Poetry: The Quest for an American Epic

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Poetry: The Quest for an American Epic


Background. American poets of the early republican era hoped to write a great American epic to consecrate their ancestors accomplishments and give the nation a heroic past, just as Homer and Virgil had done for ancient Greece and Rome. Because the epic also represented the ultimate mark of cultural achievement, the writing of a successful American epic would conclusively put to rest doubts about the nations cultural maturity and contribute to the future progress of the nation.

Barlows Epic. Joel Barlow made the most ambitious and sustained attempt to realize these aspirations in his epic poem The Columbiad (1807), a revised version of his

earlier poem The Vision of Columbus (1787). Barlow intended The Vision of Columbus to be a philosophic poem about Columbuss discovery of America and its consequences. By giving a panoramic account of American history he sought to prove that the discovery of America had been beneficial to mankind and that American history was a crucial stage in human progress toward a world of peace and harmony, united in one great empire. Stressing Gods active intervention in this process and emphasizing the importance of religion to social order, this version of Barlows epic conformed to the conservative social outlook of the Connecticut Wits.

Radical Revisions. Yet Barlow followed a different political path from his fellow Connecticut Wits, growing progressively more radical in his political and religious views. This transformation coincided with Barlows sojourn in Europe (17881804). While in France and England he came under the influence of radical political thinkers such as William Godwin and Thomas Paine and became an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. As a result he abandoned the hierarchical social perspective of the Connecticut Wits in favor of a democratic and egalitarian political outlook, and his revisions to The Vision of Columbus reflect this transformation in his viewpoint. For the fifth edition, published in 1793, Barlow substantially revised the poem to reflect his changing religious and political views, and he virtually rewrote The Vision of Columbus for The Columbiad, in which his efforts to make his work accessible to readers reflect his democratic sympathies. The Columbiad also revealed his turn to deism, portraying humans themselves as the agents of American development and progress and reducing religion to a secondary role.

The Columbiad. The change in title signaled Barlows epic intentions, as the word Columbiad evokes the ancient epics of Homer and Virgil, the Iliad and Aeneid. While Barlow sought to emulate the ancients, however, he also thought that his epic would supersede the ancient epics and remedy their moral failings. He particularly criticized Homer and Virgil for encouraging militarism and tyranny instead of sharing his desire to encourage 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 aliment of future and permanent meliorations in the condition of human nature. Believing that the safety of republican institutions depended not on military glory but on artistic achievements like his own work, Barlow urged, This is the moment in America to give such a direction to poetry, painting and the other fine arts, that true and useful ideas of glory may be implanted in the minds of men here, to take place of the false and destructive ones that have degraded the species in other countries.


Emory Elliott, Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic, 17251810 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982);

Elliott, ed., American Writers of the Early Republic, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 37 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1985);

Arthur L. Ford, Joel Barlow (New York: Twayne, 1971);

Kenneth Silverman, A Cultural History of the American Revolution (New York: Crowell, 1976).