Timothy Dwight—born on May 15, 1752, in Northampton, Massachusetts—was one of those early American men who did it all. The oldest of 13 children, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and a cousin of Aaron Burr, Dwight was set up for American success from birth. During his 64 years, Dwight was an academic, including serving as president of Yale, a minister, a politician, a songwriter, and a poet, among other things.
Dwight wrote a number of excellent works, as a member of the so-called Hartford Wits, including such poems as “The Conquest of Canaan” and “Greenfield Hill,” but I have always been most interested in his cheekily titled “The Smooth Divine.” For its meter and rhyme scheme, theme, and satire, I have long enjoyed “The Smooth Divine.”
“The Smooth Divine”
By Timothy Dwight
There smiled the smooth Divine, unused to wound
The sinner's heart with hell's alarming sound.
No terrors on his gentle tongue attend;
No grating truths the nicest ear offend.
That strange new-birth, that methodistic grace,
Nor in his heart nor sermons found a place.
Plato's fine tales he clumsily retold,
Trite, fireside, moral seesaws, dull as old,—
His Christ and Bible placed at good remove,
Guild hell-deserving, and forgiving love.
'Twas best, he said, mankind should cease to sin:
Good fame required it; so did peace within.
Their honors, well he knew, would ne'er be driven;
But hoped they still would please to go to heaven.
Each week he paid his visitation dues;
Coaxed, jested, laughed; rehearsed the private news;
Smoked with each goody, thought her cheese excelled;
Her pipe he lighted, and her baby held.
Or placed in some great town, with lacquered shoes,
Trim wig, and trimmer gown, and glistening hose,
He bowed, talked politics, learned manners mild,
Most meekly questioned, and most smoothly smiled;
At rich men's jests laughed loud, their stories praised,
Their wives' new patterns gazed, and gazed, and gazed;
Most daintly on pampered turkeys dined,
Nor shrunk with fasting, nor with study pined:
Yet from their churches saw his brethern driven,
Who thundered truth, and spoke the voice of heaven,
Chilled trembling guilt in Satan's headlong path,
Charmed the feet back, and roused the ear of death.
"Let fools," he cried, "starve on, while prudent I
Snug in my nest shall live, and snug shall die."
“The Smooth Divine” has a meter and rhyme scheme that are a perfect fit for the tone of this work. Each of the sixteen rhyming couplets does not seem set by itself, but rather each is a smoothly transitioning part of the whole work. The meter is steady iambic pentameter. Together, these make for heroic couplets, which work their irony well in the sketching of the poem’s unheroic character and context. The structure and flow of the poem allow the reader to focus on the poem’s content; this owes much to the enjoyableness of the lines and the rhyme scheme.
Additionally, the theme of “The Smooth Divine” is both comedic and relevant. The poem communicates the idea of a purported spiritual leader whose only personal goal is to make a living. At first thought, this theme is humorous, because this pastor who claims to be a preacher of God’s Word is only a speaker of good things, and he does not even do that well. “Nor in his heart nor sermons found a place, / Plato’s fine tales he clumsily retold” (lines 6-7). However, on second thought, this theme is sad, because it is sadly relevant. Far too many ministers are like “the smooth Divine, unused to wound / The sinner’s heart, with hell’s alarming sound” (lines 1-2). These kinds of preachers do not want to “wound the sinner’s heart” because many of those sinners would leave the congregation—taking their money with them—if the preacher’s words troubled them. In “The Smooth Divine,” the minister is nothing more than a petty politician, and many pastors today are unfortunately the same. This man is no spiritual leader at all, no leader at all either.
Finally, the satire Dwight uses here is excellent for the work, because “The Smooth Divine” itself is a satire on false religion. The satire makes the poem lighthearted enough that any reader will keep on reading to the last line and not be offended, but the message the satire conveys is important and will be more likely to stay with the reader since he has laughed as he has read. So rhyme scheme, theme, and satire come together in “The Smooth Divine” to create a fun and insightful poem.