- Poetry Wars: Verse and Politics in the American Revolution and Early Republic by Colin Wells
With his comprehensive study of political poetry from the American Revolution through the War of 1812, Colin Wells foregrounds a body of writing not often given extended treatment by literary scholars, but one which, as he superbly demonstrates, played an influential role in shaping the cultural and political landscape of the nation's turbulent, but formative, early years. Like Eric Slauter's groundbreaking The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution (U of Chicago P, 2009), which drew on the wealth of early American texts now available in online databases to deepen, and in many ways transform, our understanding of the relationship between political life and political ideas in the early Republic, Poetry Wars unearths a trove of poems published in partisan newspapers and other print outlets to reveal the intricate ideological and rhetorical dynamics at work in the political debates that shaped the new nation and the active role that poetry played in them. He therefore makes a persuasive [End Page 999] case that poetry, despite W. H. Auden's later assertion to the contrary, does, in fact, make things happen.
To understand the nature and depth of poetry's influence in the early Republic, Wells argues that we must first revise our conception of "political poetry" itself. Rather than seeing it as "merely a subset of early American poetry that happens to be characterized by its political content," he contends that it must be treated "as a genre or cultural form in its own right, with its own origin, history, and implicit aesthetics" (3)—a perspective, Wells contends, that has been difficult to achieve due to the enduring veneration of lyric poetry that began with the New Critics. That interpretive dynamic has "left little room for appreciating a body of poems whose meaning depended on the manifold contexts that surrounded their subject matter, origin, and dissemination" (4). By combining masterful close reading with an informed literary-historical approach that allows him to situate individual poems within a nexus of regional, national, and transatlantic contexts, Wells helpfully illuminates how "the meaning of one poem arises chiefly from its capacity to evoke and transform other linguistic forms, through allusion or parody or some other strategy of 'speaking back' to one or more targeted texts circulating in public" (4–5). Whether it was colonial poets satirizing royal proclamations at the onset of the American Revolution or members of rival emerging political parties attacking the policies or patriotism of their opponents in the first decades of the Republic, Wells demonstrates that these discursive battles routinely featured "poets vying for ideological victory" (7) as they attempted to assert linguistic authority and to undermine that of their political (and literary) antagonists in an ongoing series of battles for the national imagination.
The chapters in Wells's study are organized chronologically but also thematically as he traces how poetry and political life evolved in tandem, allowing the reader to follow that line of development without getting lost amid the vast array of poems and poetics forms he examines. In chapters 1 and 2, he depicts the early literary skirmishes that would eventually give way to all-out poetic warfare as American colonists challenged the official proclamations of British authority figures by publishing poetic parodies in a practice known as "versification" (19). These satirical poems eschewed "traditional poetic technique" (24) in order to lampoon the official-sounding language of such royal pronouncements, thus undercutting the authority—both political and linguistic—on which such proclamations [End Page 1000] inherently rested by portraying them "as 'mere' language." In doing so, these "versifiers" were also "constructing a critical audience representing the public at large" (27)—a dynamic that informed other "populist mode[s]" (39) of political poetry such as the "carrier's address," in which a fictional "newsboy" speaks to the readers of his newspaper. As Wells shows, this form took on increasingly political dimensions when, in response to the Stamp...