
he must give himself up to a party; and as soon as he does that, he
is lost as a poet."

10. Works, pp. 118-121. A poem which shows Paine following with even
greater fidelity the classical prescriptions for encomium of a person is his
"Monody on the Death of Lieutenant General Sir John Moore." Works, pp.
229-236. See also "An Elegy on a Patriot" from Book XII of the Anarchiad
for a mock elegy containing a number of the classical prescriptions for en-


n one of the early chapters of The Last of the Mohicans Hawkeye
makes this pledge to help Cora and Alice Munro escape from
hostile Indians: "These Mohicans and I will do what man's thoughts
can invent, to keep such flowers, which, though so sweet, were
never made for the wilderness, from harm, and that without hope
of any other recompense but such as God always gives to upright
dealings." Hearing such pompous language from a supposedly un-
lettered scout, modern readers can hardly suppress a smile. We
associate such language with the posturing and extravagance of
the old melodramas, or with charlatanry, as in the movie scene
where W. C. Fields as patent-medicine salesman at the tail gate
of his wagon bamboozles the yokels with fancy talk. But if such
talk strikes us as openly false, we have no reason to believe that
it troubled Cooper's readers in any such way, or even that Haw-
thorne's readers as late as 1860 found the same formality of style
in The Marble Faun unduly stiff or artificial. The truth is that
Americans of the early nineteenth century were conditioned to an
extravagance of style both in prose and poetry which modern taste
condemns as outrageously "rhetorical." We have come now to the
point where we must face the term "rhetorical," not in the mean-
ings which refer to persuasive purpose or restricted audience or
occasion, but in the common pejorative meaning which refers to
artificially heightened style, a meaning to which the early national
poetry seems particularly vulnerable.
We begin with "the rules," which laid an unusually heavy hand
upon American poetic practice. Long after the spirit of Augustan
orthodoxy had been diluted or eclipsed in England by other criteria
of literary excellence, it still dominated critical thinking in America.
As late as 1807 The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review could
claim that, "The rules of verse were formed out of the experience
of poets, and are necessary to the composition of poetry. It is not
to render service to genius to disengage it from subjection to
method. . Poems will please only in proportion as these rules
are observed."1 Poets and critics alike (there was little distinction
1. III, 121.


between the two) accepted all the common assumptions of neo-
classic criticism: the ut picture poesis of Horace, the insistence
upon "pure" diction and "smooth" numbers, the belief that all the
best themes as well as the choicest figures and other ornaments had
already been used by the great poets of the past and that the con-
temporary poet could do little more than reshuffle these known
elements into new and pleasing combinations. As the English
Augustans had turned to Rome and to France for models of classic
excellence, the American poets turned to Pope. "Since the days
of Pope," said one critic in 1805, "this species of excellence [smooth-
ness of numbers] has become almost mechanical. The artisan of
verses has only to resort to his work, in which . may be found
every musical and every graceful phrase, which our language
affords, and the manufacture of harmonious lines becomes the
easiest thing in the world."2 Those two phrases, "the artisan of
verses," and "the manufacture of harmonious lines," express com-
pletely the dominant spirit of this poetry.
Both critics and poets were preoccupied with the externals of
poetry-with versification, diction, figures, technique in general-
the aspects of poetry upon which rules were most binding. Like
the Augustans, they looked upon these as "ornaments," as the
"enamel," "painting," or "colors" which a poet could apply, as it
were, from the outside, which could be manipulated or revised
according to rules which had no reference to the inner intent of
a particular poem. So strong was this preoccupation with method
and reason that some voices were raised in protest: "The times of
inspiration are departed; and nature, the only muse of the poet,
is unfeelingly forgotten. We have substituted rhetoric in her room
and degenerated to a race of manufacturers."3
If such mechanical tendencies can be traced to Augustan practice
or precept, there was little in Blair and the other Scots of the later
eighteenth century-as Americans read them-which would dis-
courage their growth. The tenacity of older neoclassicism is clearly
seen in Blair's Lectures, where a number of the basic principles of
classicism were preserved fairly intact, even though they were bed-
fellows of new and revolutionary ideas.4 As a member of the Scot-

2. Monthly Anthology, II (1805), 380.
3. Ibid., p. 530.
4. Cf. Walter J. Bate, From Classic to Romantic (Cambridge, Mass., 1946),
p. 113.


tish "Common-Sense School," Blair received a marked influence
from the Shaftesburyan conceptions of the innate moral sense, the
interest in associational psychology, and the strong empirical sense
which are among the characteristics of this group. In his Lectures
on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres his emphasis is on taste, on the sub-
lime and sublimity in writing, and on style. These aspects of his
book display tendencies toward relativism in taste, toward sub-
jectivity and an emphasis on the particular which are quite to be
expected from a member of the Common-Sense School. But these
tendencies are not pure. The older neoclassic predilection for rules
survives in the midst of them, the samE arbitrariness, the same
uniformitarian assumption that a norm is possible and desirable
through the exercise of reason. Blair's rules may have been differ-
ent from those of Boileau and Pope, somewhat diluted by new-
fangled ideas, but it is clear that he felt it proper and even neces-
sary to formulate rules. The codification that was so characteristic
of neoclassicism Blair applied, like Kames before him and Alison
after him, to taste and the sublime as well as to the other areas of
poetic theory which had conventionally been "methodized"; and
thus he widened, rather than narrowed, for his followers the va-
rieties and aspects of poetry which could be produced by formula.
Although Kames and Blair set up their rules less on the authority of
ancient practice and precept than on an analysis of the taste of the
generality of mankind, this made their rules no less arbitrary and
rationalistic. Kames said that his intention was to show how "the
fine arts, like morals, become a rational science," how "criticism
could be rational."5 This approach Blair followed closely, and there
are many signs that the subjectivity, the relativity of taste, and the
Shaftesburyan "enthusiasm" in the Scottish rhetoric received far
less attention from Americans than the prescriptive portions of these
works. Kames and Blair ordinarily stood for "the rules" to Amer-
icans, and Blair especially after 1785 was deferred to as an authority
in literary matters.6
We have seen that verse was the chief distinction which this
generation allowed between rhetoric and poetic, and no one could
deny that the style of their poems is uncompromisingly poetic in
its fondness for the neoclassic couplet. Their pieces look and sound
5. Elements of Criticism, Chapter 1.
6. See a review of Blair's Lectures in the New Haven Gazette and Connecti-
cut Magazine, I (1786), 107.


like poems. But even in cherishing such external marks of poetic
style, the poets only succeeded in casting sheep's clothing over the
rhetorical wolf which crept into the poetic fold anyway, not only
through the doors of purpose and address but also through style
itself, for many of the rules which they followed with such slavish
confidence derived ultimately from Roman rhetoric and always re-
tained the spirit of their origin.
One of the most pervasive influences came from the ancient rhe-
torical concept of three styles. Cicero had assigned to oratory the
threefold function of docere, conciliare, and movere ("to teach," "to
please," and "to move"), and to each of these functions he had
assigned one of the three styles, tenue, medium, and grande.7
Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and on into the
neoclassic age this threefold division continued to be observed.
In the eighteenth century Cicero's tenue was usually translated as
the "low" or "simple" style; medium became the "middle" or "mixed"
or "florid" style; and grande became the "high," the "grand," or the
"sublime" style. The Scottish rhetoricians extended this division
far beyond style until it constituted a virtual threefold division
of all discourse. An American disciple of the Scottish school (John
Witherspoon) allowed to the grand style epic poetry, tragedy, and
orations on grand subjects; to the "simple" style he allowed scientific
writing, epistolary writing, essay, dialogue, and epitaph; to the
mixed or middle style, he allowed "history, system, and contro-
versy." He also made a distinction between "sentiment" and "lan-
guage," giving a classic example of what T. S. Eliot meant by the
"dissociation of sensibility." Witherspoon claimed that pieces in-
tended for the high style should be sublime in both sentiment and
language, that pieces in the simple style might often be sublime
in sentiment but rarely in language, and that in the mixed-style
pieces might be either simple or sublime both in sentiment and in
But more often than not, when an American poet composed a
poem, the decision about which style he would use had already
been made for him by some such precept. The simple style, which
avoided figures, used the shortest, plainest words, and attempted

7. Orator, trans. H. M. Hubbell (Cambridge, 1981), XXI, 69-71. Cf. C. S.
Baldwin, Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic, pp. 250-251.
8. Lectures on Moral Philosophy and Eloquence (Woodward's 3rd ed., Phila-
delphia, 1810), p. 195.


Dark was the sky and not one friendly star
Shone from the zenith, or horizon, clear,
Mist sate upon the woods, and darkness rode
In her black chariot, with a wild career.
And from the woods the late resounding note
Issued of the loquacious Whip-poor-will,
Hoarse, howling dogs, and nightly-roving wolves
Clamour'd from far of cliffs invisible.
Rude, from the wide-extended Chesapeake
I heard the winds the dashing waves assail,
And saw from far, by picturing fancy form's
The black ship travelling through the noisy gale.12
Or note the following passage, selected virtually at random from
Dwight's Conquest of Canaan:
Far distant, Zimri, like a sweeping storm,
Grim in the chariot rais'd his gloomy form;
Earth shook, air trembled, heaven with thunder roar'd:
Oft, from the car descending to the plain,
He steamed, like lightning, (o'er the ghastly slain),
Then swiftly rose, and on the heathens sped,
His wheels dark-rolling o'er th' unnumber'd dead.13
The theories of associational psychology which lay behind the
esthetics of the Scottish rhetoricians assumed that most men would
have essentially the same responses to natural phenomena: for
example, the primary sensation in all men at the sight of a vast,
craggy mountain would be wonder or awe and a feeling of eleva-
tion. From this it was easy to infer that in order to achieve sublime
effects a poet had only to bring before the reader objects or phe-
nomena which were known to evoke awe and elevation. The means
to do this was the grand or sublime style, and the rules governing
this style were many and definite.
While Kames and Blair were substantially in agreement as to
the elements of the sublime, there was some difference of emphasis
in their recommendations for achieving it. As the later of the two
men, Blair, when he wrote his Lectures, was drawing away from
the concept of sublimity as residing principally in the grand style
and was inclining toward the wider concept of the esthetic sub-

12. Poems, I, 214-215. Italics added. 13. Book VIII. Italics added.


lime in which attention was centered on the emotions themselves.
Possibly under the influence of Ossian, Blair was quite outspoken
in his condemnation of the "sublime style"-the "magnificent words,
accumulated epithets, and a certain swelling kind of expression."
For Blair sublimity resided in the thought, not in the words, "and
when the thought is truly noble, it will for the most part clothe
itself in a native dignity of language. . ." The main secret of being
sublime is to say things in few and plain words. The true sublime
comes not "by hunting after tropes and figures and rhetorical as-
sistance. . It stands clear, for the most part, of these laboured
refinements of art. It must come unsought if it comes at all; and
be the natural offspring of a strong imagination." He quoted, after
Longinus, these lines from Genesis as a good example of sublimity
residing in simple words: "God said, let there be light; and there
was light." Then he added, "This is striking and sublime. But put
it into what is commonly called the sublime styles: 'The sovereign
arbiter of nature, by the potent energy of a single word, commanded
the light to exist'; and . the style is indeed raised, but the thought
is fallen."14
Kames retained much more of Longinus' idea that sublimity re-
sides in elevated style. His capital rule for reaching the sublime
was that the poet should strive for "grandeur of manner" by pre-
senting "those parts or circumstances only which make the greatest
figure, keeping out of view everything low or trivial." He said
also that "a man, when elevated or animated by passion, is disposed
to elevate or animate all his objects: he avoids familiar names, exalts
objects by circumlocution and metaphor .... In this heat of mind
the highest poetical flights are indulged. . An elevated subject
requires an elevated style. . Nothing contributes more than
inversion to the force and elevation of language."15 The sublime
style according to Kames made much use of all the heightening
devices: circumlocution, inversion, epithet, poetic diction, figures-
especially the strong figures of hyperbole, personification, apostro-
phe, and interrogation. Even Blair, though he warned against the
overuse of such devices, enumerated and discussed them all.
Most of these means of obtaining sublime style were included
in "amplification," a quality plainly visible in this poetical paraphrase
of Genesis by Timothy Dwight:

14. Lectures, IV. 15. Elements of Criticism, Chapter 4.


[And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was
upon the face of the deep. Genesis 1:2.]
From realms divine, high raised beyond all height,
Th' Almighty Parent cast his piercing sight,
With boundless view, he saw the etherial vast
A clouded gloom, an undelightsome waste:
Around the extended wild, no sun's broad ray
Mark'd the clear splendor of immortal day;
No varying moon, ordain'd at eve to rise,
Led the full pomp of the constelleate skies;
No day in circling beauty learned to roll;
Substantial darkness space unmeasur'd filled,
And nature's realm lay desolate and wild.16
Dwight was writing, as Leon Howard has shown, directly under
the influence of Kames, and following with great fidelity his pre-
cepts for achieving the sublime.'7 But for a reader to have any-
thing like a true idea of such "sublime" verse, the copiousness
within this passage must be seen as multiplied over and over again.
The American poets followed with fatal fidelity Kames' rule that
"grandeur, being an extreme vivid emotion, is not readily produced
in perfection but by reiterated impressions. The effect of a single
impression can be but momentary. . Successive images, making
thus deeper and deeper impressions, must elevate more than any
single image can do."18 They were so prodigal with their sublime
passages that the reader soon becomes wearied and oppressed by
the unrelenting assault on his sensations of passages which break
over him, wave after wave, seeming to let up only to gather strength
for another assault. This prodigality helps to explain why most
events in their poetry, especially in the epics, have the aspect of
major cataclysms-they believed that by hitting the reader again
and again on the same nerve they would increase the degree of
sublimity in the poem.
The more one reads this verse, the more he is led to the con-
clusion that it was not the theories themselves-even though they
had origins in rhetoric-which chiefly gave such verse its "rhetori-
cal" cast. If the handbooks methodized sublime objects and emo-
tions, thus making them available to any poetaster, they also gave
16. Columbian Muse, pp. 196-198.
17. Howard, The Connecticut Wits, Chapters 3 and 4.
18. Elements of Criticism, Chapter 4.


ample warning against the pitfalls of the false sublime. What
chiefly was at fault was that American poets, ignoring the warnings
and finding justification in the assumptions of a mechanistic psy-
chology, went on to write in the sublime style anyway. If the
sublime could not be made to grow naturally out of their verse,
they would freight it in from the outside. The rhetoricians called
for heightened passion to lend elevation to poetry, but of course
they meant that the poet's own passions must be aroused. All too
often the passion in these poems is purely external, not necessarily
experienced by the poet at all, the assumption being that simply
by depicting strong emotion the poet would lend the desired ele-
vation to the poem.
An article published in the Boston Magazine for 1784 gives a
clear picture of the attitude which lay behind much of the sublime
poetry of this period. The author proposes an ode on Niagara
Falls-a subject particularly suited to sublime effects:
The poem might open with a general description of the country,
and sure no country allows fuller scope to the descriptive powers
-here everything is majestic and truly natural; then might follow
a particular account of the stupendous cataract. . The contem-
plation of this immense spectacle, considered with these attendant
circumstances, cannot fail of raising lofty and sublime ideas in any
one possessed of poetic fire and fancy. Some beautiful and affect-
ing tale might also be built upon that well-known truth, that the
Indians in attempting to cross the flood above the cataract, are
often hurried into eternity by the impetuous current. We may sup-
pose the sufferer to have been a favorite chief or bosom friend,
and may easily conceive what would be the expressions of grief
among a people whose passions civilization had not yet put under
any restraint, but who are guided solely by the impulse of nature
and instinct-I know not but their attachment to a leader and com-
panion might induce many to plunge into the roaring flood, to
accompany him in his solitary journey to the land of spirits, at least
this is a circumstance of which the poet might allowedly avail him-
self to heighten the scene.19
This writer reflects the urgent feeling so common at the time
that America ought to be producing poetry in the grand manner.
Clearly he assumes that the vast spectacle of Niagara Falls, or
violent death from being swept over the falls, or the extreme grief
19. Boston Magazine, I (1784), 196.


which might drive a man to suicide are circumstances "of which
the poet might allowedly avail himself to heighten the scene." Sub-
limity apparently could be brought coolly into the poem from the
The other common means of injecting the sufficient degree of
passion to produce the sublime in a poem was to resort to the
strong figures-personification, apostrophe, hyperbole, exclamation,
interrogation, and the numerous variations of these figures. Espe-
cially overworked was a type of personification which Blair called
the strongest of all figures of speech, that "in which inanimate ob-
jects are introduced not only as feeling and acting, but also as
speaking to us, or hearing and listening when we address our-
selves to them."2 This figure and the one closely related to it,
apostrophe, were used in such excess that they might be regarded
as hallmarks of American poetry during this period. Humphreys,
in his "Poem on the Industry of the United States" (1794), apostro-
phizes or personifies in twenty pages of verse forty-two separate
persons, places, or things, ranging from "Genius of Culture!" to
"Lusitania, queen of diamond mines!" And this does not include
the many instances of exclamatio like "Heavens!" "Ho!" "Ahl" and
the like.21
If these figures were used often in didactic and epic verse which
aspired to the sublime, they were used even more in the epideictic
verse where there were special sanctions for extravagant utterance.
The ancient rhetoricians had plainly said that "the function of
panegyric is to amplify and embellish its themes."22 Besides this,
the ode throughout the neoclassic period, particularly the pseudo-
pindaric of Cowley, had been allowed excesses of expression which
were given to no other type of poetry. Blair spoke of "that en-
thusiasm which is understood to be a characteristic of lyric poetry."
He said that "a professed ode, even of the moral kind, but more
especially if its attempts the sublime, is expected to be enlivened
and animated in an unusual degree."23 He conceived of the ode
as retaining many qualities of primitive bardic poetry, which he
20. Lectures, XVI.
21. See Parrington, The Connecticut Wits, pp. 385-405.
22. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, III, vii, 6.
23. Lectures, XXXIX. For a detailed study of the ode in English literature
during the neoclassic period see George N. Shuster, The English Ode from
Milton to Keats, in Columbia University Studies in English and Comparative
Literature, No. 150 (New York, 1940).


described as being virtually indistinguishable from oratory. Primi-
tive poetry was full of "wild and disordered strains," because in the
earliest time "history, eloquence, and poetry were all the same."24
American poets took all the liberties allowed by the theorists.
They packed their odes with apostrophes and personifications; they
used every trick for attaining a high style, and these poems show
even more than the attempts at epic the worst effects of having
been composed by a perfunctory observance of formulae.25 All too
often their earnestness led them to use the strong figures without
regard to whether they belonged in a particular context. William
Livingston in his poem called "Philosophic Solitude" begs the muses
to guide him to quiet sequestered scenes, but having arrived at those
scenes, he shatters the quiet by hailing them in stentorian tones:
Me to sequestered scenes, ye muses, guide,
Where nature wantons in her virgin pride . .
Welcome, ye shades! all hail, ye vernal blooms!
Ye bow'ry thickets, and prophetic glooms!
Ye forests, Haill ye solitary woods!
Love-whispering groves, and silver-streaming floods
Ye birds, and all ye sylvan beauties hail!
Oh how I long with you to spend my days,
I invoke the muse and try the rural laysl26
Several influences outside the literary tradition itself encouraged
the excesses of emotion and the perfunctory observance of formulae
so evident in the poetry. Of these the mechanical drilling in elocu-
tion must have been one. It is hard to believe that poetry so full
of the histrionic tags "Lo, here!" "Lo, there!" "Methinks I see . .
methinks I hear!" "But, ah!"-and so thoroughly larded with the
exclamatory figures-is not under strong influence from elocution.
Too many of the poems seem to have been written to give a de-
claimer the greatest possible chance to exercise his talents in the

24. Lectures, VI, XXXVIII.
25. For examples look almost at random in Robert Treat Paine's Works.
26. Columbian Muse, p. 17. For a spirited objection by Freneau to such
excesses see Poems, III, 235-287. See also ibid., p. 38; and an article in
Massachusetts Magazine, VIII (1796), 477, in which one critic lists as "Direc-
tions for Composing an Elegy" all the most common cliches and abuses. Other
complaints about the excesses of epideictic poetry are to be found in The New
Haven Gazette and Connecticut Magazine, I (1786), 145-147; Monthly Maga-
zine and American Review, II (1800), 309; Port Folio, II (1802), 195; Monthly
Anthology and Boston Review, II (1805), 305; VIII (1810), 257-258.


extravagant gesture and the posturing of this kind of speaking.
There is one other respect in which the elocution manuals might
have exerted influence on the poetry. The descriptions of passion
in the poetry closely resemble those in Burgh and the other elocu-
tion manuals. Note how Dwight's description of fear in one of his
epic villains compares with Burgh's description of fear in the intro-
ductory chapter to his Art of Speaking:
In dread amaze astonish'd Samlah stood;
From his pale face retired the freezing blood;
His wild eye star'd; all bristling rose his hair;
Quick from his quivering hand the useless spear
Dropp'd; his teeth rattled, and the falling reins
At random trembled on the coursers' manes;
Behind he gaz'd and found no path to fly;
For aid he panted, but no aid was nigh.27
Fear, violent and sudden, opens very wide the eyes and mouth;
shortens the nose; draws down the eyebrows; gives the countenance
an air of wildness; covers it with deadly paleness. . The body
seems shrinking from the danger and putting itself in a posture for
flight. The heart beats violently; the breath is fetched quick and
short; the whole body is thrown in a general tremor. The voice is
weak and trembling.28
It would be absurd to claim that Dwight learned these character-
istics of the passion of fear solely from Burgh, though the similarity
in such a wide coverage of detail is striking. It seems reasonable
that a book like Burgh's, the subject of intensive study in the
schools, should exert some influence over the literary habits of the
students, especially when it is recalled that most of the recitation
of poems and speeches was by rote, the student memorizing the
appropriate gestures and signs of emotion along with the words of
the poem or speech. Thus Burgh and the other manuals of elocu-
tion furnished another store of ready-made materials which could
be put to use by the aspiring poet. It did not matter if these ma-
terials were familiar to the point of triteness; mechanical methods
27. The Conquest of Canaan, Book VIII.
28. Burgh, p. 21. The art of gesture in elocution had itself become so refined
that whole treatises were devoted to it. See, for example, Gilbert Austin,
Chironomia (London, 1806), in which separate chapters were devoted to
positions of the feet and legs, positions and movements of the arms, hands,
head, eyes, shoulders, and other chapters to the stroke and time of gestures,
the preparation and transition of gesture, and the like.


in poetry were not unusual in America at this time and originality
was not the poetic virtue most sought after.
The widespread training in elocution was not the only external
influence which encouraged extravagance in the poetry. This was
an age when bombast was characteristic of many forms of prose
writing, especially of the prose orations. Excesses in the poetry are
more understandable when it is remembered that audiences habitu-
ally listened to speeches as unbelievably bombastic as the following
"Oration on the History, Culture and Qualities of the Potatoe,"
which was delivered at the public commencement exercises of the
University of Pennsylvania in 1790:
Farmers of Pennsylvania, cultivate the potatoes Citizens of Phila-
delphia, eat, oh! eat, plentifully and constantly of the potatoes Let
them be the constant food of your children, instead of bread, in the
intervals of their meals. Legislators of Pennsylvania encourage by
suitable bounties, the increase and exportation of the potato. Let
this precious root be blended hereafter with the wheat-sheaf, in
the arms of our State. [Here Mr. Bache took a potato from his
pocket and held it in his hand.] Hail highly favored vegetable!
parent of health, strength, courage, and beauty of the human
species! nay more, parent of the human species themselves! may
we always honour theel and may we always eat thee, as we should
do! with meat or without it, with butter-milk or without it; in soup,
in puddings, in pies, in bread, in biscuit, in sage, in salad, or in
coffeel-Still may we prefer thee to all other vegetables! Sweet root!
kind root! I take thee to my bosom; go people our western country,
[Here the potato was gently thrown on the stage, and viewed
affectionately in pronouncing the remaining part of the oration.]
go teach the nations of the earth to be temperate and healthy, go
civilize the world.29
There is no indication that the audience even smiled at this per-
formance, nor any reason why they should have, when this student
orator was only riding the well-grooved track of received taste in
Nor was extravagance of style confined to speechmaking. Dr.
Joseph Brown Ladd in 1786 found in America "a general deprava-
tion of style . in which sound has been substituted for sense,
and tinsel for ornament. ... In their attempt to achieve the sub-
lime they have only combined the florid and bombastic manner.

29. Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine, V (1790), 234.


This we would choose to call the frothy manner."30 Other critics
made similar comments about the prose style: "There is a bombast
which characterizes and disgraces most of the ephemeral produc-
tions of our infant republic."31 "The orators of the day have too
often substituted the vagaries of imagination for the deduction of
reason, unnatural conceits for appropriate embellishments, and the
rant of enthusiasm for salutary exhortation"32-a blast not entirely
free from the elaborate style it castigates. With so much bombast
on all sides in the prose, it is easy to understand how the poetry
could be infected with it.
Now finally to answer the question with which we started-in
what ways is the style of this poetry "rhetorical"? It must be said
in all fairness that it is rhetorical only in certain special senses.
These poets followed the rules slavishly, and much of their verse
seems to us highly extravagant in style. Yet there is nothing in the
observance of rules of style which by itself will make poetry rhe-
torical. Grammar, syntax, imagery, diction, figures, rhythm-all
the elements of style belong as much to poetry as to rhetoric. They
are usually thought of as rhetorical because they have been formu-
lated not by poets but by rhetoricians who have been concerned
to codify the "available means of persuasion" so that these means
could be taught to students of the art of persuasion. This reflects
the rationalistic attitude which prevails in rhetoric, the assumption
that the orator must know all the means of persuasion so that he
may select and apply the means which are most effective in a given
case. Bombast and other stylistic excesses have been considered
"rhetorical" because they are characteristic of sophistic rhetoric,
the type of rhetoric in which style was of chief importance. Be-
cause the rhetoric of style was so long dominant (in England it was
30. "Critical Reflections on Style," American Museum or Universal Maga-
zine, I (1787), 532-536, reprinted in Massachusetts Magazine, IV (1792), 237-
239. 31. Port Folio, V (1805), 249.
82. Ibid., p. 221. See for similar remarks ibid., II (1802), 138; new [3rd]
series, V (1810), 45-46; VII (1812), 6. "The Echo," by two of the Connecticut
Wits, Richard Alsop and Theodore Dwight, published in some twenty numbers
of the American Mercury (1791-1805), was originally intended to satirize bad
taste in contemporary American writing. The earlier numbers, before it turned
its attention chiefly to politics, carried out this aim. The usual technique was
to reprint some especially bombastic or objectionable passage from a current
newspaper and then write a burlesque poem on it. The first "Echo," for
example, had good fun burlesquing the grand manner of the false sublime
employing all the standard devices of heightened style to describe the burning
of a hay barn.


dominant till the middle of the seventeenth century), the word
"rhetoric" often has connoted excesses in style, and has carried
with it some of the bad ethical reputation of the sophists. It is
chiefly in this pejorative sense of the word that the style of Amer-
ican poetry of the early national period is "rhetorical"; it is "mere"
rhetoric in the sense that it emphasizes style at the expense of
thought and truth. We should add that it is by no means always
rhetorical in this sense. Partisan poems like Freneau's "To The
Americans," though they may appear exclamatory to modern taste,
often employ a blunt and vigorous style quite appropriate to their
persuasive purpose, and their style can therefore be seen as rhe-
torical in the good sense that it constitutes an additional means of
persuasion. In the same way the much greater extravagance in the
sublime and the epideictic verse can be seen as legitimate-up to
a point-since these poets felt they were working within the re-
ceived conventions of the high style. Modern judgment is particu-
larly harsh on the epideictic verse because the whole mode and
the rules which governed it have passed out of ken.
But not even these qualifications will take off the curse. The
style of this verse still seems "rhetorical" in the bad sense, and to
find an answer to the question of why, we are driven back to the
poets themselves and their stance toward the rules. Here we find
strong reminders of rhetoric. These poets selected and applied
laws of style to achieve desired poetic effects in the same rational-
istic way an orator might select particular means of persuasion.
Most of the great poets of antiquity, to say nothing of Dante, Spen-
ser, and Milton, observed essentially the same laws of style, but
their poetry is not often damned as being "mere" rhetoric. The
difference is that American poets of this period wrote by rule only.
Their poems were usually artifacts, sometimes constructed with
great ingenuity, but more often loosely pasted together from known
elements. Only rarely were they, like the poems of Milton, new
and original products, created by a refusion of these elements.
American poems of this period are often "mere" rhetoric in the
sense that they are mere stylistic, lacking the illumination which
can come only from a radiant inner core of poetic imagination and


rhe present study ranged perforce through several fields in estab-
lishing its conclusions, and made use of so many materials of
different kinds that a full listing would run to prohibitive length.
The footnotes to the various chapters should give a glimpse of the
sources used in the separate sections of the study. In the following
bibliographical note my intention is to describe the chief primary
sources in American poetry and literary criticism of the early na-
tional period, and to present a highly selective list of other books
which were of primary importance in completing the study.
The poetry subjected to close scrutiny was chiefly the verse of Freneau in
The Poems of Philip Freneau, Poet of the Revolution, edited by Fred L. Pattee,
Princeton, 1902-1907, 3 vols., this supplemented by The Last Poems of Philip
Freneau, edited by Lewis Leary, New Brunswick, N. J., 1946; Joel Barlow,
The Vision of Columbus, Hartford, 1787, The Hasty Pudding, New Haven,
1796, The Columbiad, Baltimore, 1807; David Humphreys, Poems by David
Humphreys, Philadelphia, 1789, The Miscellaneous Works of Colonel David
Humphreys, New York, 1790; Timothy Dwight, The Conquest of Canaan; a
Poem in Eleven Books, Hartford, 1785, The Triumph of Infidelity: a Poem,
n.p., 1788, Greenfield Hill: a Poem in Seven Parts, New York, 1794; John Trum-
bull, The Poetical Works of John Trumbull, Hartford, 1820, 2 vols.; Francis
Hopkinson, Science: a Poem, Philadelphia, 1762, The Battle of the Kegs, Phila-
delphia, 1779, Account of the Grand Federal Procession: an Ode, Philadelphia,
1788, Ode From Ossian's Poems, Philadelphia, 1794; Robert Treat Paine, The
Works in Prose and Verse of Robert Treat Paine Jun. Esq., Boston, 1812.
Cognizance was taken also of the enormous amount of ephemeral verse
published in the periodicals of the time by examining the poetry in several
of the best edited and most literary of the periodicals: The Universal Asylum
and Columbian Magazine (Philadelphia, 1786-1792); The Monthly Magazine
and American Review (New York, 1799-1800); the Port Folio (Philadelphia,
1801-1815); the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review (Boston, 1803-1811).
Anthology verse was represented by The Columbian Muse, New York, 1794,
though the verse here, as in most of the other anthologies of the time, con-
sisted chiefly of excerpts from the major poets named above.
The greater part of the literary criticism of the early national period is to
be found in the periodicals-especially those under the editorship of men of
superior literary talents, such as Joseph Dennie's Port Folio, Charles Brockden
Brown's Monthly Magazine and American Review, Matthew Carey's Universal
Asylum and Columbian Magazine, though in addition to these the entire file
of titles in the Early American Periodical Series published by University Micro-
films, Ann Arbor, Michigan, was examined. Some criticism is also to be found
in occasional volumes like Charles Prentiss' A Collection of Fugitive Essays,
Leominster, Mass., 1797; or John Blair Linn's Miscellaneous Works, Prose
and Poetical, New York, 1795. Some is to be found in addresses like John
Trumbull's Essay on the Use and Advantage of the Fine Arts . ., New Haven,
1770; some in prefaces, notes, and appended materials to poems such as



Thomas Green Fessenden's Terrible Tractoration, Boston, 1803; some in the
verse itself of such poems as John Blair Linn's The Powers of Genius. ., Phila-
delphia, 1802; some in pamphlets and published orations such as those in the
seventy-nine volumes of Woolcott Pamphlets in the Rare Book Room of the
Library of Congress; some in the prefaces and notes to American editions of
the British poets; some in the dictionaries, encyclopedias, and grammars. But
all these miscellaneous sources were found to add comparatively little to the
main corpus of critical writing in the periodicals. Two titles falling outside
the general limit of 1815 were found to be particularly valuable for general
commentary on literary matters in the early national period: Samuel Kettell,
Specimens of American Poetry, With Critical and Biographical Notices, Bos-
ton, 1829, 3 vols.; Samuel Knapp, Lectures on American Literature . ., New
York, 1829.
The following rhetorical texts, elocution manuals, readers, and critical
treatises were of chief importance during the period: Hugh Blair, Lectures on
Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, London, 1783; Henry Home, Lord Kames, Ele-
ments of Criticism, London, 1759, 2 vols.; James Burgh, The Art of Speaking
. ., London, 1761; George Campbell, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, Edinburgh,
1776; Thomas Sheridan, A Discourse Being Introductory to His Course of
Lectures on Elocution, London, 1759; John Walker, Elements of Elocution,
London, 1781; John Ward, A System of Oratory, London, 1759; John Quincy
Adams, Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory, Cambridge, Mass., 1810, 2 vols.;
Noah Webster, An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking
.., Boston, 1792; John Witherspoon, Lectures on Moral Philosophy and Elo-
quence, Philadelphia, 1810.
Many critics from the ancient world to modern times were perused in estab-
lishing workable distinctions between rhetoric and poetic. Among these were
Aristotle's Art of Poetry, edited by W. Hamilton Fyfe, Oxford, 1940, and
The Rhetoric of Aristotle, translated by Lane Cooper, New York, 1932; E. M.
Cope, An Introduction to Aristotle's Rhetoric, London, 1867; Charles S. Bald-
win, Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic, New York, 1924, and Medieval Rhetoric and
Poetic, New York, 1928; Donald L. Clark, Rhetoric and Poetry in the Renais-
sance, New York, 1922; Cicero, Brutus, translated by G. L. Henrickson, Cam-
bridge, Mass., 1931, On Oratory and Orators [De Oratore], translated and
edited by William Guthrie, rev. ed., London, 1908, and Orator, translated by
H. M. Hubbell, Cambridge, Mass., 1931; Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars
Poetics, translated by H. Rushton Fairclough (1 vol.), New York, 1929; Lon-
ginus on the Sublime, translated by W. Rhys Roberts, Cambridge, 1907; John
Stuart Mill, "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties," in Dissertations and Dis-
cussions, New York, 1874, 2 vols.; Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, translated
by H. B. Butler, London, 1932, 4 vols. The following also proved valuable:
for authoritative comment on epideictic discourse, Theodore C. Burgess, Epi-
deictic Literature, in University of Chicago Studies in Classical Philology, III
(1902), 89-261, and Edouard Norden, Die Antike Kunstprosa, Berlin, 1915;
for historical surveys of rhetorical theory, Harold F. Harding, "English Rhetori-
cal Theory, 1750-1800," unpublished dissertation, Cornell University, 1937,
William P. Sandford, English Theories of Public Address, 1530-1828, Colum-
bus, Ohio, 1929, and Warren A. Guthrie, "The Development of Rhetorical
Theory in America, 1635-1850," unpublished dissertation, Northwestern Uni-
versity, 1940; for studies of the impact of the Scottish rhetoricians upon Amer-
ican poets and critics, William Charvat, The Origins of American Critical
Thought 1810-1835, Philadelphia, 1936, and Leon Howard, The Connecticut
Wits, Chicago, 1943.

by Gordon E. Bigelow

University of Florida Monographs
No. 4, Spring 1960



Cicero continued to be a part of the regular training, both the
Orations and the De Oratore being translated methodically day by
day. Much of Demosthenes and Quintilian was absorbed in the
same way. One important phase of speechmaking in the early col-
leges consisted in formal disputations in Latin, which dealt with
subjects like those with which Milton had wrestled in the Prolusions:
"Whether day is more excellent than night," "Is mankind advancing
to a state of perfectability?" "Are all mankind descended from one
pair?" By 1800 disputations had been replaced by other exercises,
such as forensic debates, with every student required to take part
several times a year, in some instances once a month. In addition
to this, each class gathered in the chambers of its tutor at least
one morning a week to declaim prepared speeches which usually
were memorized excerpts from famous English and American ora-
tions or selections from the standard English poets. A student of
poetic bent might compose a poem of his own to be delivered
before the class at such times.38
Students pursued rhetorical studies not only in school but during
leisure hours as well. The "literary" societies may have been more
influential in developing speaking ability than the formal studies.
John Blair Linn wrote in 1795 that "the benefits which youth re-
ceive from societies established for literary purposes are consider-
able. There are so many institutions formed from this motive now
existing that the love of them seems to be prevalent in the breast of
every youth. .. The particular objects which these societies pursue
are composition, verbal debates, and oratory."39 These societies
usually went in pairs, originally differentiated by their political
views. At Princeton there were the American Whig and the Clioso-
phic societies, at Harvard the Hasty Pudding and the Speaking
clubs, and between these campus groups there was as lively a spirit
of rivalry as between party groups in the national political scene.
By the 1790's most of the political coloring of these societies had
disappeared, though rivalry, based now on fraternity spirit, re-
mained as keen as ever.40 Many of the peculiar characteristics of
38. For a "poetic" account of the schoolboy orator, see George E. Hastings,
The Life and Works of Francis Hopkinson (Chicago, 1926), p. 84. For another
glimpse of such speechmaking see Francis Hopkinson, Miscellaneous Essays
and Occasional Writings (Philadelphia, 1792), II, 35.
39. Miscellaneous Works, Prose and Poetical (New York, 1795), pp. 39-42.
40. For discussions of the literary societies see Jacob N. Beam, The Ameri-
can Whig Society of Princeton University (Princeton, 1933), especially pp. 126-








No. 1 (Spring 1959): The Uncollected Letters of
James Gates Percival
Edited by Harry R. Warfel

No. 2 (Fall 1959): Leigh Hunt's Autobiography
The Earliest Sketches
Edited by Stephen F. Fogle

No. 3 (Winter 1960): Pause Patterns in
Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama
By Ants Oras

No. 4 (Spring 1960): Rhetoric and American
Poetry of the Early National Period
By Gordon E. Bigelow

University of Florida Home Page
© 2004 - 2011 University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries.
All rights reserved.

Acceptable Use, Copyright, and Disclaimer Statement
Last updated May 24, 2011 - Version 3.0.0 - mvs