J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, March 25, 2016

“At distance, thou, Columbia! view thy Prince”

Here at last is the poem whose authorship I’ve been considering, the one numbered XXIX in the Boston publication Pietas et Gratulatio Collegii Cantabrigiensis apud Novanglus.

As you recall, the two goals of that book were to:
  • praise King George III and his bride, Queen Charlotte (shown here), and
  • demonstrate how Harvard College graduates could create poetry in Latin, Greek, and English at the same level as scholars from Oxford or Cambridge.
Unfortunately, the result was still pre-Romantic, non-satirical eighteenth-century poetry.
Tho’ from thy happy shores, Britannia! far
Remov’d, where Phoebus slopes his golden orb
Down western sky, to Europe; while high Noon,
From midst his radiant path, on us he pours:
Yet, sharing in the noble British vein,
We feel, and, feeling, sing the common bliss;
Bliss wide diffus’d thro’ Britain’s wide domain,
And swelling in each breast to ecstasy.

Hence, jarring discord, tumults, carnage, wars;
Embattled nations! cease a while to deal
Destruction; Peace! on balmy wings, descend;
Let Hymen and the Paphian Goddess hold
Imperial sway, soft’ning each heart to love.

Behold, Britannia! in thy favour’d Isle;
At distance, thou, Columbia! view thy Prince,
For ancestors renown’d, for virtues more;
At whose sole nod, grim tyranny aghast,
With grudging strides, hies swift from British climes;
While liberty undaunted rears her head:
Whose mind superior bears, as Atlas Heav’n,
The weight of kingdoms; and with equal ease,
As some Intelligence, of order high,
Directs yon circling orbs, by laws exact,
Th’ unweildy empire guides thro’ mazy paths:---
Made happy.--How? By nuptial tie.--With whom?
Thy Pride, Germania! whom to form combine
The Graces all, and all fair virtue’s train.
Whate’er ennobles or adorns the Fair,
Of line, of form, of wit, of sense, unite
Their lovliest charms, and centre all in Her.
For such a Prince the only Princess meet;
Of such a Princess worthy only He!
Can heart conceive, imagination paint,
Or fancy frame more finish’d happiness
Below?—Ye Powers above! your blessings shed,
And genial influence, on the royal Pair.
From such embrace, a progeny of kings
Shall rise, to rule the world, and bless mankind.

Long let Britannia’s Prince, in wisdom's lore
Deep read, with sapient hand her sceptre wield;
Long may his other self, with converse mild,
With looks with air, with port, that whisper love,
Speak sweetness to his heart ineffable,
Sooth all his cares, and foretaste give of Heav’n.
A number of literary scholars say this poem was the earliest English use of “Columbia” as a term for America.

I’ve found a couple of earlier examples of “Columbia” in the Archive of Americana database, but they’re not so straightforward as this one. On 30 Nov 1741 the Boston Evening-Post reprinted an item from the Gentleman’s Magazine:
The SPEECH of his Grace the Duke of A[rgy]le, on the Motion made in the H[ou]se of L[or]ds, for addressing his Majesty to dismiss the Rt. Hon. Sir R. W[alpol]e; for as it relates to the Management of the War. Note, Columbia must be taken for America, Lilliput for Eng[lan]d, Iberians for Spani[ar]ds, and Grablitra for Gibr[alta]r.
Publishing Parlimentary addresses, especially any that contained critical remarks, was still legally iffy then. The word “Columbia” offered pseudonymous protection for the printers and/or the duke, much like the letters replaced with hyphens. And that term was still unfamiliar enough to readers that the article required a key for understanding.

The term’s next American appearance came in 1749 when Dr. William Douglass (best known for opposing Dr. Zabdiel Boylston and the Rev. Cotton Mather’s effort to introduce smallpox inoculation to Boston) published A Summary, Historical and Political, of the First Planting, Progressive Improvements, and Present State of the British Settlements in North-America. That book suggested that “Columbia” would be a better name for the continent than “America” since Columbus had discovered it for Europe. Again, the term came with an explanation, not just appearing as a parallel to “Britannia” and “Germania.”

So whoever wrote Pietas et Gratulatio’s poem XXIX indeed introduced a term into the American language.

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