Anne Bradstreet and her time/Chapter VII
colonial literary development in the seventeenth century.
IT was before the final charge from Ipswich to Andover, that the chief part of Anne Bradstreet's literary work was done, the ten years after her arrival in New England being the only fruitful ones. As daughter and wife of two of the chief magistrates, she heard the constant discussion of questions of policy as well as questions of faith, both strongly agitated by the stormy years of Anne Hutchinson's stay in Boston, and it is very probable that she sought refuge from the anxiety of the troubled days, in poetical composition, and in poring over Ancient History found consolation in the fact that old times were by no means better than the new. The literary life of New England had already begun, and it is worth while to follow the lines of its growth and development, through the colonial days, if only to understand better the curious limitations for any one who sought to give tangible form to thought, whether in prose or poetry. For North and South, the story was the same.
The points of divergence in the northern and southern colonies have been so emphasized, and the impression has become so fixed, that the divisions of country had as little in common as came later to be the fact, that any statement as to their essential agreement, is distrusted or denied. Yet even to-day, in a region where many causes have made against purity of blood, the traveller in the South is often startled, in some remote town of the Carolinas or of Virginia, at the sight of what can only be characterized as a Southern Yankee. At one's very side in the little church may sit a man who, if met in Boston, would be taken for a Brahmin of the Brahmins. His face is as distinctively a New England one as was Emerson's. High but narrow forehead, prominent nose, thin lips, and cheek bones a trifle high; clear, cold blue eyes and a slender upright figure. Every line shows repressed force, the possibility of passionate energy, of fierce enmity and ruthless judgment on anything outside of personal experience. Culture is equally evident, but culture refusing to believe in anything modern, and resting its claims on little beyond the time of Queen Anne. It is the Puritan alive again, and why not? Descended directly from some stray member of the Cromwellian party who fled at the Restoration, he chose Virginia rather than New England, allured by the milder climate. But he is of the same class, the same prejudices and limitations as the New England Puritan, the sole difference being that he has stood still while the other passed on unrestingly. But in 1635, it was merely a difference of location, never of mental habit, that divided them. For both alike, the description given by one of our most brilliant writers, applied the English people of the seventeenth century being summed up in words quite as applicable to-day as then: "At that time, though they were apparently divided into many classes, they were really divided into only two—first, the disciples of things as they are; second, the disciples of things as they ought to be."
It was chiefly "the disciples of things as they ought to be" that passed over from Old England to the New, and as such faith means usually supreme discomfort for its holder, and quite as much for the opposer, there was a constant and lively ebullition of forces on either side. Every Puritan who came over waged a triple war—first, with himself as a creature of malignant and desperate tendencies, likely at any moment to commit some act born of hell; second, with the devil, at times regarded as practically synonymous with one's own nature, at others as a tangible and audacious adversary; and last and always, with all who differed from his own standard of right and wrong—chiefly wrong. The motto of that time was less "Dare to do right," than "Do not dare to do wrong." All mental and spiritual furnishings were shaken out of the windows daily, by way of dislodging any chance seeds of vice sown by the great adversary. One would have thought the conflict with natural forces quite enough to absorb all superfluous energy, every fact of climate, soil and natural features being against them, but neither scanty harvests, nor Indian wars, nor devastating disease, had the power to long suppress this perpetual and unflinching self-discipline.
Unlike any other colony of the New World, the sole purpose and motive of action was an ideal one. The Dutch sought peltries and trade in general, and wherever they established themselves, at once gave tokens of material comfort and prosperity. The more Southern Colonies were this basis, adding to it the freedom of life—the large hospitality possible where miles of land formed the plantation, and service meant no direct outlay or expense. Here and there a Southern Puritan was found, as his type may be found to-day, resisting the charm of physical ease and comfort, and constituting himself a missionary to the Indians of South Carolina, or to settlements remote from all gospel privileges, but for the most part the habits of an English country prevailed, and were enlarged upon; each man in the centre of his great property being practically king. Dispersion of forces was the order, and thus many necessities of civilization were dispensed with. The man who had a river at his door had no occasion to worry over the making or improvement of roads, a boat carrying his supplies, and bridle-paths sufficing his horse and himself. With no need for strenuous conflict with nature or man, the power of resistance died naturally. Sharp lines softened; muscles weakened, and before many generations the type had so altered that the people who had left England as one, were two, once for all.
The law of dispersion, practical and agreeable to the Southern landholder, would have been destruction to his New England brethren. For the latter, concentration was the only safety. They massed together in close communities, and necessarily were forced to plan for the general rather than for the individual good. In such close quarters, where every angle made itself felt, and constant contact developed and implied criticism, law must work far more minutely than in less exacting communities. Every tendency to introspection and self-judging was strengthened to the utmost, and merciless condemnation for one's self came to mean a still sharper one for others. With every power of brain and soul they fought against what, to them, seemed the one evil for that or any time—toleration. Each man had his own thought, and was able to put it into strong words. No colony has ever known so large a proportion of learned men, there being more graduates of Cambridge and Oxford between the years 1630 and 1690 than it was possible to find in a population of the same size in the mother country. "In its inception, New England was not an agricultural community, nor a manufacturing community, nor a trading community; it was a thinking community—an arena and mart for ideas—its characteristic organ being not the hand, nor the heart, nor the pocket, but the brain."
The material for learning, we have seen, was of the scantiest, not only for Winthrop's Colony but for those that preceded it.
The three little ships that, on a misty afternoon in December, 1606, dropped down the Thames with sails set for an unknown country, carried any freight but that of books. Book-makers were there in less proportion than on board the solitary vessel that, in 1620, took a more northerly course, and cast anchor at last off the bleak and sullen shore of Massachusetts; but for both alike the stress of those early years left small energy or time for any composition beyond the reports that, at stated intervals, went back to the mother country. The work of the pioneer is for muscles first, brain having small opportunity, save as director; and it required more than one generation before authorship could become the business of any, not even the clergy being excepted from the stress of hard manual labor.
Yet, for the first departure, an enthusiasm of hope and faith filled many hearts. The England of that day had not been too kindly toward her men of letters, who were then, as now, also men of dreams, looking for something better than the best she had to offer, and who, in the early years of the seventeenth century, gathered in London as the centre least touched by the bigotry and narrowness of one party, the wild laxity and folly of the other. "The very air of London must have been electric with the daily words of those immortals whose casual talk upon the pavement by the street-side was a coinage of speech richer, more virile, more expressive than has been known on this planet since the great days of Athenian poetry, eloquence and mirth." There were "wits, dramatists, scholars, orators, singers, philosophers." For every one of them was the faith of something undefined, yet infinitely precious, to be born of all the mysterious influences in that new land to which all eyes turned, and old Michael Drayton's ringing ode on their departure held also a prophecy:
"In kenning of the shore,
Thanks to God first given,
O you, the happiest men,
Be frolic then;
Let cannons roar,
Frighting the wide heaven.
"And in regions far
Such heroes bring ye forth
As those from whom we came;
And plant our name
Under that star
Not known unto our north.
"And as there plenty grows
Of laurel everywhere—
Apollo's sacred tree—
You, it may see,
A poet's brows to crown
That may sing there."
The men who, in passing over to America could not cease to be Englishmen, were the friends and associates—the intellectual equals in many points of this extraordinary assemblage of brilliant and audacious intellects; and chief among them was the man at whose name we are all inclined to smile—Captain John Smith. So many myths have hid the real man from view—some of them, it must be admitted, of his own making—that we forget how vivid and resolute a personality he owned, and the pride we may well have in him as the writer of the first distinctively American book. His work was not only for Virginia, but for New England as well. His life was given to the interests of both. Defeated plans, baffled hopes, had no power to quench the absorbing love that filled him to the end, and, at the very last, he wrote of the American colonies: "By that acquaintance I have with them, I call them my children; for they have been my wife, my hawks, hounds, my cards, my dice, and, in total, my best content, as indifferent to my heart as my left hand to my right."
Certain qualities, most prominent then, have, after a long disappearance, become once more, in degree at least, characteristic of the time. The book man of to-day is quite as likely to be also the man of affairs, and the pale and cloistered student of the past is rather a memory than a present fact. History thus repeats itself as usual, and the story of the literary men of the nineteenth century has many points in common with that of the seventeenth.
Smith's description of New England had had active circulation in the Mother Country, and many a Puritan trusted it entirely, who would have frowned upon the writer had he appeared in person to testify of what he had seen. Certainly the Cavalier predominated in him, the type to which he belonged being of the noble one "of which the Elizabethan age produced so many examples—the man of action who was also the man of letters; the man of letters who was also a man of action; the wholesomest type of manhood anywhere to be found; body and brain both active, both cultivated; the mind not made fastidious and morbid by too much bookishness, nor coarse and dull by too little; not a doer who is dumb, not a speech-maker who cannot do; the knowledge that comes of books, widened and freshened by the knowledge that comes of experience; the literary sense fortified by common sense; the bashfulness and delicacy of the scholar hovering as a finer presence above the forceful audacity of the man of the world; at once bookman, penman, swordsman, diplomat, sailor, courtier, orator. Of this type of manhood, spacious, strong, refined and sane, were the best men of the Elizabethan time, George Gascoigne, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, and, in a modified sense, Hakluyt, Bacon, Sackville, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and nearly all the rest."
It would have been impossible to make John Smith a Puritan, but an ameliorated Puritan might easily have become a John Smith. It is worth while to recall his work and that of his fellow colonists, if only to note the wide and immediate departure of thought in the northern and southern colonies, even where the Puritan element entered in, nor can we understand Anne Bradstreet, without a thought of the forces at work in the new country, unconscious but potent causes of all phases of literary life in that early time.
The Virginia colonist had more knowledge of the world and less knowledge of himself, introspection, or any desire for it, being no part of his mental constitution or habit.
Intellectually, he demanded a spherical excellence, easier then than now, and attained by many a student of that day, and to this Captain John aspired, one at least of his contemporaries giving proof of faith that he had attained it in lines written on him and his book on the history of Virginia and New England:
"Like Cæsar, now thou writ'st what thou hast done.
These acts, this book, will live while there's a sun."
The history is picturesque, and often amusing. As a writer he was always "racy, terse, fearless," but, save to the special student, there is little value to the present student, unless he be a searcher after the spirit that moved not only the man, but, through him, the time he moulded. For such reader will still be felt "the impression of a certain personal largeness . . . magnanimity, affluence, sense and executive force. Over all his personal associates in American adventure he seems to tower, by the natural loftiness and reach of the perception with which he grasped the significance of their vast enterprise and the means to its success. . . . He had the faults of an impulsive, irascible, egotistic and imaginative nature; he sometimes bought human praise at too high a price, but he had great abilities in word and deed; his nature was, upon the whole, generous and noble; and during the first two decades of the seventeenth century, he did more than any other Englishman to make an American nation and an American literature possible."
Behind the stockade at Jamestown, only the most persistent bent toward letters had chance of surviving. Joyful as the landing had been, the Colony had no sturdy backbone of practical workers. Their first summer was unutterably forlorn, the beauty and fertility that had seemed to promise to the sea-sad eyes a life of instant ease, bringing with it only a "horrible trail of homesickness, discord, starvation, pestilence and Indian hostility." No common purpose united them, as in the Northern Colony. Save for the leaders, individual profit had been the only ambition or intention. Work had no place in the scheme of life, and even when ship after ship discharged its load of immigrants matters were hardly mended. Perpetual discord became the law. Smith fled from the tumults which he had no power to quiet, and a long succession of soon-discouraged officers waged a species of hand-to-hand conflict with the wild elements that made up the Colony. One poet, George Sandys, whose name and work are still of meaning and value to the student, found leisure, borrowed from the night, for a translation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," commended by both Dryden and Pope, and which passed at once through eight editions, but there were no others.
Twenty years of colonial life had ended when he returned to England, and the spirit of the early founders had well nigh disappeared. Literary work had died with it. A few had small libraries, chiefly Latin classics, but a curious torpor had settled down, the reasons for which are now evident. There was no constant intercourse, as in New England. The "policy of dispersion" was the law, for every man aspired to be a large land-owner, and, in the midst of his tract of half-cleared land, had small communication with any but his inferiors. Within fifty years any intellectual standard had practically ceased to exist. The Governor, Sir William Berkeley, whose long rule meant death to progress, thundered against the printing-press, and believed absolutely in the "fine old conservative policy of keeping subjects ignorant in order to keep them submissive." For thirty-six years his energies were bent in this direction. Protest of any sort simply intensified his purpose, and when 1670 dawned he had the happiness of making to the English Commissioners a reply that has become immortal, though hardly in the sense anticipated, when he wrote: "I thank God there are no free schools, nor printing; and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both."
A dark prayer, and answered as fully as men's own acts can fulfill their prayers. The brilliant men who had passed from the scene had no successors. The few malcontents were silenced by a law which made "even the first thrust of the pressman's lever a crime," and until 1729 there was neither printing nor desire for printing in any general sense. The point where our literature began had become apparently its burial-place; the historians and poets and students of an earlier generation were not only unheeded but forgotten, and a hundred years of intellectual barrenness, with another hundred, before even partial recovery could be apparent, were the portion of Virginia and all the states she influenced or controlled. No power could have made it otherwise. "Had much literature been produced there, would it not have been a miracle? The units of the community isolated; little chance for mind to kindle mind; no schools; no literary institutions, high or low; no public libraries; no printing-press; no intellectual freedom; no religious freedom; the forces of society tending to create two great classes—a class of vast land-owners, haughty, hospitable, indolent, passionate, given to field sports and politics; and a class of impoverished white plebeians and black serfs; these constitute a situation out of which may be evolved country gentlemen, loud-lunged and jolly fox-hunters, militia heroes, men of boundless domestic heartiness and social grace, astute and imperious politicians, fiery orators, and, by and by, here and there, perhaps after awhile, a few amateur literary men—but no literary class, and almost no literature."
The Northern Colony had known strange changes also, but every circumstance and accident of its life fostered the literary spirit and made the student the most honored member of the community. The Mayflower brought a larger proportion of men with literary antecedents and tendencies than had landed on the Virginia coast; and though every detail of life was fuller of hard work, privation and danger—climate being even more against them than Indians or any other misery of the early years—the proportion remained much the same. It is often claimed that this early environment was utterly opposed to any possibility of literary development. On the contrary, "those environments were, for a certain class of mind, extremely wholesome and stimulating." Hawthorne has written somewhere: "New England was then in a state incomparably more picturesque than at present, or than it has been within the memory of man." And Tyler, in his brilliant analysis of early colonial forces, takes much the same ground: "There were about them many of the tokens and forces of a picturesque, romantic and impressive life; the infinite solitudes of the wilderness, its mystery, its peace; the near presence of nature, vast, potent, unassailed; the strange problems presented to them by savage character and savage life; their own escape from great cities, from crowds, from mean competition; the luxury of having room enough; the delight of being free; the urgent interest of all the Protestant world in their undertaking; the hopes of humanity already looking thither; the coming to them of scholars, saints, statesmen, philosophers."
Yet even for these men there were restraints that to-day seem shameful and degrading. Harvard College had been made responsible for the good behavior of the printing-press set up in 1639, and for twenty-three years this seemed sufficient. Finally two official licensers were appointed, whose business was to read and pronounce a verdict either for or against everything proposed for publication. Anyone might consider these hindrances sufficient, but intolerance gained with every year of restriction, and when finally the officers were induced by arguments which must have been singularly powerful, to allow the printing of an edition of "Invitation of Christ," a howl arose from every council and general assembly, whether of laws of divinity, and the unlucky book was characterized as one written "by a popish minister, wherein is contained some things that are less safe to be infused amongst the people of this place"; and the authorities ordered not only a revisal of its contents but a cessation of all work on the printing-press. Common sense at length came to the rescue, but legal restraints on printing were not abolished in Massachusetts until twenty-one years before the Declaration of Independence.
As with Virginia the early years were most fertile in work of any interest to the present time, and naturally so. Fresh from the life not only of books but of knowledge of "the central currents of the world's best thinking," these influences could not die out in the generation nearest them. For every writer, some history of the Colony was the first instinct, and William Bradford holds the same relation to New England as Captain John Smith to Virginia—the racy, incisive, picturesque diction of the latter being a key-hole to their colonial life, as symbolical as the measured, restrained and solemn periods of the Puritan writer. Argument had become a necessity of life. It had been forced upon them in England in the endeavor to define their position not only to the Cavalier element but to themselves, and became finally so rooted a mental habit that "even on the brink of any momentous enterprise they would stop and argue the case if a suspicion occurred to them that things were not right."
They were never meek and dreamy saints, but, on the contrary, "rather pragmatical and disputatious persons, with all the edges and corners of their characters left sharp, with all their opinions very definitely formed, and with their habits of frank utterance quite thoroughly matured." But for Bradford, and Morton, and Johnson, and other equally worthy and honored names, this disputatious tendency was a surface matter, and the deeper traits were of an order that make petty peculiarities forgotten. For Bradford especially, was "an untroubled command of strong and manly speech. . . . The daily food of his spirit was noble. He uttered himself without effort, like a free man, a sage and a Christian," and his voice was that of many who followed him. Loving the mother country with passion, the sense of exile long remained with them—a double exile, since they had first taken firm hold in Leyden, and parted from its ease and prosperity with words which hold the pathos and quiet endurance still the undertone of much New England life, and which, though already quoted, are the key note of the early days.
"So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting-place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on these things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, that dearest country, and quieted their spirits."
What John Winthrop's work was like, whether in private diary or letter, or in more formal composition, we have already seen, but there is one speech of his in 1645, which was of profoundest interest to the whole Colony, and must have stirred Anne Bradstreet to the very depths. This speech was made before the general court after his acquittal of the charge of having exceeded his authority as deputy governor. And one passage, containing his statement of the nature of liberty, has been pronounced by both English and American thinkers far beyond the definition of Blackstone, and fully on a par with the noblest utterances of John Locke or Algernon Sidney.
As time went on authorship passed naturally into the hands of the clergy, who came to be the only class with much leisure for study. The range of subjects treated dwindled more and more from year to year. The breadth and vigor of the early days were lost, the pragmatical and disputatious element gaining more and more ground. Unfortunately, "they stood aloof with a sort of horror from the richest and most exhilarating types of classic writing in their own tongue." The Hebrew Scriptures and many classics of Roman and Greek literature were still allowed; but no genuine literary development could take place where the sinewy and vital thought of their own nation was set aside as unworthy of consideration. The esthetic sense dwindled and pined. Standards of judgment altered. The capacity for discrimination lessened. Theological quibbling made much of the literature of the day, though there was much more than quibbling. But the keenest minds, no matter how vivid and beautiful their intelligence, were certain that neither man as a body, nor the world as a home, were anything but black evils, ruined by the fall of Adam, and to be ignored and despised with every power and faculty. Faith in God came to be faith in "a microscopic and picayune Providence," governing the meanest detail of the elect's existence, and faith in man had no place in any scheme of life or thought. If a poem were written it came to be merely some transcription from the Bible, or an epitaph or elegy on some departed saint.
In spite of themselves, however, humor, the Saxon birthright, refused to be suppressed, and asserted itself in unexpected ways, as in Nathaniel Ward's "Simple Cobbler of Agawam," already mentioned. What the cobbler saw was chiefly the theological difficulties of the time. Discord and confusion seemed to have settled upon the earth, and "looking out over English Christendom, he saw nothing but a chaos of jangling opinions, upstart novelties, lawless manners, illimitable changes in codes, institutions and creeds." He declaims ferociously against freedom of opinion, and "the fathers of the inquisition might have reveled over the first twenty-five pages of this Protestant book, that actually blaze with the eloquent savagery and rapture of religious intolerance." He laughed in the midst of this declamation, but it was rather a sardonic laugh, and soon checked by fresh consideration of man's vileness.
Liberty had received many a blow from the hands of these men, who had fled from home and country to secure it, but it could not die while their own principles were remembered, and constantly at one point or another, irrepressible men and women rose up, bent upon free thought and free speech, and shaming even the most determined and intolerant spirit. One of such men, outspoken by nature, recorded his mind in some two thousand printed pages, and Roger Williams even to-day looms up with all the more power because we have become "rather fatigued by the monotony of so vast a throng of sages and saints, all quite immaculate, all equally prim and stiff in their Puritan starch and uniform, all equally automatic and freezing." It is most comfortable to find anyone defying the rigid and formal law of the time, whether spoken or implied, and we have positive "relief in the easy swing of this man's gait, the limberness of his personal movement, his escape from the pasteboard proprieties, his spontaneity, his impetuosity, his indiscretions, his frank acknowledgements that he really had a few things yet to learn." He demanded spiritual liberty, and though, as time went on, he learned to use gentler phrases, he was always a century or two ahead of his age. The mirthfulness of his early days passed, as well it might, but a better possession—cheerfulness—remained to the end. Exile never embittered him, and the writings that are his legacy "show an habitual upwardness of mental movement; they grow rich in all gentle, gracious, and magnanimous qualities as the years increase upon him."
His influence upon New England was a profound one, and the seed sown bore fruit long after his mortal body had crumbled into dust; but it was chiefly in theological lines, to which all thought now tended. Poetry, so far as drama or lyric verse was concerned, had been forsworn by the soul of every true Puritan, but "of course poetry was planted there too deep even for his theological grub-hooks to root out. If, however, his theology drove poetry out of many forms in which it has been used to reside, poetry itself practiced a noble revenge by taking up its abode in his theology." Stedman gives a masterly analysis of this time in the opening essay of his "Victorian Poets," showing the shackles all minds wore, and comparing the time when "even nature's laws were compelled to bow to church fanaticism," to the happier day in which "science, freedom of thought, refinement and material progress have moved along together."
We have seen how the power of keen and delicate literary judgment or discrimination died insensibly. The first era of literary development passed with the first founders of the Republic, and original thought and expression lay dormant, save in theological directions. As with all new forms of life, the second stage was an imitative one, and the few outside the clergy who essayed writing at all copied the worst models of the Johnsonian period. Verse was still welcome, and the verse-makers of the colonial time were many. Even venerable clergymen like Peter Bulkley gave way to its influence. Ostensible poems were written by more than one governor; John Cotton yielded to the spell, though he hid the fact discreetly by writing his English verses in Greek characters, and confining them to the blank leaves of his almanac. Debarred from ordinary amusements or occupations, the irrepressible need of expression effervesced in rhymes as rugged and unlovely as the writers, and ream upon ream of verse accumulated. Had it found permanent form, our libraries would have been even more encumbered than at present, but fortunately most of it has perished. Elegies and epitaphs were its favorite method, and the "most elaborate and painful jests," every conceivable and some inconceivable quirks and solemn puns made up their substance. The obituary poet of the present is sufficiently conspicuous in the daily papers which are available for his flights, but the leading poets of to-day do not feel that it is incumbent upon them to evolve stanzas in a casual way on every mournful occasion. In that elder day allegories, anagrams, acrostics—all intended to have a consolatory effect on mourning friends—flowed from every clerical pen, adding a new terror to death and a new burden to life, but received by the readers with a species of solemn glee. Of one given to this habit Cotton Mather writes that he "had so nimble a faculty of putting his devout thoughts into verse that he signalized himself by . . . sending poems to all persons, in all places, on all occasions, . . . wherein if the curious relished the piety sometimes rather than the poetry, the capacity of the most therein to be accommodated must be considered." Another poet had presently the opportunity to "embalm his memory in some congenial verses," and wrote an epitaph, and ended with a full description of—
"His care to guide his flock and feed his lambs,
By words, works, prayers, psalms, alms and anagrams."
To this period belongs a poetic phenomenon—a metrical horror known as "The Bay Psalm Book," being the first English book ever issued from an American printing-press. Tyler has given with his accustomed happy facility of phrase the most truthful description yet made of a production that formed for years the chief poetical reading of the average New Englander, and undoubtedly did more to lower taste and make inferior verse seem praiseworthy than any and all other causes. He writes: "In turning over these venerable pages, one suffers by sympathy something of the obvious toil of the undaunted men who, in the very teeth of nature, did all this; and whose appalling sincerity must, in our eyes, cover a multitude of such sins as sentences wrenched about end for end, clauses heaved up and abandoned in chaos, words disemboweled or split quite in two in the middle, and dissonant combinations of sound that are the despair of such poor vocal organs as are granted to human beings. The verses seem to have been hammered out on an anvil, by blows from a blacksmith's sledge. In all parts of the book is manifest the agony it cost the writers to find two words that would rhyme—more or less; and so often as this arduous feat is achieved, the poetic athlete appears to pause awhile from sheer exhaustion, panting heavily for breath. Let us now read, for our improvement, a part of the Fifty-eighth Psalm:
"The wicked are estranged from
the womb, they goe astray
as soon as ever they are borne,
uttering lyes are they.
Their poyson's like serpents poyson,
they like deafe Aspe her eare
that stops. Though Charmer wisely charm,
his voice she will not heare.
Within their mouth, doe thou their teeth,
break out, O God most strong,
doe thou Jehovah, the great teeth
break of the lions young."
It is small wonder that Anne Bradstreet's poems struck the unhappy New Englanders who had been limited to verse of this description as the work of one who could be nothing less than the "Tenth Muse." When the first edition of her poems appeared, really in 1650, though the date is usually given as 1642, a younger generation had come upon the scene. The worst hardships were over. Wealth had accumulated, and the comfort which is the distinguishing characteristic of New England homes to-day, was well established. Harvard College was filled with bright young scholars, in whom her work awakened the keenest enthusiasm; who had insight enough to recognize her as the one shining example of poetic power in that generation, and who wrote innumerable elegies and threnodies on her life and work.
The elegy seems to have appealed more strongly to the Puritan mind than any other poetical form, and they exhausted every verbal device in perpetuating the memory of friends who scarcely needed this new terror added to a death already surrounded by a gloom that even their strongest faith hardly dispelled.
"Let groans inspire my quill," one clerical twister of language began, and another wrote with the painful and elephantine lightness which was the Puritan idea of humor, an epitaph which may serve as sufficient illustration of the whole unutterably dreary mass of verse:
"Gospel and law in 's heart had each its column;
His head an index to the sacred volume;
His very name a title page and next
His life a commentary on the text.
Oh, what a monument of glorious worth,
When in a new edition he comes forth
Without erratas may we think he'll be,
In leaves and covers of eternity."
Better examples were before them, for books were imported freely, but minds had settled into the mould which they kept for more than one generation, unaffected in slightest measure by the steady progress of thought in the old home.
The younger writers were influenced to a certain degree by the new school, but lacked power to pass beyond it. Pope was now in full tide of success, and, with Thomson, Watts and Young, found hosts of sympathetic and admiring readers who would have turned in horror from the pages of Shakespeare or the early dramatists. The measure adopted by Pope charmed the popular mind, and while it helped to smooth the asperities of Puritan verse, became also the easy vehicle of the commonplace. There were hints here and there of something better to come, and in the many examples of verse remaining it is easy to discern a coming era of free thought and more musical expression. Peter Folger had sent out from the fogs of Nantucket a defiant and rollicking voice; John Rogers and Urian Oakes, both poets and both Harvard presidents, had done something better than mere rhyme, but it remained for another pastor, teacher and physician to sound a note that roused all New England. Michael Wigglesworth might have been immortal, could the genius born in him have been fed and trained by any of the "sane and mighty masters of English song"; but, born to the inheritance of a narrow and ferocious creed, with no power left to even admit the existence of the beautiful, he was "forever incapable of giving utterance to his genius—except in a dialect unworthy of it," and became simply "the explicit and unshrinking rhymer of the five points of Calvinism."
Cotton Mather describes him as "a feeble little shadow of a man." He was "the embodiment of what was great, earnest and sad in colonial New England." He was tenderly sympathetic, and his own life, made up mostly of sorrow and pain, filled him with longing to help others. "A sensitive, firm, wide-ranging, unresting spirit, he looks out mournfully over the throngs of men that fill the world, all of them totally depraved, all of them caught, from farthest eternity, in the adamantine meshes of God's decrees; the most of them also being doomed in advance by those decrees to an endless existence of ineffable torment; and upon this situation of affairs the excellent Michael Wigglesworth proposes to make poetry." His "Day of Doom," a horribly realistic description of every terror of the expected judgment, was written in a swinging ballad measure that took instant hold of the popular mind. No book ever printed in America has met with a proportionate commercial success. "The eighteen hundred copies of the first edition were sold within a single year; which implies the purchase of a copy of 'The Day of Doom' by at least every thirty-fifth person in New England. . . . Since that time the book has been repeatedly published, at least once in England and at least eight times in America, the last time being in 1867."
It penetrated finally all parts of the country where Puritan faith or manners prevailed. It was an intellectual influence far beyond anything we can now imagine. It was learned by heart along with the catechism, and for a hundred years was found on every book-shelf, no matter how sparsely furnished otherwise. Even after the Revolution, which produced the usual effect of all war in bringing in unrestrained thought, it was still a source of terror, and thrilled and prepared all readers for the equally fearful pictures drawn by Edwards and his successors.
It is fortunate, perhaps, that Anne Bradstreet did not live to read and be influenced by this poem, as simply candid in its form and conception as the "Last Judgements" of the early masters, and like them, portraying devils with much more apparent satisfaction than saints. There is one passage that deserves record as evidence of what the Puritan faith had done toward paralyzing common sense, though there are still corners in the United States where it would be read without the least sense of its grotesque horror. The various classes of sinners have all been attended to, and now, awaiting the last relay of offenders—
"With dismal chains, and strongest reins
Like prisoners of hell,
They're held in place before Christ's face,
Till he their doom shall tell.
These void of tears, but filled with fears,
And dreadful expectation
Of endless pains and scalding flames,
Stand waiting for damnation."
The saints have received their place and look with an ineffable and satisfied smirk on the despair of the sinners, all turning at last to gaze upon the battalion of "reprobate infants," described in the same brisk measure:
"Then to the bar all they drew near
Who died in infancy,
And never had, or good or bad,
But from the womb unto the tomb
Were straightway carried,
Or, at the least, ere they transgressed—
Who thus began to plead."
These infants, appalled at what lies before them, begin to first argue with true Puritanic subtlety, and finding this useless, resort to pitiful pleadings, which result in a slight concession, though the unflinching Michael gives no hint of what either the Judge or his victims would regard as "the easiest room." The infants receive their sentence with no further remark.
"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 lived 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."
In such faith the little Bradstreets were brought up, and the oldest, who became a minister, undoubtedly preached it with the gusto of the time, and quoted the final description of the sufferings of the lost, as an efficient argument with sinners:
"Then might you hear them rend and tear
The air with their outcries;
The hideous noise of their sad voice,
Ascendeth to the skies.
They wring their hands, their cartiff-hands,
And gnash their teeth for terror;
They cry, they roar, for anguish sore,
And gnaw their tongue for horror.
But get away without delay;
Christ pities not your cry;
Depart to hell, there may you yell
And roar eternally.
"Die fain they would, if die they could,
But death will not be had;
God's direful wrath their bodies hath
Forever immortal made.
They live to lie in misery
And bear eternal woe;
And live they must whilst God is just
That he may plague them so."
Of the various literary children who may be said to have been nurtured on Anne Bradstreet's verses, three became leaders of New England thought, and all wrote elegies on her death, one of them of marked beauty and power. It remained for a son of the sulphurous Wigglesworth, to leave the purest fragment of poetry the epoch produced, the one flower of a life, which at once buried itself in the cares of a country pastorate and gave no further sign of gift or wish to speak in verse. The poem records the fate of a gifted classmate, who graduated with him at Harvard, sailed for England, and dying on the return voyage, was buried at sea. It is a passionate lamentation, an appeal to Death, and at last a quiet resignation to the inevitable, the final lines having a music and a pathos seldom found in the crabbed New England verse:
"Add one kind drop unto his watery tomb;
Weep, ye relenting eyes and ears;
See, Death himself could not refrain,
But buried him in tears."
With him the eighteenth century opens, beyond which we have no present interest, such literary development as made part of Anne Bradstreet's knowledge ending with the seventeenth.