Monday, August 22, 2011

Dwight's Optimism, and Our Own

Henry Adams, in his overview of the United States in 1800, quotes the work of Timothy Dwight, later to be president of Yale, as the author of an epic poem of 11 books and near 10,000 lines, entitled "The Conquest of Canaan:"

    "Then o'er wide lands, as blissful Eden bright,
         Type of the skies, and seats of pure delight,
         Our sons with prosperous course shall stretch their sway,
         And claim an empire spread from sea to sea;
         In one great whole th' harmonious tribes combine,
         Trace Justice' path, and choose their chiefs divine;
         On Freedom's base erect the heavenly plan,
         Teach laws to reign, and save the Rights of Man.
         Then smiling Art shall wrap the fields in bloom,
         Fine the rich ore, and guide the useful loom;
         Then lofty towers in golden pomp arise,
         Then spiry cities meet auspicious skies;
         The soul on Wisdom's wing sublimely soar,
         New virtues cherish and new truths explore;
         Through Time's long tract our name celestial run,
         Climb in the east and circle with the sun;
         And smiling Glory stretch triumphant wings
         O'er hosts of heroes and o'er tribes of kings." 

Dwight wrote this about 1775.  Adams wonders if Dwight would have exuded the same optimism a quarter century later.
Perhaps in the year 1800, after Jefferson's triumph, Dwight would have been less eager that his hero should save the Rights of Man; by that time the phrase had acquired a flavor of French infidelity which made it unpalatable to good taste.
Link.  A more contemporary question would be--forget about the Augustan verse-form, can we imagine any American poet of any age exuding the same kind of optimism today?  Or indeed, any poet of any nation?

1 comment:

Ken Houghton said...

John Hollander.

Maybe W. S. Merwin.

Probably not consistently, but Jorie Graham.

That's top of my head; Mike Dirda, I'm certain, could expand the list.