Puritan Poetry: in Colonial Literature of America

Also Read

      The trend of Puritan theology and the hard conditions of life did not encourage the production of poetry. The Puritans even wondered if singing in church was not an exercise which turned the mind from God. The Rev. John Cotton investigated the question carefully under four main heads and six subheads, and he cited scriptural authority to show that Paul and Silas (Acts, xvi., 25) had sung a Psalm in the prison. Cotton therefore concluded that the Psalms might be sung in church.

Puritan Poetry
Puritan Literature

      BAY PSALM BOOK.—"The divines in the country" joined to translate "into English metre" the whole book of Psalms from the original Hebrew, and they probably made the worst metrical translation in existence. In their preface to this work, known as the Bay Psalm Book (1640), the first book of verse printed in the British American colonies, they explained that they did not strive for a more poetic translation because "God's altar needs not our polishings." The following verses from Psalm cxxxvii. are a sample of the so-called metrical translation which the Puritans sang:—

 "1. The rivers on of Babilon
  there-when wee did sit downe:
  yea even then wee mourned, when
  wee remembred Sion.
  "2. Our Harps wee did it hang amid,
  upon the willow tree.
  "3. Because there they that us away
  led in captivitee,
  Requir'd of us a song, & thus
  askt mirth: us waste who laid,
  sing us among a Sion's song,
  unto us then they said."

      MICHAEL WIGGLESWORTH (1631-1705).—This Harvard graduate and Puritan preacher published in 1662 a poem setting forth some of the tenets of Calvinistic theology. This poem, entitled The Day of Doom, or a Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment, had the largest circulation of any colonial poem. The following lines represent a throng of infants at the left hand of the final Judge, pleading against the sentence of infant damnation:—

  "'Not we, but he ate of the tree,
  whose fruit was interdicted;
  Yet on us all of his sad fall
  the punishment's inflicted.
  How could we sin that had not been,
  or how is his sin our,
  Without consent, which to prevent
  we never had the pow'r?'"

      Wigglesworth represents the Almighty as replying:—

  "'You sinners are, and such a share
  as sinners may expect;
  Such you shall have, for I do save
  none but mine own Elect.
  Yet to compare your sin with their
  who liv'd a longer time,
  I do confess yours is much less,
  though every sin's a crime.
  "'A crime it is, therefore in bliss
  you may not hope to dwell;
  But unto you I shall allow
  the easiest room in Hell.'"

      When we read verse like this, we realize how fortunate the Puritanism of Old England was to have one great poet schooled in the love of both morality and beauty. John Milton's poetry shows not only his sublimity and high ideals, but also his admiration for beauty, music, and art. Wigglesworth's verse is inferior to much of the ballad doggerel, but it has a swing and a directness fitted to catch the popular ear and to lodge in the memory. While some of his work seems humorous to us, it would not have made that impression on the early Puritans. At the same time, we must not rely on verse like this for our understanding of their outlook on life and death. Beside Wigglesworth's lines we should place the epitaph, "Reserved for a Glorious Resurrection," composed by the great orthodox Puritan clergyman, Cotton Mather, for his own infant, which died unbaptized when four days old. It is well to remember that both the Puritans and their clergy had a quiet way of believing that God had reserved to himself the final interpretation of his own word.

      ANNE BRADSTREET (1612-1672).—Colonial New England's best poet, or "The Tenth Muse," as she was called by her friends, was a daughter of the Puritan governor, Thomas Dudley, and became the wife of another Puritan governor, Simon Bradstreet, with whom she came to New England in 1630. Although she was born before the death of Shakespeare, she seems never to have studied the works of that great dramatist. Her models were what Milton called the "fantastics," a school of poets who mistook for manifestations of poetic power, far-fetched and strained metaphors, oddities of expression, remote comparisons, conceits, and strange groupings of thought. She had especially studied Sylvester's paraphrase of The Divine Weeks and Works of the French poet Du Bartas, and probably also the works of poets like George Herbert (1593-1633), of the English fantastic school. This paraphrase of Du Bartas was published in a folio of 1215 pages, a few years before Mrs. Bradstreet came to America. This book shows the taste which prevailed in England in the latter part of the first third of the seventeenth century, before Milton came into the ascendency. The fantastic comparison between the "Spirit Eternal," brooding upon chaos, and a hen, is shown in these lines from Du Bartas:—

"Or as a Hen that fain would hatch a brood    (Some of her own, some of adoptive blood)    Sits close thereon, and with her lively heat,    Of yellow-white balls, doth live birds beget:    Even in such sort seemed the Spirit Eternal    To brood upon this Gulf with care paternal."

      A contemporary critic thought that he was giving her early work high praise when he called her "a right Du Bartas girl." One of her early poems is The Four Elements, where Fire, Air, Earth, and Water

  "… did contest
  Which was the strongest, noblest, and the best,
  Who was of greatest use and mightiest force."

      Such a debate could never be decided, but the subject was well suited to the fantastic school of poets because it afforded an opportunity for much ingenuity of argument and for far-fetched comparisons, which led nowhere.

      Late in life, in her poem, Contemplations, she wrote some genuine poetry, little marred by imitation of the fantastic school. Spenser seems to have become her master in later years. No one without genuine poetic ability could have written such lines as:—

      "I heard the merry grasshopper then sing,  The black-clad cricket bear a second part,  They kept one tune, and played on the same string,  Seeming to glory in their little art."

      These lines show both poetic ease and power:—

  "The mariner that on smooth waves doth glide
  Sings merrily, and steers his bark with ease,
  As if he had command of wind and tide,
  And now become great master of the seas."

      The comparative excellence of her work in such an atmosphere and amid the domestic cares incident to rearing eight children is remarkable.

Previous Post Next Post