Thursday, August 19, 2010

Timothy Dwight: Short Bio

I was looking through an old book entitled, Selections from Early American Writers, 1607-1800, edited by William B. Cairns, and published by the MacMillan Company in 1910, when I accidentally came across the poem "Columbia," by Timothy Dwight. It consists of six eight-line stanzas with 11 syllables per line. The last stanza of the poem is used in "Murillo's Lesson," page 358 in The Sacred Harp. According to Cairns, the following version is from the "Columbian Muse" (New York, 1794): Columbia.

Timothy Dwight was one of the more famous "Hartford Wits," a group of Connecticut men who were associated I literary work during and after the Revolution. They held strong Federalist leanings and satirized the political scene. Dwight was born May 14, 1752 in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. During his early years, he was educated by his mother, a daughter of the famous preacher, Jonathan Edwards. He was said to have learned the alphabet in one lesson, and was reading the Bible by age four. At age thirteen he entered Yale College, from which he graduated in 1769. He was a tutor at Yale from 1771-1777. For one year he was chaplain in the Continental Army, after which he tried farming and teaching, and served a single term in the Massachusetts State Legislature. In 1783, he was ordained and became pastor of the Congregational Church at Greenfield Hill in Fairfield, Connecticut. From 1795 to 1817, the year of his death, Dwight was president at Yale College, in addition to teaching ethics, literature, logic, metaphysics, oratory, and theology. He also served as the college chaplain. While president at Yale, he modernized the curriculum, fought religious apathy, and led in the "Little Great Awakening."

Many writings of Timothy Dwight were published - many of them bring on religious and theological subjects. "Columbia," a song written while he was chaplain in the army, circa 1778, and which suggests his idea that America would be the seat of God's kingdom and Americans its saints, was popular for a long time. "The Conquest of Canaan," a poem first published in 1785, was said to have been written in 1774, but some references to Revolutionary battles must have been inserted after these events took place, and it is likely that the poem was revised before it was published. Some critics believe it is the first American epic poem. "Greenfield Hill," a poem in seven parts, appeared in 1794. It was intended that each part should be in the manner of some popular English poet. This plan was abandoned, but the imitation is still obvious. In 1797, Dwight published a bitter verse satire called "The Triumph of Infidelity," which was probably drawn from his resistance to post-Revolutionary deism and infidelity.

In 1801, he made a revision of Isaac Watts' Psalms, popularly called Dwight's Watts. In it appears 33 hymns of his own. One of these is Psalm 137, which is used in The Sacred Harp, 1992 Cooper Revision-"I Love Thy Kingdom," page 448. In Hymns of Our Faith, William Reynolds suggests that this is "the earliest American hymn with remains in common usage."

As a writer of verse, "Dwight had command of a small but intense poetic vocabulary" and produced many lines in imitation of the 18th century English poets. According to Cairns, "he was deficient in a sense of humor, and in real poetic insight, and little of his work can truly be called poetry."

Dwight died January 11, 1817 in New Haven, Connecticut. One of Yale's residential colleges, Timothy Dwight College, built in 1935, is named after him.

(Originally published in the May/June 1997 issue of Away Here in Texas).

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