Fisher Ames
American Literature

It is no reproach to the genius of America if it does not produce ordinarily such men as were deemed the prodigies of the ancient world. Nature has provided for the propagation of men—giants are rare, and it is forbidden by her laws that there should be races of them.

If the genius of men could have stretched to the giant's size, there was every thing in Greece to nourish its growth and invigorate its force. After the time of Homer, the Olympic and other games were established. All Greece, assembled by its deputies, beheld the contests of wit and valour, and saw statues and crowns adjudged to the victors, who contended for the glory of their native cities as well as for their own. To us it may seem that a handful of laurel leaves was a despicable prize. But what were the agonies, what the raptures of the contending parties, we may read, but we cannot conceive. That reward, which writers are now little excited to merit because it is doubtful and distant, 'the estate which wits inherit after death,' was in Greece a present possession. That public so terrible by its censure, so much more terrible by its neglect, was then assembled in person, and the happy genius who was crowned victor was ready to expire with the transports of his joy.

There is reason to believe that poetry was more cultivated in those early ages than it ever has been since. The great celebrity of the only two epic poems of antiquity was owing to the peculiar circumstances of the ages in which Homer and Virgil lived, and without the concurrence of those circumstances their reputation would have been confined to the closets of scholars, without reaching the hearts and kindling the fervid enthusiasm of the multitude. Homer wrote of war to heroes and their followers, to men, who felt the military passion stronger than the love of life; Virgil, with art at least equal to his genius, addressed his poem to Romans, who loved their country with sentiment, with passion, with fanaticism. It is scarcely possible, that a modern epic poet should find a subject that would take such hold of the heart, for no such subject worthy of poetry exists. Commerce has supplanted war, as the passion of the multitude, and the arts have divided and contracted the objects of pursuit. Societies are no longer under the power of single passions that once flashed enthusiasm through them all at once like electricity. Now the propensities of mankind balance and neutralize each other and, of course, narrow the range in which poetry used to move. Its coruscations are confined, like the northern light, to the polar circle of trade and politics or, like a transitory meteor, blaze in a pamphlet or magazine.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.