Post-Columbiad: Barlow’s High Bar

Joel B

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 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, since true atheists don’t use this type of language. 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. He really 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? How far have we fallen and how much further is the descent ?

The end of this 9-volume poem has lots of gold to mine. This stuff 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 verse 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
Liberté
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!

from: The Columbiad, Book IX by Joel Barlow

I Guard the Flying Rear

Juaneco y su comboPERÚ

Now the Peruvians, in collected might,
With one wide stroke had wing’d the savage flight
But their bright Godhead, in his midday race,
With glooms unusual veil’d his radiant face,
Quench’d all his beams, tho cloudless, in affright,
As loth to view from heaven the finish’d fight.
A trembling twilight o’er the welkin moves,
Browns the dim void, and darkens deep the groves;
The waking stars, embolden’d at the sight,
Peep out and gem the anticipated night…
When pious Capac to the listening crowd
Raised high his wand and pour’d his voice aloud:
Ye chiefs and warriors of Peruvian race,
Some sore offence obscures my father’s face;
What moves the Numen to desert the plain,
Nor save his children, nor behold them slain?
Fly! speed your course, regain the guardian town,
Ere darkness shroud you in a deeper frown;
The faithful walls your squadrons shall defend,
While my sad steps the sacred dome ascend,
To learn the cause, and ward the woes we fear:
Haste, haste, my sons! I guard the flying rear…

excerpt from: The Columbiad, Book III  by Joel Barlow

Inca Eclipse

Quito Rears Her Fanes…

Grupo Deseo: ECUADOR

The clime where Quito since hath rear’d her fanes,
And now no more her barbarous rites maintains.
He saw these vales in richer blooms array’d,
And tribes more numerous haunt the woodland shade…

Yet softer fires his daring views control,
And mixt emotions fill his changing soul.
Shall genius rare, that might the world improve,
Bend to the milder voice of careless love,
That bounds his glories, and forbids to part
From bowers that woo’d his fluctuating heart?
Or shall the toils imperial heroes claim
Fire his brave bosom with a patriot flame,Prisoners-of-Sun-inca-dream
Bid sceptres wait him on Peruvia’s shore,
And loved Oella meet his eyes no more?

Sudden his near approach the maid alarms;
He flew enraptured to her yielding arms,
And lost, dissolving in a softer flame,
His distant empire and the fire of fame.
At length, retiring thro the homeward field,
Their glowing souls to cooler converse yield;
O’er various scenes of blissful life they ran,
When thus the warrior to the maid began:
Long have we mark’d the inauspicious reignCapac round
That waits our sceptre in this rough domain;
A soil ungrateful and a wayward race,
Their game but scanty, and confined their space.
Where late my steps the southern war pursued,
The fertile plains grew boundless as I view’d;
More numerous nations trod the grassy wild,
And joyous nature more delightful smiled…

 

The Argument: Natives of America appear in vision.
Their manners and characters. Columbus demands the cause of the dissimilarity of men in different countries, Hesper replies, That the human body is composed of a due proportion of the elements suited to the place of its first formation; that these elements, differently proportioned, produce all the changes of health, sickness, growth and decay; and may likewise produce any other changes which occasion the diversity of men; that these elemental proportions are varied, not more by climate than temperature and other local circumstances; that the mind is likewise in a state of change, and will take its physical character from the body and from external objects: examples. Inquiry concerning the first peopling of America.

excerpts from: The Columbiad, Book II  by Joel Barlow

Princesas

The Rival Seats of Rich Peru

Los hijos del sol: PERÚ

To yon dim rounds first elevate thy view;
See Quito’s plains o’erlook their proud Peru;
On whose huge base, like isles amid sky driven,
A vast protuberance props the cope of heaven;
Earth’s loftiest turrets there contend for height,
And all our Andes fill the bounded sight.
From south to north what long blue swells arise,
Built thro the clouds, and lost in ambient skies!
Approaching slow they heave expanding bounds,
The yielding concave bends sublimer rounds;
Whose wearied stars, high curving to the west,
Pause on the summits for a moment’s rest;
Recumbent there they renovate their force,
And roll rejoicing on their downward course.
Round each bluff base the sloping ravine bends;
Hills forms on hills, and croupe o’er croupe extends;
Ascending, whitening, how the crags are lost,
O’erhung with headcliffs of eternal frost!
Broad fields of ice give back the morning ray,
Like walls of suns, or heaven’s perennial day…

[from: The Columbiad, Book I , by Joel Barlow, published in 1807]

Now to yon southern cities turn thy view,
And mark the rival seats of rich Peru.
See Quito’s airy plains, exalted high,
Capac IncaWith loftier temples rise along the sky;
And elder Cusco’s shining roofs unfold,
Flame on the day, and shed their suns of gold…
Where the brave roll of Incas love to trace
The distant father of their realm and race,
Immortal Capac. He, in youthful pride,
With young Oella his illustrious bride,
Announced their birth divine; a race begun
From heaven, the children of their God the Sun…

[from: The Columbiad , Book II , by Joel Barlow]

Could but her sacred name, unknown so long,
Rise, like her labors, to the son of song,
To her, to them, I’d consecrate my lays,
And blow her pudding with the breath of praise.
If ’twas Oella, whom I sang before,
I here ascribe her one great virtue more.
Not through the rich Peruvian realms alone
The fame of Sol’s sweet daughter should be known,
But o’er the world’s wide climes should live secure,
Far as his rays extend, as long as they endure…

[from:The Hasty Pudding, by Joel Barlow, published in 1796]
inca princess