John Blair Linn.

Valerian : a narrative poem, intended in part to describe the early persecutions of Christians, and rapidly to illustrate the influence of Christianity on the manners of nations online

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JOHN BLAIR LINN was descended from ancestors who originally came from the
British islands. They appear to have been emigrants at an early period, and to have
given their descendants as just a claim to the title of American, as the nature of things
will allow any civilized inhabitant of the United States to acquire.

His name bears testimony to the paternal and maternal stock from which he
sprung. His great-grandfather, William Linn, was an emigrant from Ireland, who
settled land in the wilderness of Pennsylvania, and whose eldest son, William, was the
father of a numerous family, of whom the present Dr. William Linn was the eldest.

The father of John Blair Linn received a careful education, which his family
enabled him to complete at the college at Princeton. He was trained to the ministry,
in the presbyterian church, and married, at an early age, Rebecca Blair, the third
daughter of the Reverend John Blair. Her brother and uncle were likewise clergy
men, and the family were eminently distinguished by their knowledge and piety.

Their eldest son, John Blair Linn, was born in Shippensburg, in Pennsylvania,
March 14, 1777, at no great distance from the spot at which his father first drew




breath, and where his great-grandfather first established his residence in this new
world. The humble dwelling which was first erected in the forest still existed, at a
small distance from that town, and continued, for a considerable time after this, to be
inhabited by his great-grandfather, who lived upwards of a hundred years.

It is impossible for his survivors to recount the earliest incidents of his life ;
to trace the first indications of future character and genius ; or enumerate the little
adventures and connections of his childhood. The juvenile stages of our moral and
intellectual progress, which are in all cases entertaining and instructive, are so, in
a particular manner, when they relate to eminent persons. The authentic memo
rials of any man's life and character are only to be found in his own narrative, compared
with the observations of others. In the present case, Mr. Linn's modesty prevented
him from being his own historian, and peculiar circumstances occasioned his early life
to pass over without much observation from others. We cannot any longer profit
by his own recollections : the hand is now cold, and the tongue silent, which were best
qualified to gratify the curiosity of love or veneration. We only know that he acquired
the rudiments of knowledge at an age somewhat earlier than is customary. He was
initiated into the Latin language while yet a child, and evinced very early a strong
attachment to books. On his father's removal to New York, when John was only
nine years old, he enjoyed new opportunities of improvement, under several respect
able teachers. The happiest period of his life, however, in his own opinion, consisted
of two or three years which he spent at a place of education at Flatbush, in Long
Island. He was in his thirteenth year when he left this seminary for New York, where,
at Columbia college, his education was completed.

Fortunate is that man who has spent any part of his early years at a country
school. In youth, every object possesses the charms of novelty ; care and disease
have as yet made no inroads onlhe heart, nor stained that pure and bright medium,
through which the external world makes its way to the fancy. The noise, the filth,
the dull sights and unwholesome exhalations of a city are, in consequence of this en
chantment, ever new and delightful to the youthful heart ; but how much is this plea
sure heightened, when the objects presented to view, and by which we are surrounded,
are in themselves agreeable ! There is something in the refreshing smells, the green,
the quiet, the boundless prospects of the country, congenial to the temper of human
beings, at all ages ; but these possess ineffable charms at that age, when the joints are

firm and elastic, when the pulse beats cheerily, and no dark omens or melancholy
retrospects invade the imagination. To roam through a wood with gay companions,
to search the thicket for blackberries, to bathe in the clear running brook, are plea
sures which fill the memory with delicious images, and are frequently called up to
afford a little respite to the heart from the evils of our subsequent experience.

Dr. Linn was indebted to nature for a healthful rather than a robust constitu
tion. He was a stranger to disease till after he had reached manhood, and of that con
stitutional vivacity, which mere health confers, he possessed a very large share. His
fancy was alive to the beauties of nature, and he experienced none of those little vexations
and crosses, which some lads are doomed to suffer, through the malice of school-fellows,
the tyranny of ushers, and the avarice of housekeepers. Hence, in the latter part of
his life, no recollections were so agreeable as those of the time he passed at Flatbush,
when he revelled in the full enjoyment of health, and its attendant cheerfulness.
They formed a vivid contrast to that joyless and dreary state, to which disease after
wards reduced him.

He was near fourteen years of age when he returned home and went to college.
He now entered on a scene widely different, in all respects, from that to which he had
been previously accustomed : a new system of scholastic discipline, a new circle of
associates, the sensations and views incident to persons on the eve of manhood.

The ensuing four years were active and important ones. The moral and intel
lectual dispositions, which men may possibly bring into the world with them, become
fixed and settled, and receive their final direction at this age. When the appetites are
vigorous, the senses keen, and the conduct regulated by temper and passion, rather
than by prudence and experience, we are most alive to all impressions, and generally
take that path which we pursue for the rest of our days. It was during this period
that Mr. Linn's taste was formed ; and though his moral and professional views under
went considerable changes afterwards, the literary inclinations which he now imbibed,
or unfolded, continued to adhere to him for the rest of his life.

His genius now evinced a powerful tendency to poetry and criticism. What
are called the fine writers of the age, and especially the poets, became his darling
study. In a youthful breast, the glow of admiration is soon followed by the zeal to


imitate ; and he not only composed several pieces, both in prose and verse, but pro
cured the publication of some of them in a distinct volume, before his seventeenth
year. These performances possess no small merit, if we judge of them by compari
son with the youth and inexperience of the writer. They manifest considerable read
ing, a remarkably improved taste, and talents which only wanted the discipline and
knowledge of age to make them illustrious.

In a city where there is an established theatre, a young man, smitten with a
passion for letters, can scarcely fail of becoming an assiduous frequenter of its exhibi
tions. Plays form a large portion of the fashionable literature of a refined nation.
The highest powers of invention are displayed in the walks of dramatic poetry ; and what
the young enthusiast devours in his closet, he hastens with unspeakable eagerness to be
hold invested with the charms of life and action on the stage. At that period, some
performers of merit had been recently imported from Europe, the theatre was, in an
eminent degree, a popular amusement, and Mr. Linn was at that age when the enchant
ment of such exhibitions is greatest. The theatre accordingly became his chief

To 'austere and scrupulous minds, the theatre is highly obnoxious, not only as
hurtful in itself, but as seducing unwary youth into collateral vices and undue expences.
On this account, such establishments are certainly liable to much censure. Whether
reasonably or not, mankind have always annexed some disrepute to the profession of
an actor ; and hence no one will give himself to that profession, who cherishes in
himself any lively regard for reputation. The odium with which any profession is
loaded, even though originally groundless, has an unfortunate tendency to create an
excuse for itself in the principles and manners of those who adopt it. To make men
vicious, little more is necessary than to treat them as if they were so.

The example of Mr. Linn, however, may lead us to distinguish between that
admiration for the drama, which leads some persons to the theatre, and those dissolute
and idle habits, by which the attendance of others is produced, and which evince a
taste for the life and manners of the ac/or, rather than a passion for excellent acting,
The moral conduct of this youth was at all times irreproachable ; and the impression
made upon his fancy, by the great masters of the drama, seems to have contributed to


his security from low tastes and vicious pleasures, rather than to have laid him open
to their influence.

When his academical career was finished, he was eighteen years of age ; and
it being necessary to adopt some profession, his choice, and that of his family, fell upon
the law. The law leads more directly and effectually to honour, power, and profit, in
America, than any of what are termed the liberal professions. As we are strangers
to all hereditary distinctions, the road to eminence is open to all ; and while the prac
tice of the law is extremely lucrative, it tends to bring forth talents and industry into
public notice, and to recommend men to offices of profit, and honour. A young man
who*- though meanly descended, shows some marks of genius, and has received some
degree of education beyond that of mere reading and writing his native tongue, seldom
thinks of pursuing any mechanical trade, and if he has some ambition, he is generally
educated *o the bar. He is thus placed in the direct road of that profit and honour,
which waits on political popularity, and may put in his claim, with more success than
the followers of any other calling, for a seat in the national councils, and for any official
station. The children of persons who are raised above others, by their riches or sta
tion, are, of course, whether qualified or not, destined to a liberal profession, and the
law is generally preferred, because it affords the best means of building up a name or
a fortune. Mr. Linn was probably influenced in his choice of this path, more because
it was honourable and lucrative, than because it was particularly suited to gratify any
favourite taste. He does not appear, therefore, to have applied with much assiduity
or zeal to his new pursuit : his favourite authors continued to engage most of his
attention ; and his attachment to poetry acquired new force, by the contrast which the
splendid visions of Shakespeare and Tasso bore to the naked abstractions and torment
ing subtleties of Blackstone and Coke.

He was placed under the direction of Alexander Hamilton, who was a friend
of his father, and who took upon himself, with ardour, the care of perfecting the stu
dies and promoting the fortunes of the son. Instead, however, of becoming enamoured
of the glory, excellence, or usefulness that environ the names of Murray and of Ers-
kine, Mr. Linn regarded the legal science every day with new indifference or disgust^
which, at the end of the first year, induced him to relinquish the profession altogether.


Before this event took place, he had ventured to produce a dramatic composi
tion, called Bourville Castle, on the stage. This performance was one of the many-
dramatic works he had previously concerted, but the only one which was ever per
formed on the stage. Its success was such as had been sufficient to have fixed the
literary destiny of some minds. But his dramatic career was scarcely commenced,
when it was entirely relinquished. His passion for theatrical amusements yielded
place to affections of a more serious and beneficial nature ; and those religious impres
sions, by which, from his earliest infancy, his mind had been occasionally visited, about
this time assumed a permanent dominion over him. After much deliberation, he de
termined to devote his future life to service in the church.

Such a decision, in a youthful and ardent mind, could only flow from deep
convictions of duty. The heavy obligations which every clergyman incurs, the extra
ordinary claims which are made upon him, not only as a teacher of virtue and religion,
but as a living example, of their influence, form, to a conscientious mind, the most ar
duous circumstances of this profession. Considered as a calling, by which a subsist
ence is to be obtained, and a family reared, its disadvantages are very numerous. He
is entirely precluded from any collateral and lucrative application of his time or talents,
not only by the constant pressure of his clerical duties, but by the general sense of de
corum ; while the stipend he receives from the church is in many cases inadequate to
decent subsistence, and in no case does it more than answer the current necessities and
demands of a family. The clergyman deprives himself of all means of providing for
the establishment of his children in trade or in marriage, or even for the period of age or
infirmity in himself, by embracing a profession which, in many cases, appears to have
a tendency to impair his health, and to shorten the duration of his life.

In Mr. Linn's case, these sacrifices were greater than ordinary. There were
many circumstances to inspire his generous mind with unusual and commendable soli
citude for the acquisition of fortune, and his new engagements were incompatible with
those pursuits, which had hitherto formed his chief passion, and engrossed the greater
portion of his time. Such, however, was the strength of his mind, and the force of his
religious impressions, that not only the prospects of power and riches, but the more
bewitching promises of dramatic popularity, were renounced with little hesitation or


. New York was, in some respects, an eligible place for prosecuting theological
as well as legal studies, but Mr. Linn weighed its disadvantages and benefits with too
impartial a hand to allow himself to remain there. Along with his former habits and
pursuits, he perceived the necessity of relinquishing many of his former companions,
and abandoning the scenes to which he had been accustomed to resort. His prudence
directed him to withdraw as much as possible from the busy and luxurious world, and
to put far away all those objects which were calculated to divert him from the object to
which he had deliberately devoted his future life.

With these views he left New York, and retired to Schenectady. He there put
himself under the care of Dr. Romeyn, a professor of theology in the reformed Dutch
church. His zeal and resolution appear to have continually increased in favour of his
new pursuit. Experience, indeed, gradually unfolded difficulties of which he had not
been at first aware. The importance and arduousness of the part which he had as
signed himself became daily more apparent, but these discoveries diminished not his
zeal, though they somewhat appalled his courage. In a letter to his father, written
during this probation, and after a short visit to his family, he says, " When I was in
New York, I saw more clearly than I had ever yet seen, the road of preferment which
I have forsaken. I saw more clearly than ever, that worldly friendship and favour fol
low the footsteps of pomp and ambition. I hope, however, never to have cause to re
gret the choice I have made. I hope to see more and more the little worth of earthly
things, and the infinite importance of those which are eternal. As I have no treasures
on earth, may I lay up treasures in heaven !

" The disgust which I contracted for the law might perhaps chiefly arise from
a sickly and over delicate taste. The pages of Coke and Blackstone contained, to my
apprehension, nothing but horrid jargon. The language of the science was discord,
and its methods the perfection of confusion to me ; and this, whether a fault in me or
not, I cannot tell, but certain I am it was past remedy. But my aversion to the bar
had something else in it than the mere loathing of taste. I could not bear its tricks
and artifices ; the enlisting of all one's wit and wisdom in the service of any one that
could pay for them.

" My mind, which has been for a long time restless and uneasy, and continually
on the wing, feels already, m this state of comparative solitude, that sober and quiet


peace, to which it has been long a stranger. I regfet not the gay objects of New York,
which I have exchanged for the now dreary scenes of Schenectady. The pleasures of
my former life were often the pleasures of an hour, leaving behind them the anxieties
of days and of years. A very few excepted, I regret not those friends of my early
youth, from whom I have removed. Friendship is in most cases only a weathercock,
shifting with the lightest gale, and scarcely stable long enough to be viewed. The
applause of men I no longer prize, and self-approbation becomes every day of greater

In this retreat he pursued his studies assiduously. How he employed his lei
sure, what books he read, what society he enjoyed, and what particular advances he
made in knowledge or in virtue, in the government of himself or his acquaintance with
the world, it is not in the power of the present narrator to communicate. It appears,
however, that he indulged himself in some poetical effusions, and wrote occasionally
some essays in prose, which were published in a newspaper of that place. Though
not unworthy of praise from so young a man, their intrinsic merit does not entitle them
to preservation.

He obtained a license to preach from the classis of Albany, in the year 1798,
having just entered his twenty -second year. Having now an opportunity of displaying
his qualifications of taste, knowledge, and piety, the world soon became acquainted
with his character. His merits in the pulpit were enhanced by his youth ; a circum
stance which, while it afforded an apology for some exuberances of style and sentiment,
imparted lively expectations of future excellence. He received calls from the presby-
terian church at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and from the first presbytenan church at
Philadelphia, than which there were no religious congregations in America, whose
choice could be more honourable to the object of it.

He finally decided, though not without much hesitation and reluctance, in fa
vour of the latter situation. In this he was influenced by many motives besides those
which, in such a case, would naturally operate upon a young mind, eager for distinction.
The principal of these originated in diffidence of his own powers, which he justly ima
gined would be subjected to less arduous trials, as an assistant minister, or co-pastor,
than where the sole charge should devolve upon himself. Under the auspices of so"
illustrious a colleague as the late Dr. Ewing, he hoped to enter on his important office


with fewer disadvantages than most young men are subjected to. The errors of youth
and inexperience would be less fatal, and would be more easily prerented and cor
rected, than in a different situation. The paternal treatment he always received from
Dr. Ewing fulfilled these hopes, and his decision in their favour was fully justified by
the veneration and affection of his people. He was ordained, and installed in his office,
in June, 1799,

He had very early bestowed his affections on Miss Hester Bailey, a young lady
of beauty and merit, daughter of colonel John Bailey, a respectable inhabitant of
Poughkeepsie, in the state of New York. On his settlement at Philadelphia, he mar
ried this lady. The fruits of this alliance, which was interrupted by death at the end
of five years, were three sons, the two youngest of whom survived their father.

The succeeding two years of his life passed in diligent and successful applica
tion to the duties of his pastoral office. The increasing infirmities of his venerable
colleague made these duties in no small degree heavy to a young man, who was just
beginning his career, and who, as yet, had not acquired the benefits of preparation and
experience. Heavy though they were, and punctual and meritorious as was his dili
gence in their performance, his active spirit found leisure to compose two poems, the
last of which was of considerable length, during this interval.

The first was a poem on the death of Washington, written in imitation of the
style of Ossian, whom Mr. Linn held in higher estimation than any other poet. This
performance was a happy specimen of this style, and the author's success was the more
remarkable, on account of the disparity between the theme he had chosen, and those
topics to which the Caledonian poet had consecrated his song.

His second attempt was more grave and arduous. It was a didactic essay on
those powers from which poetry itself derives its spirit and existence. The subject of
this poem is explained by its title, " The Powers of Genius." It is a rapid and pleasing
descant upon the nature and operations of genius, and a general view of its origin and
progress. It is accompanied with notes, by which doubtful passages are explained,
and the reasonings of the poet amplified, confirmed, and illustrated, by new and appo-
sie examples.



Mr. Linn has justified himself, in bestowing some of his leisure on subjects of this
kind, by observing, in his preface to this work, that " literature, next to religion, is the
fountain of our greatest consolation and delight. Though it be a solemn truth that the
deepest erudition, disconnected with religion, cannot enlighten the regions beyond the
grave, or afford consolation on the bed of death, yet, when united with religion, literature
renders men more eminently useful, opens wider their intellect to the reception of divine
light, banishes religious superstition, and bows the knee, with purer adoration, before
the throne of God. Literature on the rugged journey of life scatters flowers, it over
shadows the path of the weary, and refreshes the desert with its streams. He who is
prone to sensual pursuits may seek his joy in the acquirement of silver and gold, and
bury his affections with the treasure i n his coffers. The nobler soul, enlightened by
genius and taste, looks far above these possessions. His riches are the bounty of
knowledge, his joys are those which wealth cannot purchase. He contemplates nature
in her endless forms, and finds companions, where men of different pursuits would ex
perience the deepest solitude."

Those phantoms which genius produces, and taste embellishes, had a powerful
influence over the imagination of Mr. Linn. External objects were habitually viewed
by him through a poetical medium, and seldom through any other. Their attractions,
in his eyes, and their merit, consisted almost wholly in their power to inspire emotion,
and exalt the fancy. The deductions of pure science, whether mathematical, physical,
or moral, he held in very slender estimation : their simplicity was to him naked and
insipid, dreary and cold. His natural temper, and all his habits of meditation, emi
nently fitted him for a poet ; the subject of this work had been familiar to his earliest
conceptions ; and he expatiated in this element as in one most congenial to his nature.

After describing genius, and fixing on invention as its most suitable criterion,
he proceeds to show the alliance between genius and fancy, judgment and sympathy.
He then, in a rapid manner, describes the progress of genius, and illustrates the inde
pendence of rules, which it sometimes manifests, by the example of Shakespeare, Os-
sian, Ariosto, and Burns.

The influence of culture on genius naturally calls to the poet's mind the image
of Edwin, and the various forms of excellence which genius is qualified to uphold leads
him into an enumeration of celebrated names, in various departments of prose and verse.


Some of the moral stimulants and effects of genius are next displayed ; narra

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Online LibraryJohn Blair LinnValerian : a narrative poem, intended in part to describe the early persecutions of Christians, and rapidly to illustrate the influence of Christianity on the manners of nations → online text (page 1 of 6)