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Outlines of English and American Literature
Colonial Poetry
by Long, William J.

There were several recognized poets in Colonial days, and even the annalists and theologians had a rhyming fancy which often broke loose from the bounds of prose. The quantity of Colonial verse is therefore respectable, but the quality of it suffered from two causes: first, the writers overlooked the feeling of their own hearts (the true source of lyric poetry) and wrote of Indian wars, theology and other unpoetic matters; second, they wrote poetry not for its own sake but to teach moral or religious lessons. [Footnote: The above criticism applies only to poetry written in English for ordinary readers. At that time many college men wrote poetry in Greek and Latin, and the quality of it compares favorably with similar poetry written in England during the same period. Several specimens of this "scholars' poetry" are preserved in Mather's Magnalia; and there is one remarkable poem, in Greek, which was written in Harvard College by an Indian (one of Eliot's "boys") who a few years earlier had been a whooping savage.] Thus, the most widely read poem of the period was The Day of Doom, which aimed frankly to recall sinners from their evil ways by holding before their eyes the terrors of the last judgment. It was written by Michael Wigglesworth in 1662. This man, who lived a heroic but melancholy life, had a vein of true poetry in him, as when he wrote his "Dear New England, Dearest Land to Me," and from his bed of suffering sent out the call to his people:

  Cheer on, brave souls, my heart is with you all.

But he was too much absorbed in stern theological dogmas to find the beauty of life or the gold of poesie; and his masterpiece, once prized by an immense circle of readers, seems now a grotesque affair, which might appear even horrible were it not rendered harmless by its jigging, Yankee-Doodle versification.

The most extravagantly praised versifier of the age, and the first to win a reputation in England as well as in America, was Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), who wrote a book of poems that a London publisher proudly issued under the title of The Tenth Muse (1650). The best of Colonial poets was Thomas Godfrey of Philadelphia (1736-1763), whose Juvenile Poems, with the Prince of Parthia, a Tragedy contained a few lyrics, odes and pastorals that were different in form and spirit from anything hitherto attempted on this side of the Atlantic. This slender volume was published in 1765, soon after Godfrey's untimely death. With its evident love of beauty and its carefulness of poetic form, it marks the beginning here of artistic literature; that is, literature which was written to please readers rather than to teach history or moral lessons.

Nature and Human Nature

In the literature of the world the two subjects of abiding poetic interest are nature and human nature; but as these subjects appear in Colonial records they are uniformly prosaic, and the reason is very simple. Before nature can be the theme of poets she must assume her winsome mood, must "soothe and heal and bless" the human heart after the clamor of politics, the weariness of trade, the cruel strife of society. To read Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" or Bryant's "To a Waterfowl" is to understand the above criticism. But the nature which the Colonists first looked upon seemed wild and strange and often terrible. Their somber forests were vast, mysterious, forbidding; and they knew not what perils lurked in them or beyond them. The new climate might give them sunshine or healing rain, but was quite as likely to strike their houses with thunderbolts or harrow their harvests with a cyclone. Meanwhile marauding crows pulled up their precious corn; fierce owls with tufted heads preyed upon their poultry; bears and eagles harried their flocks; the winter wail of the wolf pack or the scream of a hungry panther, sounding through icy, echoless woods, made them shiver in their cabins and draw nearer the blazing fire of pine knots on the hearth.

We can understand, therefore, why there was little poetry of nature in Colonial literature, and why, instead of sonnets to moonbeams or nightingales, we meet quaint and fascinating studies of natural or unnatural history. Such are Josselyn's New England's Rarities Discovered and the first part of William Wood's New England's Prospect; and such are many chapters of Byrd's Dividing Line and other annals that deal with plant or animal life,--books that we now read with pleasure, since the nature that was once wild and strange has become in our eyes familiar and dear.

As for the second subject of poetic interest, human nature, the Colonists had as much of that as any other people; but human nature as it revealed itself in religious controversy, or became a burden in the immigrants that were unloaded on our shores for the relief of Europe or the enrichment of the early transportation companies, as Bradford and Beverley both tell us,--this furnished a vital subject not for poetry but for prose and protest.


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