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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Dunce’s Refuge

By John Trumbull (1750–1831)

[Born in Watertown, Conn., 1750. Died at Detroit, Mich., 1831. From “The Progress of Dulness.” 1772–74.—The Poetical Works of John Trumbull. 1820.]

OUR hero’s wit and learning now may

Be proved by token of diploma,

Of that diploma, which with speed

He learns to construe and to read;

And stalks abroad with conscious stride,

In all the airs of pedant pride,

With passport sign’d for wit and knowledge

And current under seal of college.

Few months now past, he sees with pain

His purse as empty as his brain;

His father leaves him then to fate,

And throws him off, as useless weight;

But gives him good advice, to teach

A school at first and then to preach.

Thou reason’st well; it must be so;

For nothing else thy son can do.

As thieves of old, t’ avoid the halter,

Took refuge in the holy altar,

Oft dulness flying from disgrace

Finds safety in that sacred place;

There boldly rears his head, or rests

Secure from ridicule or jests;

Where dreaded satire may not dare

Offend his wig’s extremest hair;

Where Scripture sanctifies his strains,

And reverence hides the want of brains.

Next see our youth at school appear,

Procured for forty pounds a year;

His ragged regiment round assemble,

Taught, not to read, but fear and tremble.

Before him, rods prepare his way,

Those dreaded antidotes to play.

Then throned aloft in elbow chair,

With solemn face and awful air,

He tries, with ease and unconcern,

To teach what ne’er himself could learn;

Gives law and punishment alone,

Judge, jury, bailiff, all in one;

Holds all good learning must depend

Upon his rod’s extremest end,

Whose great electric virtue’s such,

Each genius brightens at the touch;

With threats and blows, incitements pressing,

Drives on his lads to learn each lesson;

Thinks flogging cures all moral ills,

And breaks their heads to break their wills.

The year is done; he takes his leave;

The children smile; the parents grieve;

And seek again, their school to keep,

One just as good and just as cheap.

Now to some priest, that’s famed for teaching,

He goes to learn the art of preaching;

And settles down with earnest zeal

Sermons to study, and to steal.

Six months from all the world retires

To kindle up his cover’d fires;

Learns, with nice art, to make with ease

The Scriptures speak whate’er he please;

With judgment, unperceived to quote

What Pool explain’d, or Henry wrote;

To give the gospel new editions,

Split doctrines into propositions,

Draw motives, uses, inferences,

And torture words in thousand senses;

Learn the grave style and goodly phrase,

Safe handed down from Cromwell’s days,

And shun, with anxious care, the while,

The infection of a modern style;

Or on the wings of folly fly

Aloft in metaphysic sky;

The system of the world explain,

Till night and chaos come again;

Deride what old divines can say,

Point out to heaven a nearer way;

Explode all known establish’d rules,

Affirm our fathers all were fools,

The present age is growing wise,

But wisdom in her cradle lies;

Late, like Minerva, born and bred,

Not from a Jove’s, but scribbler’s head,

While thousand youths their homage lend her,

And nursing fathers rock and tend her.

Round him much manuscript is spread,

Extracts from living works, and dead,

Themes, sermons, plans of controversy,

That hack and mangle without mercy,

And whence to glad the reader’s eyes,

The future dialogue shall rise.

At length, matured the grand design,

He stalks abroad a grave divine.

Meanwhile, from every distant seat,

At stated time the clergy meet.

Our hero comes, his sermon reads,

Explains the doctrine of his creeds,

A license gains to preach and pray,

And makes his bow and goes his way.

What though his wits could ne’er dispense

One page of grammar, or of sense;

What though his learning be so slight,

He scarcely knows to spell or write;

What though his skull be cudgel-proof;

He’s orthodox, and that’s enough.