- Joel Barlow's Miltonic Epic and Western Directional Poetics
Joel Barlow's epic poem The Columbiad (1807) remains a curiosity of American literature.1 It has been unfairly maligned as derivative and jingoistic, and largely relegated to the dustbin of literary history along with various other early American works.2 No one could argue for the epic's aesthetic superiority over a text like John Milton's Paradise Lost. Yet, I would maintain that The Columbiad cleverly appropriates political, theological, and aesthetic themes from the earlier poem and refashions them in a specifically "American" manner. It does this with a heavy reliance on the classical trope of translatio studii et imperii. By emphasizing a certain geographic western orientation, the text takes part in a literary trope that I call "western directional poetics."3 That Milton had a central role in early American literature and politics has been widely commented on in scholarship.4 Barlow explicitly returned to Milton's literary sources to make a teleological argument on behalf of America's providential role in world history. Throughout The Columbiad Barlow cannily developed his own secular political theology from the Nonconformist Protestant thought of Milton.
The Columbiad is an important Miltonic expression of a particular strain of American radical republicanism and American [End Page 87] exceptionality. Barlow's debt to Milton is evident in part in the descriptions of paradise that appear in The Columbiad. What is even more important, the influence of Milton on Barlow is also seen in the narrative relationship between the characters of Columbus and Hesper, who are functionally equivalent to Adam and the archangel Michael in Paradise Lost. Finally, I argue that the relationship between Columbus and Hesper takes part in the previously mentioned textual phenomenon of "directional poetics," which is something that I claim is implicit in Milton and explicit in Barlow.
"Directional poetics" is the tendency of certain texts to endow a particular cardinal direction with a transcendent significance. The significance of any particular direction depends on how it is being deployed in a given text and, more broadly, across a tradition. North, south, east, and west can all signify different concepts across different texts; directional poetics offers a critical vocabulary to conceptualize more precisely the central place that directional spatiality has in literature. The west is often associated in Anglo-American literature with concepts such as manifest destiny, imperialism, progress, and even apocalypse. This "western" discourse is often assumed to originate in nineteenth century American literature, but I argue that the discourse goes back to the earliest era of New World colonialism.5 It is this early "western directional poetic" to which Milton alludes and which Barlow in his appropriation of Milton makes explicit in The Columbiad. In short, directional poetics is written throughout the text of The Columbiad, drawing from similar but more subtle evocations in Paradise Lost.
The Columbiad provides an important perspective on early American radical politics, the relationship of early American literary culture to its cultural antecedents, and the appropriation of Milton to a particularly American vision during the revolutionary and early republican periods, when the United States attempted to exert itself as a particular polity whose destiny was in the greater Western Hemisphere. Christopher Kendrick writes, "Barlow's description of the American landscape at the beginning of his epic conducts in context a searching engagement with Milton's poem," [End Page 88] and in this engagement Barlow offered one vision of American political theology.6 My essay demonstrates that Barlow's literary innovation was to marshal Milton's narrative tropes in the service of an argument about the United States' teleological role based on its western directionality. In doing so, Barlow subverts Milton's distinction between the prelapsarian and postlapsarian worlds to present a paradisal America, and thus to make a nationalist, political, commercial, and religious argument about the arrival of a new world order in the form of the United States of America. Barlow's claim about American exceptionality in The Columbiad hence functions as a type of "Paradise Found." What was precisely evocative about Paradise Lost to Barlow was Milton's "Americanness," a quality I will explore at greater length below.