I learned that Joel Barlow began as a chaplain to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and ended as a Liberal who supported the French Revolution and dreamed of global government. He was a personal friend of both Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. Maybe some day I will read EVERY LINE of his Columbiad.
The Columbiad versifies about geological evidence contrary to the Christian creation story, describes the secular apocalypse that will come if Americans fail to emancipate their slaves, and ends with representatives of the major religions discarding the symbols of their faith to join into a one world-governing council, based in a crystal palace in Mesopotamia.
The British reviewer cited above tries to label Barlow as having become an atheist in the later stages of his life. Reading from the last book of The Columbiad it seems doubtful to me. And yet the Aquila Report confirms this idea and holds Barlow up as America’s first acclaimed atheist in the public sphere.
Regardless of his beliefs and values, I still love Barlow’s poetry though I appear to be going against the current on that one. I love his use of lyrically obscure vocabulary. I love his broad range of pan-continental and environmental imagery. I love his lists of tributary rivers, empires, natural phenomena, kingdoms and historical personages. His poetry gets me very high.
But his global optimism and his sense of inevitable moral progress is so pronounced that it is depressing—to contrast his lofty humanist dream of the world’s future to yesterday’s news is too much of a disjuncture. Barlow thought America was destined to democratically guide the nations of the world into a global republic based on reason and moral restraint. What would he say today? How far off was his vision?
The end of this 9-volume poem has lots of gold to mine. His verse begs to be satirized, I know, but I still love it. Just because we have degenerated to the point that we lack appreciation for his work does not detract from its quality.
Poetically, Barlow set the bar quite high:
Thus Physic Science, with exploring eyes,
First o’er the nations bids her beauties rise,
Prepares the glorious way to pour abroad
Her Sister’s brighter beams, the purest light of God.
Then Moral Science leads the lively mind
Thro broader fields and pleasures more refined;
Teaches the temper’d soul, at one vast view,
To glance o’er time and look existence thro,
See worlds and worlds, to being’s formless end,
With all their hosts on her prime power depend,
Seraphs and suns and systems, as they rise,
Live in her life and kindle from her eyes,
Her cloudless ken, her all-pervading soul
Illume, sublime and harmonize the whole;
Teaches the pride of man its breadth to bound
In one small point of this amazing round,
To shrink and rest where nature fixt its fate,
A line its space, a moment for its date;
Instructs the heart an ampler joy to taste,
And share its feelings with each human breast,
Expand its wish to grasp the total kind
Of sentient soul, of cogitative mind;
Till mutual love commands all strife to cease,
And earth join joyous in the songs of peace.
Thus heard Columbus, eager to behold
The famed Apocalypse its years unfold;
The soul stood speaking thro his gazing eyes,
And thus his voice: Oh let the visions rise!
Command, celestial Guide, from each far pole,
John’s vision’d morn to open on my soul,
And raise the scenes, by his reflected light,
Living and glorious to my longing sight.
Let heaven unfolding show the eternal throne,
And all the concave flame in one clear sun;
On clouds of fire, with angels at his side,
The Prince of Peace, the King of Salem ride,
With smiles of love to greet the bridal earth,
Call slumbering ages to a second birth,
With all his white-robed millions fill the train,
And here commence the interminable reign!