John Trumbull: Contribution as American Poet

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      John Trumbull (1750-1831)—The greatest of the Hartford wits was John Trumbull. His father, a Congregational clergyman living at Waterbury, Connecticut, prepared boys for college. In 1757 he sent two candidates to Yale to be examined, one pupil of nineteen, the other of seven. Commenting on this, the Connecticut Gazette of September 24, 1757, says, "the Son of Rev'd. Mr. Trumble of Waterbury … passed a good Examination, altho but little more than seven years of age; but on account of his Youth his father does not intend he shall at present continue at College." This boy waited until he was thirteen to enter Yale, where he graduated in due course. After teaching for two years in that college, he became a lawyer by profession. Although he did not die until 1831, the literary work by which he is known was finished early.

John Trumbull
John Trumbull

      John Trumbull was a leader who entered the university of Yale at thirteen. He graduated in 1767, received his M.A. in 1709, stayed as a tutor. His interest in literature as an enjoyable humanizing force led him to agitate for the ventilation of Yale’s stuffy curriculum by introducing the study of English letters modern languages and rhetoric. His masterpiece The Progress of Dullness (1873) is our first satire on the graves of academics, subject now much in fashion. He studied the Law under John Adams attended the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, went back to Hartford in 1781, practiced law, entered politics, and became a justice in the Connecticut’s supreme court. His other works are - As Essay on the Use and Advantages of the Fine Arts (1770), An Essay on the Death of Mr. Buckingham St John (1771) and M’Fingal (1782). Besides music, there is a lot of patriotic fervor in Trumbull’s poetry.

      Trumbull occupied the front rank of the satiric writers of that age. Early in his twenties he satirized in classical couplets the education of the day, telling how the students:—

  "Read ancient authors o'er in vain,
  Nor taste one beauty they contain,
  And plodding on in one dull tone,
  Gain ancient tongues and lose their own."

      His masterpiece was a satire on British sympathizers. He called this poem M'Fingal, after a Scotch Tory. The first part was published in 1775 and it gave a powerful impetus to the Continental cause. It has been said that the poem "is to be considered as one of the forces of the Revolution, because as a satire on the Tories it penetrated into every farmhouse, and sent the rustic volunteers laughing into the ranks of Washington and Greene."

      One cannot help thinking of Butler's Hudibras (1663), when reading M'Fingal. Of course the satiric aim is different in the two poems. Butler ridiculed the Puritans and upheld the Royalists, while Trumbull discharged his venomed shafts at the adherents of the king. In M'Fingal, a Tory bent on destroying a liberty pole drew his sword on a Whig, who had no arms except a spade. The Whig, however, employed his weapon with such good effect on the Tory that:—

  "His bent knee fail'd, and void of strength,
  Stretch'd on the ground his manly length.
  Like ancient oak, o'erturn'd, he lay,
  Or tower to tempests fall'n a prey,
  Or mountain sunk with all his pines,
  Or flow'r the plough to dust consigns,
  And more things else—but all men know 'em,
  If slightly versed in epic poem."

      Some of the incisive lines from M'Fingal have been wrongly ascribed to Butler's Hudibras. The following are instances:—

  "No man e'er felt the halter draw
  With good opinion of the law."
  "For any man with half an eye
  What stands before him may espy;
  But optics sharp it needs, I ween,
  To see what is not to be seen."

      Trumbull's M'Fingal is a worthy predecessor of Lowell's Biglow Papers. Trumbull wrote his poem as a "weapon of warfare." The first part of M'Fingal passed through some forty editions, many of them printed without the author's consent. This fact is said to have led Connecticut to pass a copyright law in 1783, and to have thus constituted a landmark in American literary history.

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