David Humphreys (1752-1818)

From The Sonnet in American Literature

The first American sonneteer seems to have been Colonel David Humphreys, who was born in Derby, Connecticut, in 1752, and who died in New Haven in 1818. He was graduated from Yale with Barlow, Dwight, and Trumbull in 1771 entered the army at the beginning of the Revolutionary War in July, 1776, and in 1780 became a colonel and aide-de-camp to General Washington. Later he went abroad with Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson to negotiate commercial treaties. Still later, 1791-1797, he was minister to Lisbon, and from then on until 1802, minister to Madrid.

Colonel Humphreys wrote twelve irregular Sonnets, eight of them occasional in theme. They are found in his Miscellaneous Works, N.Y., 1804. In a prefatory note to these Sonnets he says:

Upon lately looking over my papers I found a few sonnets which recalled to recollection some of the feelings with which they were written. It is presumed, the dates and titles will generally point out what shall be sufficient to be known respecting these compositions, without illustration.
---New Haven, November, 1802. ["Miscellaneous Works," N.Y., 1804, p. 232]

These dates can be quite accurately ascertained, by the evidence of the first and last of the twelve Sonnets, as falling between July, 1776, and the end of 1799 or the beginning of 1800. Sonnet I, here reprinted, was written at the time of his enlistment.

His buoyant enthusiasm fired his poetic imagination, and as he was leaving to join the army, he addressed [this] sonnet to his college friends at New Haven, with whom he had spent many companionable hours since his school-teaching days.
---[Frank Landon Humphreys: "The Life and Times of David Humphreys," N.Y., 1917, Vol. I, p. 57]

Sonnet XII, also reprinted, is an elegy written at the death of General Washington, and must have been written shortly after that event, December 14, 1799.

From Madrid, February 22, 1800, he wrote a letter of condolence to Lady Washington, and also read a poem (not the sonnet in question). . . to an appreciative audience of Spanish Grandees at the American Embassy. [Ibid., Vol. II, p. 266]

Sonnet I

Addressed to my Friends at Yale College, on my Leaving them to join the Army.

Adieu! thou Yale! where youthful poets dwell,
No more I linger by thy classic stream.
Inglorious ease and sportive songs farewell!
Thou startling clarion! break the sleeper's dream!
And sing, ye bards! the war-inspiring theme.
Heard ye the din of battle? clang of arms?
Saw ye the steel 'mid starry banners beam?
Quick throbs my breast at war's untried alarms,
Unknown pulsations stirr'd by glory's charms.
While dear Columbia calls, no danger awes,
Though certain death to threaten'd chains be join'd.
Though fails this flesh devote to freedom's cause,
Can death subdue th' unconquerable mind?
Or adamantine chains ethereal substance bind?

Sonnet V

On Life

Ere we can think of time--the moment's past--
And straight another since that thought began:
So swift each instant mingles with the last,
The flying now exists--no more for man.
With consciousness suspended ev'n by sleep,
To what this phantom, life, then likest seems?
Say thou! whose doubtful being (lost in dreams)
Allows the wilder'd but to wake and weep,
So thoughtless hurried to th' eternal deep!
'Tis like a moon-light vision's airy shade,
A bubble driving down the deep beneath
Then, ere the bubble burst, the vision fade,
Dissolv'd in air this evanescent breath!
Let man, not mortal, learn true life begins at death.

Sonnet XII

On Receiving the News of the Death of General Washington

Hark! friends! what sobs of sorrow, moans of grief,
On every gale, through every region spread!
Hark! how the western world bewails our chief,
Great Washington, his country's father dead!
Our living light expiring with his breath
His bright example still illumes our way
Through the dark valley of thy shadow, death!
To realms on high of life without decay.
Faint, he relied on heav'nly help alone
While conscience cheer'd th' inevitable hour;
When fades the glare of grandeur, pomp of pow'r,
And all the pageantry that gems a throne:
Then from his hallow'd track, who shall entice
Columbia's sons to tread the paths of vice?

return to sonnet central return to American 19th century sonnets