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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Early Verse-Writing in New England
By Moses Coit Tyler (1835–1900)
 
From ‘A History of American Literature’

A HAPPY surprise awaits those who come to the study of the early literature of New England with the expectation of finding it altogether arid in sentiment, or void of the spirit and aroma of poetry. The New-Englander of the seventeenth century was indeed a typical Puritan; and it will hardly be said that any typical Puritan of that century was a poetical personage. In proportion to his devotion to the ideas that won for him the derisive honor of his name, was he at war with nearly every form of the beautiful. He himself believed that there was an inappeasable feud between religion and art; and hence the duty of suppressing art was bound up in his soul with the master-purpose of promoting religion. He cultivated the grim and the ugly. He was afraid of the approaches of Satan through the avenues of what is graceful and joyous. The principal business of men and women in this world seemed to him to be not to make it as delightful as possible, but to get through it as safely as possible. By a whimsical and horrid freak of unconscious Manichæism, he thought that whatever is good here is appropriated to God, and whatever is pleasant, to the Devil. It is not strange if he were inclined to measure the holiness of a man’s life by its disagreeableness. In the logic and fury of his tremendous faith, he turned away utterly from music, from sculpture and painting, from architecture, from the adornments of costume, from the pleasures and embellishments of society,—because these things seemed only “the Devil’s flippery and seduction” to his “ascetic soul, aglow with the gloomy or rapturous mysteries of his theology.” Hence, very naturally, he turned away likewise from certain great and splendid types of literature,—from the drama, from the playful and sensuous verse of Chaucer and his innumerable sons, from the secular prose writings of his contemporaries, and from all forms of modern lyric verse except the Calvinistic hymn.  1
  Nevertheless the Puritan did not succeed in eradicating poetry from his nature. Of course, poetry was planted there too deep even for his theological grub-hooks to root it out. Though denied expression in one way, the poetry that was in him forced itself into utterance in another. If his theology drove poetry out of many forms in which it had been used to reside, poetry itself practiced a noble revenge by taking up its abode in his theology. His supreme thought was given to theology; and there he nourished his imagination with the mightiest and sublimest conceptions that a human being can entertain—conceptions of God and man, of angels and devils, of Providence and duty and destiny, of heaven, earth, hell. Though he stamped his foot in horror and scorn upon many exquisite and delicious types of literary art; stripped society of all its embellishments, life of all its amenities, sacred architecture of all its grandeur, the public service of divine worship of the hallowed pomp, the pathos and beauty, of its most reverend and stately forms; though his prayers were often a snuffle, his hymns a dolorous whine, his extemporized liturgy a bleak ritual of ungainly postures and of harsh monotonous howls: yet the idea that filled and thrilled his soul was one in every way sublime, immense, imaginative, poetic,—the idea of the awful omnipotent Jehovah, his inexorable justice, his holiness, the inconceivable brightness of his majesty, the vastness of his unchanging designs along the entire range of his relations with the hierarchies of heaven, the principalities and powers of the pit, and the elect and the reprobate of the sons of Adam. How resplendent and superb was the poetry that lay at the heart of Puritanism, was seen by the sightless eyes of John Milton, whose great epic is indeed the epic of Puritanism.  2
  Turning to Puritanism as it existed in New England, we may perhaps imagine it as solemnly declining the visits of the Muses of poetry, sending out to them the blunt but honest message—“Otherwise engaged.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, Thalia and Melpomene and Terpsichore could not under any pretense have been admitted; but Polyhymnia—why should not she have been allowed to come in? especially if she were willing to forsake her deplorable sisters, give up her pagan habits, and submit to Christian baptism. Indeed, the Muse of New England, whosoever that respectable damsel may have been, was a Muse by no means exclusive: such as she was, she cordially visited every one who would receive her—and every one would receive her. It is an extraordinary fact about these grave and substantial men of New England, especially during our earliest literary age, that they all had a lurking propensity to write what they sincerely believed to be poetry,—and this, in most cases, in unconscious defiance of the edicts of nature and of a predetermining Providence. Lady Mary Montagu said that in England, in her time, verse-making had become as common as taking snuff. In New England, in the age before that, it had become much more common than taking snuff—since there were some who did not take snuff. It is impressive to note, as we inspect our first period, that neither advanced age, nor high office, nor mental unfitness, nor previous condition of respectability, was sufficient to protect any one from the poetic vice. We read of venerable men, like Peter Bulkley, continuing to lapse into it when far beyond the great climacteric. Governor Thomas Dudley was hardly a man to be suspected of such a thing, yet even against him the evidence must be pronounced conclusive: some verses in his own handwriting were found upon his person after his death. Even the sage and serious governor of Plymouth wrote ostensible poems. The renowned pulpit orator, John Cotton, did the same; although in some instances, he prudently concealed the fact by inscribing his English verse in Greek characters upon the blank leaves of his almanac. Here and there, even a town clerk, placing on record the deeply prosaic proceedings of the selectmen, would adorn them in the sacred costume of poetry. Perhaps, indeed, all this was their solitary condescension to human frailty. The earthly element, the passion, the carnal taint, the vanity, the weariness, or whatever else it be that in other men works itself off in a pleasure journey, in a flirtation, in going to the play, or in a convivial bout, did in these venerable men exhaust itself in the sly dissipation of writing verses. Remembering their unfriendly attitude toward art in general, this universal mania of theirs for some forms of the poetic art—this unrestrained proclivity toward the “lust of versification”—must seem to us an odd psychological freak. Or shall we rather say that it was not a freak at all, but a normal effort of nature, which, being unduly repressed in one direction, is accustomed to burst over all barriers in another; and that these grim and godly personages in the old times fell into the intemperance of rhyming, just as in later days, excellent ministers of the gospel and gray-haired deacons, recoiling from the sin and scandal of a game at billiards, have been known to manifest an inordinate joy in the orthodox frivolity of croquet? As respects the poetry which was perpetrated by our ancestors, it must be mentioned that a benignant Providence has its own methods of protecting the human family from intolerable misfortune; and that the most of this poetry has perished. Enough, however, has survived to furnish us with materials for everlasting gratitude, by enabling us in a measure to realize the nature and extent of the calamity which the Divine intervention has spared us.  3
  It will be natural for us to suppose that at any rate, poetry in New England in the seventeenth century could not have been a Gaya Sciencia, as poetry was called in Provence in the thirteenth century. Even this, however, is not quite correct; for no inconsiderable part of early New England poetry has a positively facetious intention,—that part, namely, which consists of elegies and epitaphs. Our ancestors seem to have reserved their witticisms principally for tombstones and funerals. When a man died, his surviving friends were wont to conspire together to write verses upon him,—and these verses often sparkled with the most elaborate and painful jests. Thus in 1647, upon the death of the renowned Thomas Hooker of Hartford, his colleague in the pastorate, Samuel Stone, wrote to an eminent minister in Massachusetts certain words of grave and cautious suggestion: “You may think whether it may not be comely for you and myself and some other elders, to make a few verses for Mr. Hooker, and transcribe them in the beginning of his book. I do but propound it.” The appeal was effectual: and when, a few years later, it came Samuel Stone’s turn to depart this life, those who outlived him rendered to his memory a similar service; his name furnishing an unusually pleasant opportunity for those ingenuities of allusion, and those literary quirks and puns, that were then thought to be among the graces of a threnody.  4
 
 
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