Michael Wigglesworth: Contribution as American Poet

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      Some historians, moreover, seem to derive satisfaction from quoting passages from Michael Wigglesworth’s (1631–1705) “Day of Doom” as added proof that the Puritans were never able to write verse that was beautiful or even graceful. It must be admitted that this grave and pretentious piece of work was hardly more lovely than the name of the author. Wigglesworth was a devoted Puritan who came to America at the age of seven; graduated from Harvard College; qualified to practice medicine; and then became a preacher, serving, with intermissions of ill health, as pastor in Malden, Massachusetts, from 1657 until his death in 1705. He was a gentle, kindly minister, unfailing in his care for both the bodies and the souls of his parishioners.

Two facts should be remembered in criticizing “The Day of Doom” as poetry. The first is that Wigglesworth wrote it consciously as a teacher and preacher and not as a poet. In his introduction he said:   Reader, I am a fool  And have adventured  To play the fool this once for Christ,  The more his fame to spread.  If this my foolishness  Help thee to be more wise,  I have attainèd what I seek,  And what I only prize.
Michael Wigglesworth

      Michael Wigglesworth, a Puritan minister and poet was born in Yorkshire. Being an English-born, he was taken by his family to New England in 1638 and settled in Quinnipiac (later named as New Haven, Connecticut). Having had his education at Harvard, he practiced medicine In 1656 he was ordained as the minister of Congregation a Maiden, Massachusetts. Being the third noteworthy colonic poet of New England, he continued the Puritan themes in his best-known work, The Day of Doom (1662), long narrative poem that often falls into the forms of doggerels. This terrifying popularization of the Calvinistic doctrine was the most popular poem of the Colonial Period. This work, as the first American best-seller, is an appalling portrait of damnation to hell in a ballad meter. Everybody loved such terrible poetry. It fused the fascination of a horror story with the authority of John Calvin.

      For more than 200 years the people memorized this long, dreadful monument to religious terror, the children proudly recited it, and the elders quoted it everyday. His writing not only expresses the most fundamental Puritan beliefs but also reveals American Puritanism as it was lived by the individual and community. His most widely read poems were written to present the articles of faith which allowed them to be easily memorized. It is not such a leap from the terrible punishments of this poem to the ghastly self-inflicted wound of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s guilty Puritan minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, in The Scarlet Letter (1850) or Herman Melville’s crippled Captain Ahab, a New England Faust whose quest for forbidden knowledge sinks the ship of American humanity in Moby-Dick (1851):

      Wigglesworth had the “lurking propensity” for verse-writing which was common among the men of his time, but instead of venting it merely in the composing of acrostics, anagrams, and epitaphs, he dedicated it to the Lord in the writing of a sort of rimed sermon on the subject of the Day of Judgment. The full title reads, “The Day of Doom or, a Description Of the Great and Last Judgment with a short discourse about Eternity. Eccles. 12. 14. For God shall bring every work into judgment with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” It was printed, probably in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1662. The poem is composed of two hundred and twenty-four eight-line stanzas. After an invocation and the announcement of the day of doom, the dead come from their graves before the throne of Christ. There the “sheep” who have been chosen for salvation are placed on the right, and the wicked “goats” come in groups to hear the judge’s verdict. These include hypocrites, civil, honest men, those who died in youth before they were converted, those who were misled by the example of the good, those who did not understand the Bible, those who feared martyrdom more than hell-torment, those who thought salvation was hopeless, and, finally, those who died as babes. All are sternly answered from the throne, and all are swept off to a common eternal doom except the infants, for whom is reserved “the easiest room in hell.”

      Two facts should be remembered in criticizing “The Day of Doom” as poetry. The first is that Wigglesworth wrote it consciously as a teacher and preacher and not as a poet. In his introduction he said:

 Reader, I am a fool
 And have adventured
 To play the fool this once for Christ,
 The more his fame to spread.
 If this my foolishness
 Help thee to be more wise,
 I have attainèd what I seek,
 And what I only prize.

      The second point is that in writing a rimed sermon for Christian worshipers he had a model supplied him in the popular “Bay Psalm Book,” which had appeared some twenty years before and which was familiar to all the people who were likely to be his readers. The translators of the 121st Psalm wrote, for example:

 1. I to the hills lift up mine eyes,
 from whence shall come mine aid

 2. Mine help doth from Jehovah come,
 which heav’n and earth hath made.

      And Wigglesworth took up the strain with

 No heart so bold, but now grows cold,
 and almost dead with fear;
 No eye so dry but now can cry,
 and pour out many a tear.

      To any modern reader the use of this light-footed meter for so grave a subject seems utterly ill-considered, and the whole idea of the day of doom as he presented it seems so unnatural as to be amusing. But Wigglesworth was trying to write a rimed summary of what everybody thought, in a meter with which everybody was familiar, and he was unqualifiedly successful. A final verdict on Michael Wigglesworth is often superciliously pronounced on the basis of this one poem, or, if any further attention is conceded him, the worst of his remaining output is produced for evidence that he and all Puritan preachers were clumsy and prosaic verse-writers.

      Yet in the never-quoted lines immediately following “The Day of Doom”—a poem without a title, on the vanity of human wishes—Michael Wigglesworth gave proofs of human kindliness and of poetic power. In these earnest lines Wigglesworth showed a mastery of fluent verse, a control of poetic imagery, and a gentle yearning for the souls’ welfare of his parishioners which is the utterance of the pastor rather than of the theologian. For a moment God ceases to be angry, Christ stands pleading without the gate, and the good pastor utters a poem upon the neglected theme “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you”:

 Fear your great Maker with a child-like awe,
 Believe his Grace, love and obey his Law.
 This is the total work of man, and this
 Will crown you here with Peace and there with Bliss.

      “The Day of Doom,” however, was far more popular than the better poetry that Wigglesworth wrote at other times. It was the most popular book of the century in America. People memorized its easy, jingling meter just as they might have memorized ballads or, at a later day, Mother Goose rimes; and the grim description became “the solace,” as Lowell says, “of every fireside, the flicker of the pine-knots by which it was conned perhaps adding a livelier relish to its premonitions of eternal combustion.” The popularity of “The Day of Doom” shows that in the very years when the Royalists were returning to power in England the Puritans were greatly in the majority in New England. The reaction marked by Morton, Ward, and Roger Williams was only beginning. Moreover, if it had been the only “poetry” of the period, we should have to admit that the Puritans were almost hopelessly unpoetical.

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