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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. I. The Transplanting of Culture: 1607–1650


OUR colonial literature, covering more than a century and a half, cannot be regarded (even by the charitable) as being of great intrinsic value. The interest that it possesses is political, social, or religious, not literary or imaginative. And yet it gives to the critic of literature an opportunity, such as the beginnings of hardly any other literature afford, to study the effects of environment upon the literary powers and products of a transplanted race.

It is usually held that transplantation to the American wilderness repressed the literary powers of the colonists who were too busy planting corn and repelling Indians to devote much attention to literature. Yet it is to be remembered that the colonists represented stocks that on the whole showed no great literary vitality at home. Except for Milton, Marvell, and a few less important names, Puritanism did extremely little for English poetry, not much for English prose. Nor did the Cavaliers, as a body outside of the court circle, rise in England greatly above the level of Virginia culture. Transplantation, it may be suspected, neither developed nor retarded the production of imaginative literature, but the new environment in New England did have a very considerable effect in directing writers to pietistic controversial subjects, for religion was the only ideal element in Puritan life, and the main feature of their relations with the outside world.

During the period covered by this volume there were, as we have just assumed, two centres of influence, Virginia and Massachusetts, Cavalier and Puritan, the former an extension of county England, the latter of English borough life. Or, to use literary symbols and to compare small things with great, the two earliest colonies represented respectively the England of Herrick, Carew, and Lovelace, and the England of Milton, Bunyan, and Baxter. At the very outset we meet with a typical Cavalier, a burly survival of knight-errantry, Captain John Smith, and he, though not strictly speaking an American, is typical of the adventurers, English country gentlemen, younger sons, plain town and country folk, who settled the southern colony. They were uncourtly but yet genuinely aristocratic, and, developing the aristocratic virtues of bravery and lavish hospitality, they formed a sort of feudal nobility whose qualities were accentuated by plantation life and by the absence of metropolitan standards. They brought with them no deep-seated artistic impulses, few inherited literary traditions. They produced little literature and developed little culture. The repression of learning and the printing press was the least of their grievances against Governor Berkeley, even as late as 1676. They lived quite aloof from the political struggles of their time, and were quite untouched by its scientific or artistic achievements.

And if we turn to Massachusetts the case is not much better, though it is different. There was here a nobler purpose. Such leaders as Bradford and Winthrop do not lack inspiring qualities, nor such figures as those of Captain Standish, the apostolic John Eliot, the tolerant Roger Williams, and the whole intolerant, but pious, learned, and commanding Brahmin caste of Puritan divines, qualities quaintly picturesque and attractive. But, when all is said, the annals of Colonial New England also are sadly wanting in perspective. The sober aristocracy of clergymen and magistrates, the plain democracy of God-fearing farmers, thrifty merchants, hardy fishermen and sailors, have, it is true, an interest for latter-day Americans. Hawthorne has shown how their life lent itself to literary treatment. But they did not discover it. Even though their numerous towns gave them what Virginia lacked, the advantages of social solidarity, they too had no deep-seated artistic impulses and few inherited literary instincts and aspirations. Their thoughts were bent on religion. In this they lived and of this they wrote. But their religion was narrow, individualistic, voicing itself not in a Divine Comedy, which they would have rejected, but in a Day of Doom, which they took literally to heart. Yet the muses were not without witness in either colony, and, though it is impossible here to describe adequately this exiguous production, it is worth while to remind the reader of its existence, that he may have some conception of the range of those writings whose quality the following pages are to illustrate. And for our purposes it will be most perspicuous to consider first the writers of verse, few of whom yield materials for our use, then the annalists, and finally the theologians.

Such verse writing as there was at first naturally followed British models, which is one reason for giving it attention before the work that is more directly a product of the new environment and experiences. Most of the annalists lapsed into verse at times, following the distinguished example of John Smith, but none of them, or of the clergy, shows in the first generations anything that springs from the heart of the people, or even any transmutation of alien culture. Individuals write as best they may according to familiar British models, just as most of our poets do to-day. Of this fact our first quasi-American poem, Rich’s Newes from Virginia, is an illustration. The sojourn in America of this “soldier blunt and plain” was brief, and literary Virginia has no cause to dispute his possession with the mother country; though during the colonial period that colony had little verse that is nameworthy, save the eulogy of Nathaniel Bacon in the “Epitaph made by his Man,” probably the only single product of sustained poetic art written in the first century and a half of Colonial America, but by a poet who has left us not even the shadow of his name.

In New England, as might have been expected, the general average of versification was less crude and the versifiers far more numerous, society being more serious-minded and far more scholarly. Governor Bradford and Governor Winthrop both wrote occasional verses of ponderous meditation, William Morrell and William Wood composed descriptive verses, as did the anonymous author of New England’s Annoyances, but these can pass for poetry only by comparison with the superlative crudity of the Bay Psalm Book, the first volume printed in British America. Very little better is the swarm of epitaphs, elegies, and memorial verses, though the divines that made these feeble concessions to despised art were not unable to hold their own with their British brethren. The larger part of this verse is embedded in the prose works, like flies in very cloudy amber, else surely it had never seen even an opaque light. Typical of this constant “dropping into verse” is Nathaniel Ward’s Simple Cobbler, of which presently.

There is but one person, during the period we are considering, who might have been and is almost a poet, Mrs. Anne Bradstreet, “the tenth Muse lately sprung up in America,” as her brother-in-law called her, daughter and wife of Colonial Governors, and not unworthy to have graced a chair in Madeleine de Scudéry’s famous Salon of the Précieuses, or even in the Chambre Bleue of Arthénice, though she was ever a sturdy Puritan, and as one of her admirers said “a right DuBartas girl.” Examples of her poetry and an encomium of it will be found elsewhere. We are concerned now to note the instant response of the colonists in their appreciation of the “fair authoress.” Their clumsy tributes show a naïve admiration, which suggests that they would have appreciated better poetry, though it is a curious fact that we have no trace of the existence of a copy of Shakespeare in New England during the seventeenth century. Yet she had little rhetorical art, and seems blind to the natural beauty about her. In style, form, and subject she, too, is an echo of Puritan England, though showing in her maturity more of the influence of Spenser than of Sylvester or of Quarles. It is a curious fact in literary heredity that among Mrs. Bradstreet’s descendants are the poets R. H. Dana and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the orator Wendell Phillips. Her father and sister also wrote verses, and among others who essayed poetry may be named Captain Edward Johnson, John Josselyn, and even Roger Williams. The last estate of poetry in the century was perhaps its most desperate one. Peter Folger in his Looking Glass for the Times is absolutely the most garrulously naïve and the most unpoetic of his land and century. His poem is the Ormulum of America and it betters the instruction.

The typical versifier of Puritan New England is doubtless Michael Wigglesworth, and the typical poem the Day of Doom, an awful, but to the Puritan mind, congenial theme, in treating which he displayed not a little curious ingenuity. He was the most facile and prolific of what we may call the school of Sternhold and Hopkins. Wigglesworth and Folger are, however, reserved for treatment in our second volume, when we enter upon a new poetic order corresponding to a moral and social change. The religious commonwealth is becoming secular, life is no longer a series of vicissitudes, love of wealth and comfort is beginning to supplant the fear of the Lord. Let us therefore retrace our steps and watch the progress of the same change in those prose annals and tractates in which the sturdy colonists found a more congenial and appropriate form of self-expression.

The first prose efforts of the colonists, whether in New England or Virginia, were naturally confined to sending home news of their doings that might procure them companions in arms and labors. Here priority in time, and perhaps primacy in interest, belongs to Captain John Smith’s True Relation, to which indeed American literature can lay but scant claim, any more than to similar writings of Percy, Strachey, Pory, and Whittaker. These told of the first years of struggle. In the fairly prosperous period that followed there was a decided lull in literary activity until a certain Colonel Norwood narrated to Sir William Berkeley his hairbreadth ’scapes on a voyage to Virginia. His story is interesting to us as a witness to the growing suppleness of English prose. Norwood was no artist, but he had at least got rid of much of the cumbrous phraseology of his predecessors. Yet for the moment in Virginia his example availed little. The government was distinctly illiberal, the Governor an obscurantist. “I thank God,” he said, “there are no free schools nor printing, and hope we shall not have them this hundred year. 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.” It is a nemesis of such illiberality that what is best worth reading of the annals of Colonial Virginia in this century should be the narratives of Bacon’s rebellion against it.

Meantime Virginia’s northern neighbor Maryland had produced the scholarly Latin Relatio of the Jesuit White, Hammond’s Leah and Rachel and George Alsop’s quaint Character of the Province of Maryland. The latter’s prose is better than his “melancholy Muse,” who by the way is apt to be a very indecorous person. If we pass from Maryland to the northern colonies, we find ourselves among a people not literary perhaps, yet intellectual and imaginative, a people who stood for an idea, who felt that they were the vanguard of freedom, religious and civil. That such men would write much and vigorously was a matter of course. It was part of their duty to give an account of themselves before man as well as God, and so their habits, their thoughts, are better known to us than those of any colonists anywhere. All the communities from Maine to Connecticut had common characteristics. The plain people were pious, hardy, thrifty. The Brahmin caste, their spiritual masters, were very learned, their magistrates God-fearing, and all were bound together by religious sympathies, solidified and strengthened by external pressure. In self-justification, in self-defence, as witness to God and man, the clergy, and the magistrates too, plied their pens, and as early as 1639 had provided themselves with a printing press. They cared little for poetry or art. The controversy of God with New England, or of New England with everybody else, was what interested them, whether they were telling their story or preaching their sermon, expounding their creed or illustrating it by their example.

First of the annalists is the dignified, sober, and benign William Bradford of Plymouth, with his co-partner in the Relation, Edward Winslow, both capable of a more humane humor than Francis Higginson of Salem, a beautifully pious soul, naïvely credulous. Rather credulous, too, is William Wood, though he was an acute observer, with a faculty of appropriate epithet that marks the progress of prose writing. Wood is not included in these pages, but room is found for John Underhill, who is worthy of note for his singular faculty of discerning special providences. He yields in this, however, to John Mason, who would perhaps have been surprised to be told that his miracle of the intoxicating bottle had been anticipated by six centuries in the legend of the Irish saint Ludigus. More sober and statesmanlike is the writing of John Winthrop, though he too does not escape superstition; while of wholly different yet not unattractive type is the rough, uncouth partisan Edward Johnson; and in curious contrast to them both is the Mephistophelian Thomas Morton. These were laymen. After the middle of the century the clergy, save for John Josselyn, the judicious Daniel Gookin, and a few others, take the lead both as annalists and as burdeners of the press with their sermons and treatises. Meantime in the Middle Colonies a few chroniclers had arisen, of whom Daniel Denton is here representative. One cannot take leave of these historical writers as a whole without paying tribute, not alone to their piety and learning, where they claimed it, but to their courageous optimism, their general intellectual sanity, their essential manliness. Annalists like these were no bad founders of a national literature.

But when we think of the writing of this period, what rises in the popular mind, and justly, is its theology. Not indeed in the Middle Colonies or in the South, though there were a few noteworthy divines even there, but in New England where a practical theocracy was to be seen in full flower. Easy-going planters might put up with clergymen of no intellectual attainments, even with those whose morals did something smack, but to a theocracy an intelligent priesthood is essential, and there were special reasons in New England that fostered literature in fostering autocracy. An Englishman does not readily submit to superiors, and to assert their dominance the New England clergy must needs be great counsellors, secular and religious, great scholars, preachers, and great private characters. These sturdy Puritans were ultra-Protestants, prone to follow the workings of their own minds. To dominate them the clergy had to be acute logicians and powerful reasoners. Narrow they might be; but of power, of sheer indomitable force, no body of citizens and no caste have ever been such complete exemplars as the New England Puritans, unless perhaps the Arabs under Mahomet, or the Frenchmen of the early Revolution. Both their isolation and their previous history contributed to the intensity of their convictions. Among these exiles for truth the pastors appear to us as heroes of spiritual combat, praying and preaching for hours together, rebuking the froward, counselling magistrates with authority in their election sermons, moulding youth, as appears in their New England Primer, wrestling with heretics, witches, Satan, and God. These priests appear to us as prophets, as uncrowned kings of the faithful. In their isolation they felt themselves set upon a hill, under obligation to give account for themselves to their English brethren, forced, too, to use every means to maintain their power; hence, as we have seen, their speedy importation of the printing press, which groaned as an instrument of God’s glory with learned sermons, theological and historical treatises. In those days church, pastor, and sermon took the place of our theatres, newspapers, lectures, novels, and stump-speaking. The meeting-house was the centre of town life, the minister the centre of the church. He was usually a college-bred man, almost always a voluminous writer, and, though no one of them in our period survives outside the anthological limbo, it is surprising to find how many, even of the more obscure, showed imaginative force, ponderous learning, and literary power of no mean order. Measured by literary standards the greatest of them was that stone rejected of the builders, Roger Williams; but our extracts will show that John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, and John Eliot were also able writers of their kind, while surely the most unique scold in our literature is the “Simple Cobbler,” Nathaniel Ward. Yet for all their zeal and power they were fighting a losing fight against nature. The spirit rebelled as well as the flesh. The end of the century is filled with lamentations, which already in our period begin to make themselves audible, of a change in the old order. Their vaulting spiritual ambition had defeated itself. But the crisis of that period belongs to a second period, whose early writers, together with several of those here named, to whom the division of our materials makes it expedient to recur, finds place in the second volume.