Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
THE EARLY settlers of New England were no less distinguished for their attachment to letters than for their strong religious character; and although their taste and partialities lay rather toward the substantial than the ornamental parts of literature, yet the commune vinculum, the natural and intimate connexion of all liberal pursuits, unavoidably turned their studies in some degree in the latter direction. A great number of the earliest emigrants were men of the first attainments in the principal sciences held in repute at that period, and their writings reflect no small honor on their character for learning and ability. Their earliest attempts in the department of polite literature, must certainly be considered rude and feeble, when compared with the contemporaneous productions of Europe, but they deserve attention from the influence which they undoubtedly exercised upon the writers who succeeded them, no less than from the light they throw upon the character of the writers and the state of society. They also possess an interest arising from the curiosity we naturally feel to view the most ancient memorials of literary effort on record among us. We shall proceed therefore to enumerate such of the first settlers of the country as were known for any productions in verse which have remained to the present day, and give a brief historical sketch of the early poetical literature of the English Colonies.
It was hardly three years from the arrival of the pilgrims that the first essay of this kind was made by William Morell, an episcopal clergyman, who wrote a description of New England in Latin hexameter verse. Morell came to this country in 1623 and remained about a year. Except therefore, as being the earliest attempt at versification within the present limits of the country, his performance can hardly claim any remark here. It was published in England with a translation by the author. Both have been reprinted in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
The next poetical production which offers itself to our notice is the version of the Psalms published at Cambridge in 1640, and which was the first book printed in the United States.1 About the year 1639 the clergymen of New England considering that in their new residence they had been enabled to enjoy most of the ordinances of christian worship in all desirable purity, were induced to extend the reform they had thus effected, to the ordinance of the singing of psalms. The common metrical translation of the psalms was considered to deviate so far from the original as to be an unsatisfactory help to their devotions. A new version was therefore resolved upon, and the several portions of the work were assigned to the most eminent divines of the country. The principal of these whom we find mentioned were John Eliot of Roxbury, the celebrated Indian Apostle, Thomas Welde of Roxbury, and Richard Mather of Dorchester. The work thus produced was such as might have been expected from the plan. The main object of the translators was of course to make the version as literal as possible. An extract from their preface may serve to give the reader the views which they entertained of the nature of their task.
If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire and expect, let them consider that Gods altar needs not our polishings; for wee have respected rather a plain translation, than to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrase, and so have attended to conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language, and Davids poetry into English meetre.
This book was called The Bay Psalm Book. The version is exact enough in respect of adherence to the original to satisfy the scruples of the most rigid critic. But the versification is harsh and unmusical to the last degree, and it was soon found expedient to give it a little more polish. The following extract will convey some idea of the rest of the work.
After two editions had been printed, an improvement of the language was declared necessary. It was therefore put into the hands of the Rev. Henry Dunster, President of Harvard College and Mr Richard Lyon, a tutor to a young student at Cambridge. These editors gave the work a revision with a special eye, as they inform us, both to the gravity of the phrase of sacred writ, and sweetness of the verse. They added versifications of some other portions of scripture, entitling them The Spiritual Songs of the Old and New Testament. This improved version has gone through more than thirty editions in this country, and has been often reprinted in Scotland and England, and used in many of the English dissenting congregations.
The earliest poet of New England, however, was ANNE BRADSTREET, the wife of Simon Bradstreet, Governor of the Massachusetts colony, and daughter of Thomas Dudley, also Governor. She was born in 1612, probably at Northampton or Boston in England. She was married to Mr Bradstreet at the age of sixteen, and came the next year, 1630, with her husband to this country. The preface to the second edition of her poems published after her death, declares the volume to be the work of a woman honored and esteemed, where she lives, for her gracious demeanor, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet managing of her family occasions; and more than so these poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments. She died September 16th, 1672. One of the pieces in her volume bears the date of 1632, Ætatis suæ 19.
Her writings gained her great celebrity among her contemporaries. Cotton Mather is warm in her praise and declares that her poems, divers times printed, have afforded a grateful entertainment unto the ingenious, and a monument for her memory beyond the stateliest marbles. The learned and excellent John Norton of Ipswich calls her the mirror of her age and glory of her sex. He wrote a funeral eulogy in which he did not scruple to pun upon her name according to the fashion of the time.
Many others wrote verses in her commendation, and it is much to their credit that they so justly appreciated her talents; for we must come down to a late period in the literary annals of the country before we find her equal, although her productions are not without the marks of the barbarous taste of the age. Her first essays in polite composition had but an untoward guidance from the authors most esteemed at that time. The models they presented were not adapted to promote either good taste or excellence of any sort, in writing. Du Bartas2 was the favorite poet of the day, and his conceits seem to have been, in particular, the admiration of our author. She appears also to have caught something of his spirit.
The contents of her volume are a poem upon the Four Elements, upon the Four Humors in Mans Constitution, upon the Four Ages of Man, and the Four Seasons of the Year. In these we are presented with personifications of Fire, Air, Earth and Water; Choler, Blood, Melancholy and Phlegm; and Childhood, Youth, Middle Age and Old Age, each of whom comes forward with an address in which its peculiar excellences are set forth. Then follows a versified history of the Four Monarchies of the World, and some shorter pieces, one of which, for its great merit, we shall extract; it shows Mrs Bradstreet to have possessed genuine poetical feeling. This poem is entitled
SOME time now past in the Autumnal Tide,
When Phbus wanted but one hour to bed,
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded oer by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemd painted, but was true
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hew,
Wrapt were my senses at this delectable view.
I wist not what to wish, yet sure thought I,
If so much excellence abide below;
How excellent is He, that dwells on high!
Whose power and beauty by his works we know.
Sure he is goodness, wisdome, glory, light,
That hath this under world so richly dight:
More heaven than earth was here no winter and no night.
Then on a stately oak I cast mine eye,
Whose ruffling top the clouds seemd to aspire;
How long since thou wast in thine infancy?
Thy strength, and stature, more thy years admire.
Hath hundred winters past since thou wast born?
Or thousand since thou brakst thy shell of horn,
If so, all these as nought, eternity doth scorn.
Then higher on the glistering sun I gazd,
Whose beams were shaded by the leavie tree,
The more I lookd, the more I grew amazd,
And softly said, what glorys like to thee?
Soul of this world, this Universes eye,
No wonder, some made thee a deity;
Had I not better known, (alas) the same had I.
Thou as a bridegroom from thy chamber rushest,
And as a strong man, joyes to run a race,
The morn doth usher thee, with smiles and blushes,
The earth reflects her glances in thy face.
Birds, insects, animals with vegetive,
Thy heart from death and dulness doth revive:
And in the darksome womb of fruitful nature dive.
Thy swift annual, and diurnal course,
Thy daily straight, and yearly oblique path,
Thy pleasing fervor, and thy scorching force,
All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath.
Thy presence makes it day, thy absence night,
Quaternal seasons caused by thy might:
Hail creature, full of sweetness, beauty and delight.
Art thou so full of glory, that no eye
Hath strength, thy shining rayes once to behold?
And is thy splendid throne erect so high?
As to approach it, can no earthly mould.
How full of glory then must thy Creator be,
Who gave this bright light luster unto thee!
Admird, adord for ever, be that Majesty.
Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I lead my wandering feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skyes I reard
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.
My great Creator I would magnifie,
That nature had, thus decked liberally:
But Ah, and Ah, again, my imbecility!
I heard the merry grasshopper then sing,
The black clad cricket, bear a second part,
They kept one tune, and plaid on the same string,
Seeming to glory in their little art.
Shall creatures abject, thus their voices raise?
And in their kind resound their makers praise:
Whilst I as mute, can warble forth no higher layes.
When present times look back to ages past,
And men in being fancy those are dead,
It makes things gone perpetually to last,
And calls back months and years that long since fled.
It makes a man more aged in conceit,
Than was Methuselah, ors grand-sire great;
While of their persons and their acts his mind doth treat.
Sometimes in Eden fair he seems to be,
Sees glorious Adam there made Lord of all,
Fancyes the Apple, dangle on the Tree,
That turnd his Sovereign to a naked thral.
Who like a miscreants driven from that place,
To get his bread with pain, and sweat of face:
A penalty imposd on his backsliding race.
Here sits our Grandame in retired place,
And in her lap, her bloody Cain new born,
The weeping Imp oft looks her in the face,
Bewails his unknown hap, and fate forlorn;
His mother sighs, to think of Paradise,
And how she lost her bliss, to be more wise,
Believing him that was, and is, Father of lyes.
Here Cain and Abel come to sacrifice,
Fruits of the earth, and fatlings each do bring;
On Abels gift the fire descends from skies,
But no such sign on false Cains offering;
With sullen hateful looks he goes his wayes.
Hath thousand thoughts to end his brothers dayes,
Upon whose blood his future good he hopes to raise.
There Abel keeps his sheep, no ill he thinks,
His brother comes, then acts his fratricide,
The Virgin Earth, of blood her first draught drinks,
But since that time she often hath been cloyd;
The wretch with ghastly face and dreadful mind,
Thinks each he sees will serve him in his kind,
Though none on Earth but kindred near then could he find.
Who fancyes not his looks now at the barr,
His face like death, his heart with horror fraught,
Nor male-factor ever felt like warr,
When deep despair, with wish of life hath sought,
Branded with guilt, and crusht with treble woes,
A vagabond to Land of Nod he goes,
A city builds, that wals might him secure from foes.
Who thinks not oft upon the Fathers ages.
Their long descent, how nephews sons they saw,
The starry observations of those Sages,
And how their precepts to their sons were law
How Adam sighd to see his progeny,
Clothed all in his black sinfull livery,
Who neither guilt, nor yet the punishment could fly.
Our Life compare we with their length of dayes,
Who to the tenth of theirs doth now arrive?
And though thus short, we shorten many ways,
Living so little while we are alive;
In eating, drinking, sleeping, vain delight,
So unawares comes on perpetual night,
And puts all pleasures vain unto eternal flight.
When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
And then the earth (though old) still clad in green,
The stones and trees, insensible of time,
Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen;
If winter come, and greenness then do fade,
A Spring returns, and they more youthful made;
But Man grows old, lies down, remains where once he s laid.
By birth more noble than those creatures all,
Yet seems by nature and by custome cursed,
No sooner born, but grief and care make fall
That state obliterate he had at first.
Nor youth, nor strength, nor wisdom spring again,
Nor habitations long their names retain,
But in oblivion to the final day remain.
Shall I then praise the heavens, the trees, the earth,
Because their beauty and their strength last longer?
Shall I wish their, or never to had birth,
Because theyre bigger, and their bodyes stronger?
Nay, they shall darken, perish, fade and dye,
And when unmade, soever shall they lye,
But man was made for endless immortality.
Under the cooling shadow of a stately elm
Close sate I by a goodly Rivers side,
Where gliding streams the rocks did overwhelm;
A lonely place, with pleasures dignified.
I once that lovd the shady woods so well,
Now thought the rivers did the trees excell,
And if the sun would ever shine, there would I dwell.
While on the stealing stream I fixt mine eye,
Which to the longd-for Ocean held its course,
I markt nor crooks, nor rubs that there did lye
Could hinder aught, but still augment its force:
O happy Flood, quoth I, that holdst thy race
Till thou arrive at thy beloved place,
Nor is it rocks or shoals that can obstruct thy pace.
Nor is t enough, that thou alone mayst slide,
But hundred brooks in thy cleer waves do meet,
So hand in hand along with thee they glide
To Thetis house, where all embrace and greet:
Thou Emblem true, of what I count the best,
O could I lead my Rivulets to rest,
So may we press to that vast mansion, ever blest.
Ye Fish which in this liquid region bide,
That for each season, have your habitation,
Now salt, now fresh, where you think best to glide,
To unknown coasts to give a visitation,
In lakes and ponds, you leave your numerous fry,
So nature taught, and yet you know not why,
You watry folk that know not your felicity.
Look how the wantons frisk to taste the air,
Then to the colder bottome straight they dive,
Eftsoon to Neptunes glassie Hall repair
To see what trade the great ones there do drive,
Who forrage oer the spacious sea-green field,
And take the trembling prey before it yield,
Whose armour is their scales, their spreading fins their shield.
While musing thus with contemplation fed,
And thousand fancies buzzing in my brain,
The sweet-tongued Philomel percht oer my head,
And chanted forth a most melodious strain
Which rapt me so with wonder and delight,
I judgd my hearing better than my sight,
And wisht me wings with her a while to take my flight.
O merry Bird (said I) that fears no snares,
That neither toyles nor hoards up in thy barn,
Feels no sad thoughts, nor cruciating cares
To gain more good, or shun what might thee harm;
Thy cloaths neer wear, thy meat is every where,
Thy bed a bough, thy drink the water cleer,
Reminds not what is past, nor whats to come dost fear
The sister of Mrs Bradstreet, Mrs Woodbridge, the wife of John Woodbridge, minister at Andover and Newbury, was likewise an adventurer in verse. An epistle which she addressed to her sister upon the subject of her volume, is still extant. The poetry is respectable, but has no striking passages.
Governor Dudley, the father of Mrs Bradstreet, was a versifier. He wrote an epitaph on himself which was found in his pocket after his death; it is hardly worth quoting, and we know not whether any other of his rhymes have been preserved. William Bradford, the second Governor of Plymouth Colony, who came over in the first ship in 1620, figured also as a poet. He died in 1657. His Descriptive and Historical Account of New England in verse, containing about three hundred lines, may be found in the Historical Collections. He is commended by the author of the Magnalia for his great learning and particularly for his skill in various languages. His verses however have little to recommend them.
JOHN COTTON, the minister of Boston, must be recorded among those who attempted poetry. Some of his verses upon the death of two of his children have been preserved, written in Greek letters upon the blank leaves of his Almanack. His elegy upon the death of Thomas Hooker, the first minister of Hartford, Connecticut, who died in 1647, has been commended as sensible and correct. We give a short extract.
EZEKIEL ROGERS the minister of Rowley, who gave that town its name, and died in 1660, also embalmed the memory of Hooker in the following epitaph, every line of which, in the judgment of Cotton Mather, deserved a reward equal to that which Virgil received for his verses upon Marcellus in the Æneid.
The same event was lamented in an elegy by Peter Bulkly, the first minister of Concord, whose latin verses written at the age of seventy-six, are preserved in the Magnalia, along with the latin poetry of Elijah Corlet of Cambridge upon the character of Hooker.
The death of any noted divine in those days seems to have been very certain to arouse the muse of our ancestors. Scarcely one of any eminence closed his mortal career without drawing forth a profusion of elegiac strains. When John Cotton died in 1652, the event afforded a theme to BENJAMIN WOODBRIDGE for a poem which contains a somewhat remarkable passage, as it has been conjectured that it suggested to Franklin the hint for his celebrated epitaph upon himself. Benjamin Woodbridge was educated partly at Oxford in England, and coming to this country finished his studies at Harvard College, of which he had the honor of being the first graduate. He afterwards returned to England and became one of the chaplains of Charles II. The passage referred to is this.
John Norton also commemorated the death of Cotton by an elegy; his verses in praise of Mrs Bradsheet have already been mentioned. Nathaniel Ward, the Simple Cobler of Agawam, wrote poetry in his facetious way Edward Johnson the author of the Wonder Working Providence, interspersed his history with a multitude of verses, laudatory of the several worthy and eminent men of whom he had occasion to speak. His poetry is to be found in the records of Woburn, the town where he passed the latter part of his life.
JONATHAN MITCHEL, Pastor of the church in Cambridge, deserves some notice for his attempts at poetry. Upon the death of Henry Dunster, one of the translators of the Bay Psalm Book, who was dismissed from his office as President of Harvard College for his heterodox opinions upon the subject of baptism, Mitchel wrote an elegy, some stanzas of which deserve transcribing for the strain of liberal sentiment which they breathe on the subject of the Presidents religious notions.
John Wilson, the Paul of New England, who is celebrated by Cotton Mather as the greatest anagrammatizer4 since the days of Lycophron, and who even uttered anagrams by improvisation, has also left specimens of his verse behind him; they may be found in the Magnalia. Thomas Shepard of Charlestown, who died in 1677, has left similar relics. He is better known by the Elegy which URIAN OAKES, the President of Harvard College wrote upon his death. President Oakes was styled the Lactantius of New England; his fame as a scholar was widely extended, and his character pre-eminent for piety and benevolence. His elegy on Shepards death was printed in 1677; a good authority has pronounced it a highly meritorious performance. We give a few stanzas taken from different parts of the poem.
The successor of President Oakes at Harvard was JOHN ROGERS. He came in his youth to New England and was educated at the College over which he was called to preside. Before he was chosen to the presidency he had been first a preacher and then a physician. He died suddenly in 1684, having been President but two years. His verses addressed to Mrs Bradstreet merit an insertion here. They have more correctness and elegance than are to be found in any we have yet noticed except those of the writer to whom they are addressed.
MADAM, twice through the Muses grove I walkt,
Under your blissfull bowres, I shrowding there,
It seemd with Nymphs of Helicon I talkt,
For there those sweet-lipd sisters sporting were.
Apollo with his sacred lute sate by,
On high they made their heavenly sonnets flye,
Posies around they strowd, of sweetest poesie.
Twice have I drunk the nectar of your lines,
Which high sublimd my mean born phantasie,
Flusht with these streams of your Maronean wines
Above myself rapt to an extasie:
Methought I was upon mount Hyblas top,
There where I might those fragrant flowers lop,
Whence did sweet odors flow, and honey spangles drop.
To Venus shrine no altars raised are,
Nor venomd shafts from painted quiver fly:
Nor wanton Doves of Aphrodites carr,
Or fluttering there, nor here forlornly lie:
Lorne paramours, not chatting birds tell news,
How sage Apollo Daphne hot pursues,
Or stately Jove himself is wont to haunt the stews.
Nor barking Satyrs breathe, nor dreary clouds
Exhaled from Styx, their dismal drops distil
Within these fairy, flowry fields, nor shrouds
The screeching night raven, with his shady quill:
But lyrick strings here Orpheus nimbly hitts,
Arion on his sadled dolphin sits,
Chanting as every humour, age and season fits.
Here silver swans, with nightingales set spells,
Which sweetly charm the traveller, and raise
Earths earthed monarchs, from their hidden cells,
And to appearance summon lapsed dayes,
Their heavnly air becalms the swelling frayes,
And fury fell of elements allayes,
By paying every one due tribute of his praise.
This seemd the scite of all those verdant vales,
And purled springs, whereat the Nymphs do play:
With lofty hills, where Poets rear their tales,
To heavenly vaults, which heavnly sound repay
By echos sweet rebound: here ladyes kiss,
Circling nor songs, nor dances circle miss;
But whilst those Syrens sung, I sunk in sea of bliss.
Thus weltring in delight, my virgin mind
Admits a rape; truth still lyes undescrid,
Its singular that plural seemd: I find
T was fancies glass alone that multiplid;
Nature with art so closely did combine,
I thought I saw the Muses treble trine,
Which provd your lonely Muse superiour to the Nine.
Your only hand those poesies did compose:
Your head the source, whence all those springs did flow:
PETER FOLGER, who settled at Nantucket, where he kept a school, was the author of a poetical work entitled A Looking Glass for the Times. This was published in 1675 or 1676. Folgers daughter was the mother of Benjamin Franklin, and Franklin in his own life has given a description of the poem. We have not been able to obtain a sight of this performance. The only copy we have yet heard of, was in the possession of a friend a year or two since but is now lost. A few extracts have been published in one of our literary journals. We will quote the words of Franklin in describing the poem. The author addresses himself to the governors for the time being; speaks for liberty of conscience, and in favor of the Anabaptist Quakers, and other sectaries who had suffered persecution. To this persecution he attributes the war with the natives and other calamities which afflicted the country, regarding them as the judgments of God in punishment of so odious an offence; and he exhorts the government to the repeal of laws so contrary to charity. The poem appeared to be written with a manly freedom and a pleasing simplicity. Folgers book we understand is accurately described in the above paragraph, and a short extract which we have at hand will give an idea of the poetry.
The Rev. Samuel Danforth, of Roxbury, was a writer of verse. He was more celebrated, however, as a mathematician and astronomer. He calculated the trajectory of the great comet which appeared in 1664, and published a treatise on it entitled, An astronomical description of the late comet with a brief theological description thereof.
The next poet that offers himself to our notice is BENJAMIN TOMPSON the learned schoolmaster and physician. By the Boston Records it appears that he was master of the public school in Boston from 1667 to 1670, when having had and accepted a call to Charlestown, he removed thither and was succeeded by Cheever. He was the son of William Thompson or Tompson, the minister of Braintree, and was born at that place within the limits of the present town of Quincy, in 1640, and received a degree at Cambridge in 1662. To Benjamin Tompson5 must therefore be awarded all distinction of being the first native American poet. All his poetry hitherto known, was thought to be comprised in an Elegy upon the Rev. Samuel Whiting of Lynn, a poem addressed to Hubbard, and a few lines upon Cotton Mather. But we have lately discovered another work of his, which we consider the greatest curiosity as an antiquarian relic, that the early writings of New England present to us. It is a Poem on Philips War, written and published, according to undoubted internal evidence, during that desperate struggle with the natives in which the very existence of the New England colonies was at stake. The poem is entitled New Englands Crisis. We shall offer the reader one or two extracts of some length, no less to set in a fair light the merits of Tompsons poetry, than to gratify the curious with an exhibition of the strains in which our first native bard sung the wars which threatened the extinction of his nation.
The author begins with a Prologue, in which he complains seriously of the great increase of luxurious habits in the country! One would think the land of the Pilgrims stood hardly in danger from this cause in 1675, when the females personally assisted to build a fortification on Boston neck for a protection against the savages.
Having despatched his preliminaries the author plunges in medias res and gives us a representation of King Philip, who calls his warriors around him and makes to them a speech in choice Indian. We next have the incidents of the campaign, the marches of the troops, and the storming of an Indian fort. Then follow detached portions, celebrating battles, and the burning of towns, which items of intelligence appear to have come to hand while the author was writing his poem. In this manner we are presented with Marlburyes Fate; the Town called Providence, its Fate; Seaconk Plain Engagement; Seaconk or Rehoboths Fate; Chelmsfords Fate, and lastly Lines On a Fortification at Boston begun by women. The subjoined extract will give an idea of his general manner.
MANY how welcomes from the natives arms
Hid in their sculking holes, many alarms
Our brethren had, and many weary trants:
Sometimes in melting heat and pinching wants.
Sometimes the clouds with sympathizing tears
Ready to burst, discharged about their ears.
Sometimes on craggy hills, anon in bogs,
And miry swamps, better befitting hogs;
And after tedious marches, little boast
Is to be heard of stewd, or bakt, or roast.
Their beds are hurdles, open house they keep,
Through shady boughs the stars upon them peep:
Their chrystal drink drawn from the mothers breast,
NICHOLAS NOYES is another native poet; he was the nephew of James Noyes, the first minister of Newbury, and was born in that town December 22d, 1647. He was graduated at Cambridge in 1667, and settled in the ministry at Salem. His poem on the death of the Rev. Joseph Green, of Salem village, we have not seen. He wrote a prefatory poem to the Magnalia, from which we take the following lines complimentary of the author.
HEADS of our tribes whose corps are under ground,
Their names and fames in chronicles renownd,
Begemmd on golden ouches he hath set
Past envys teeth and times corroding fret.
Of death and malice he s brushd off the dust,
And made a resurrection of the just.
* * * * * *
This well instructed scribe brings new and old,
And from his mines digs richer things than gold;
Yet freely gives, as fountains do their streams,
Nor more than they, himself, by giving, drains.
He s all design, and by his craftier wiles
Locks fast his reader, and the time beguiles;
Whilst wit and learning move themselves aright,
Through every line and colour in our sight,
So interweaving profit with delight,
And curiously inlaying both together
That he must needs find both who looks for either.
TIMOTHY WOODBRIDGE, minister of Hartford, brother of Benjamin Woodbridge, already quoted, also complimented Mather and his book in a poetical address. Whether he was a native of this country or England we know not. We extract a few lines from his poem.
LET the remotest parts of earth behold
New Englands crowns excelling Spanish gold.
Here be rare lessons set for us to read,
That offsprings are of such a goodly breed.
The dead ones here so much alive are made,
We think them speaking from blest Edens shade.
Hark how they check the madness of this age,
The growth of pride, fierce lust and worldly rage;
The death of Urian Oakes in 1681 was lamented in an Elegy by DANIEL GOOKIN, jr. son of Daniel Gookin who made the valuable Historical Collections respecting the Indians of New England. Daniel Gookin, jr. was born, as we have reason to think, at Cambridge. He was ordained as a minister there, and was afterwards a missionary among the Indians. We have never met with any mention of him as a poet. The elegy above-mentioned exists only in a single manuscript, the autograph perhaps of the author. We have a quotation of two stanzas at hand.
SAMUEL SEWALL, who came to America in his youth, was educated at Harvard College and afterwards became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, was also a poet. His Hymn for the New Year, written Jan. 1st, 1701, a little before break a day, at Boston of the Massachusetts, we will cite as the earliest specimen we have of that sort of occasional composition.
Of the poetry of William Wetherell, of Scituate, we can offer no specimen. The same must be said of Joseph Rowlandson, of Lancaster, whose verses exist in some ancient manuscript files. There was an Indian youth by the name of Eleazar, who studied at Harvard College in 1678. He wrote Latin and Greek poetry, which has been preserved, but we have seen no verses in English from his pen.
The Rev. Nathaniel Pitcher, of Scituate, was also a versifier. An anonymous poem on his death, compares him to Pindar, Horace and Casimir. How well he deserved this praise we have no means of knowing. The Elegy just mentioned is a curiosity. It is entitled Pitchero Threnodia; it is written in an odd metre, and with a great display of classical learning. Of the poetry nothing need be said. It was published at Boston in 1724.
An anonymous performance of contemporary date and greater merit, is the Gloria Britannorum, or the British Worthies, which appeared also at Boston. In this work the political and military events of the time are sung in the manner of Addisons Campaign, from which production the design was evidently borrowed. The versification is quite spirited and correct for the period.
We must notice in this place, although a little in anticipation of the chronological order of persons, John Seccomb. He was esteemed a wit, and wrote the ballad entitled Father Abdys Will. It is rather of the doggerel species, but was popular in the authors day, and pleased Governor Belcher so much that he sent it to England, where it was first published in the Gentlemans Magazine, in 1732. Seccomb was also considered the author of an Eclogue on the death of Dr Colman, and some other anonymous pieces.
FROM a review of the character of these early and imperfect endeavours in the rhyming art, and of our literature generally, down to a very recent date, we perceive the perfectly spontaneous growth to every branch of polite letters among us. The common incitements to literary exertion, rivalry and the prospect of fame and emolument, cannot be said to have exerted any material influence in prompting the efforts of American writers. Authors have been too few to create competition, and the public, to whom they addressed themselves, too much occupied with matters of direct practical interest to bestow any high consideration upon the talents which are exerted only in the embellishment of life. Hence we have never known till the present day such a thing as a professed author. All the talent and industry of the people have been called into the field of active employment, and the most of what has been written among us consists of such productions as were executed in the early days of our authors, before the serious business of life was entered upon; or in such leisure moments as were snatched from constant and laborious occupations. We have obtained therefore only the unripe fruits of their youth, or the imperfect performances of casual moments. The cultivation of literary talent has moreover been retarded by the state of dependence as to literature, in which we have continued, to the writers of Great Britain. Without searching for causes which lie deep in the character of our nation, we may assert that the bales and hogsheads of learning which our friends beyond the ocean speak of having supplied us with, have been dealt to us in such abundance that the great stimulus to exertion has been wanting, and no pressing necessity has thrown us upon our own resources. Still the feeling of patriotism must prompt the desire that native genius should be conspicuous in every high career of human intellect, and that a national spirit in the liberal arts should be encouraged, as instruments to nourish the civic virtues and give scope to the energies of mind among our countrymen. That this has not hitherto been effected, can hardly excite surprise in any one acquainted with our history. While we have been filling this wide land with people, it is not remarkable that as a nation, we should have found little leisure to cultivate the refinements of intellectual taste,
The present state and future prospects of literature among us offer a theme for fond anticipation and sagacious conjecture, but hardly for certain calculation. There is a vast amount of intellect daily developing in the community, and again absorbed in the great purposes to which the ingenuity and enterprise of our busy population are constantly giving birth. The precise effect of this power, when settled into regular channels of action in the various departments of literature cannot be foreseen. In the twilight of the morning of letters which now dawns upon us, the general outline of the view is indistinct and wavering, and the eye meets with hardly a point upon which to rest with steadiness. But nothing lingers; every moment some new element is unfolding, the shadows flee, and the hour cometh, we doubt not, which shall usher in a new scene, and enlighten us with the fulness and splendor of a brighter day.
Note 1. Although this was the first book, it was not the first specimen of printing in the country. The year previous there was published an Almanack and The Freemans Oath. [back]
Note 2. Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas was a French poet of the time of Henry IV. His chief work was a poem on the creation, stuffed with absurdities. He called the head the lodging of the understanding, the eyes the twin stars, the nose the gutter or chimney, the teeth a double palisade used as a mill to the open throat. This poem was as much admired as is now Polloks Course of Time, and in five or six years passed through thirty editions. It was translated into English. The earliest writings of New England abound with allusions to this author. [back]
Note 4. The rage for anagrams appears to have been universal in the country at that time. The biographer of Wilson cites the criticisms of the Jews upon the Old Testament in defence of the practice, and declares that much devout instruction was realized from this play upon names. He complains that there were not a greater number of anagrams made upon the name of Wilson, and insinuates that the muses looked very dissatisfied when they beheld the inscription on his tomb without this customary appendage. [back]
Note 5. His name B. Tompson, is subscribed to the original edition of one of his poems. The epitaph on his tombstone at Roxbury is as follows. SUB SPE IMMORTALI YE HERSE OF MR BENJAMIN THOMSON, LEARNED SCHOOLMASTER AND PHYSICIAN, AND YE RENOWNED POET OF NEW ENGLAND. OBIIT APRILIS 13, ANNO DOMINI 1714, ET ÆTATIS SUÆ 74. MORTUUS SED IMMORTALIS. [back]