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Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.

By Critical and Biographical Notice

Cotton Mather (1663–1728)

IT is a pleasant exercise of the imagination, to wander back to the days of primitive simplicity, the annals of which are included in the early history of New England. To those who have mingled with the society of the present age, and have been amused and not bewildered by its pleasures; who have looked at its glittering outside, without being so dazzled as to require an unnatural splendor to excite their attention, the contemplation of this simplicity, merely in its contrast with modern refinement, will afford no small gratification. The casual observer, whose final judgment is based on first appearances, will find little to relieve the dreary sameness of the prospect before him, in the lives of those who were once regarded as the prodigies of their generations. To him, their worldly pilgrimage will seem only an unvaried routine of study, fasting and prayer, succeeding each other after measured intervals, and occupying almost every moment of the probationary threescore years and ten. Though he may find here and there a spot somewhat fresher than the rest,—perchance a green leaf or a delicate blossom, it will only excite a momentary surprise at its appearance in such a place, and the general aspect will be to him, that of an interminable regularity on which the eye loves not to repose. Such would be his impressions on a glance at the scanty detail of events embraced in this sketch, the subject of which we shall endeavor to place in a more favorable light. Not that we shall give to his character any coloring of the romantic,—he had not a particle of it in his composition,—or disclose any tissue of the “wild and wonderful,” in the adventures of his life, for, in truth, his days were spent in the service of God and the active duties of benevolence; but we will delineate him as the good man, who is always great.

Cotton Mather was born in Boston, on the 9th of February 1662–3. His father was the Reverend Increase Mather, pastor of the North Church, and president of Harvard College, and his mother was the daughter of John Cotton, an eminent divine. While a mere child, the subject of our narrative was distinguished for his piety, and was in the habit of writing forms of prayer for the use of his playmates, and of encouraging their devotional exercises by precept and example. After making the necessary progress in his mother tongue, he commenced the study of the ancient languages with avidity, and at the age of twelve was qualified for admission at College, having read Cicero, Terence, Ovid and Virgil, the Greek Testament, Isocrates, Homer and the Hebrew grammar. During his residence at Harvard, he was eminent for his intense and unwearied application to study, and for a scrupulous observance of those religious exercises, the performance of which he had enjoined upon himself while under the paternal roof. The systems of Logic and of Physics composed by him while a lad of sixteen, are of themselves sufficient proofs of his assiduity in the prosecution of his academical course, and the nature of the thesis, “Puncta Hebraica sunt originis divinæ,” which he maintained on the reception of his Master’s degree, when he was six months short of his nineteenth year, will give the reader some idea of the extent of his information, and of the peculiar tendency of his mind. By a reference to the ordinances of discipline enforced in our oldest university, during the earlier periods of its existence, the modern student will readily perceive how the scholars of former times accomplished the great amount of labor required of them. The peculiar habits of the age too, in discouraging all relaxation, and in rendering it necessary for every one who would appear as an accomplished member of society, to have pursued his researches into the arcana of the abstruse sciences, gave the mind the keenest relish for study. There were not then the inducements now held out for the encouragement of levity and dissipation. The country was newly settled, by a race of men exemplary in godliness, who countenanced the indulgence of no amusement; a race of whom Oldmixon, speaking from personal observation, says, “they are severe in their laws against immorality, and so much so, as if they thought no pleasure could be innocent.” And the laws of the college, besides requiring of each individual a perusal of the scriptures twice in each day, and an exercise consisting of “theoretical observations on the language and logic of the Bible, and in practical and spiritual truths,” regarded, as an indispensable qualification for the Bachelor’s degree, an ability “to read the originals of the old and new Testament into the Latin tongue, and to resolve them logically, the scholar, withal, being of godly life and conversation.”

After his graduation, Mr Mather commenced the study of theology, pursuing those inquiries for which he had now acquired a decided taste, with unabated zeal and extraordinary success. Soon after his initiation, however, into the science of divinity, he abandoned his original design of preparing himself for the pulpit, on account of a hesitation in his speech, which, as he thought, would so affect his delivery, as to unfit him for the sacred office. He relinquished his favorite pursuit, and without loss of time, directed all his energies to the study of medicine, till a friend of his, Elijah Corlet, who if we mistake not was master of the school connected with the college, gave him the following advice, a strict observance of which might perhaps be found as beneficial to the stammerer, as any series of lectures by our modern Leighs and Chapmans. “Sir,” said he, “I should be glad if you would oblige yourself to a dilated deliberation in speaking; for as in singing there is no one who stammers, so by prolonging your pronunciation, you will get a habit of speaking without hesitation.” The consequence was, that Mr Mather resumed the profession of his choice, and in due time attained a ready and happy delivery.

In 1680 he received a unanimous invitation from the North Church to become a colleague of his father, and during the three succeeding years, was urged repeatedly by the same society to accept their offers, all of which he declined. The reasons assigned for this conduct are “his modest opinion and low apprehension of himself and his talents.” It must be confessed however, that he appeared very much in the light of him, who on the Lupercal “did thrice refuse a kingly crown,” for according to the representation of his own son, he was ever influenced by the most ardent anticipations of becoming a great man. The malicious might well have said on this occasion, in the language of the sarcastic Casca, “he put it by once: but for all that, to my thinking he would fain have had it,” for which supposition the sequel afforded good grounds. “At last,” says his son, “he was prevailed with to accept the sacred burden, onus angelicis humeris formidandum!” and in May 1684 was ordained. He placed in his diary his meditations on his recent advancement, followed by the record of his affectation, and immediately after, indulging in a humorous conceit, added, in allusion to his sermons preached after his installation, his conviction that proud thoughts had fly-blown his best performances.

In the twenty-fourth year of his age, Mr Mather married Miss Abigail Phillips, “a comely, ingenious woman, and an agreeable consort,” by whom he was made the father of nine children. From this era no remarkable events occurred in his life until the wicked administration of Andros, when, for the first and only time, he became conspicuous for his ardor in the business of state. It is not often that men whose talents are devoted to the cause of literature, and whose time is consecrated and set apart for employments that divert the attention from secular concerns, can feel a lively interest in the party strife and divisions which are inseparable attendants on a freedom of the press and a government with but a shadow of liberty in its constitution. The retirement of the study is ill adapted to the dreamer whose visions are unceasingly of the sceptre of power, the chair of state and the sword of authority, and who, whether toiling and sweating for their attainment, or anxiously watching the current of popular opinion, is in an everlasting fever of restlessness. He may, it is true, in the midst of his books, speculate with much warmth, and work himself into a species of poetic frenzy, as his theories assume a shape which is to him that of perfection; yet they are only beautiful apparitions that lose their comeliness, and vanish before the observation of the practical politician, who looks for something tangible, that will bear the test of critical examination. The only school for politics is in the midst of bustling life, and he only who has experienced its agitations can become an adept in the science, or feel interested in its progress. Hence is it that the man who is partially secluded from the world, is not aroused by the tumults which affect the surface merely of affairs. But when the aim of the aggressor is at the very heart of civil liberty, the dwellers in the shades of the Academy, and even the loiterers in the laurel groves of the Muses have never been the last to repel the advances of the invader. Accordingly, when the mad career of Andros had attracted all eyes, and excited an universal indignation in the colonies, we find Mr Mather among the first to cry aloud against the maladministration of the government, and of course in the ranks of those singled out by the council as obnoxious to their vengeance. He promoted by his voice and influence a manly resistance to the illegal measures sanctioned by Sir Edmund. He urged the people to a serious consideration of the duties to themselves, their children and their God, devolving upon them in consequence of those decrees which had recently received the unholy ratification of a traitor to the trust reposed in him by the king.

Thus encouraged to commence the labor of thrusting from their seats those who had usurped a prerogative belonging only to the parliament of the mother country, and of purifying the high places of government from the abomination which had polluted them, the populace lost no time in giving ample proofs of their determination to assert their rights, and maintain them with heart and hand.

In the month of April 1688, the inhabitants of Boston held a meeting for the purpose of prescribing a course that should free them from the arbitrary oppression of their rulers. The proceedings of a public assembly of citizens accustomed to unrestrained freedom of speech, are not usually distinguished by a great degree of coolness or discretion, when concerns of extraordinary moment call for attention. Each individual, inflamed by the commission of some petty wrong which has made him a sufferer, infuses into the minds of his auditors a portion of his own vindictiveness, and by the exaggerated representation of his ills, excites a strong sentiment of commiseration. The natural consequence is, that the assembly loses its character as a deliberative body; the force of argument yields to the fiery impetuosity of passion, and without any violent effort of the imagination, we can conceive that an ungovernable frenzy may actuate the whole multitude. In such a state, the resolutions most readily adopted bear the impress of the spirit which called them forth, and if, in their cooler moments, the actors in the scene have a momentary impression that their proceedings seem less the result of judgment than of impetuosity, they generally choose to abide by the consequences of their own rashness, rather than acknowledge themselves in error, or retreat one step from the stand they have taken.

The meeting to which we have alluded, is said to have opened with dangerous and horrible paroxysms. Mr Mather was present, and fearful of the evil that might ensue from such a beginning, rose to address the multitude. The turbulence partially subsided, and he called all his powers into action. His affectionate speech was like oil poured on the troubled waves of the ocean. The audience listened with respect, and he perceived that the accomplishment of his object was at hand. Yet he stayed not his efforts till he found that he could control them at will. Many were moved by his eloquence, coming as it did from the heart, even to tears, and though their determination had been to give full scope to the revengeful spirit that was abroad in the land, they yielded to his persuasion, and united in the adoption of pacific measures.

But the fury of the people, though lulled for a time, was not entirely at rest. On the 18th of the same month, in a state of exasperated feeling at some new and flagrant outrage, they rushed with one accord to avenge their wrongs in a short and summary method, unwilling to wait the tardy retribution of the laws. Arms were resorted to, and the inhabitants in the vicinity of Boston, eager to join in the affray which now appeared inevitable, hastened to town in great numbers. They were ripe for any outrage, and Mr Mather’s aid was again necessary to quell the commotion. He addressed the multitude in the open street, and arrayed the whole force of his arguments against them. As in the former instance, he gained the mastery, and when he had quieted their fury by an impassioned appeal, he resorted to his pen to complete the work so happily begun. It was mainly through his influence that those anticipated excesses were prevented, which but for his intervention, would probably have terminated in a bloody civil war. Andros and his adherents, who, on the occasion of this latter rebellion, were in danger of immediate death at the hands of the colonists, were deposed, confined, and afterwards sent to England for trial.

We have now arrived at a period equally memorable in the life of Mather, and eventful in the history of New England. The days of the Salem witchcraft are a kind of landmark in our annals,—a convenient and conspicuous beacon, marking out the line of separation between “the olden times” and those sufficiently recent for the recurrence of memory. It was in the summer of 1692 that the “subtle devices of the arch enemy” first became apparent, and enkindled that flaming persecution which spread an alarm throughout the country, and threw a portentous gloom over the dayspring of its glory. The name of Cotton Mather is generally associated with the horrors attending that spectacle of infatuation which attracted the observation of the whole civilized world. The prevalent impression is, that he was most strenuous in his exertions to convict those who were suspected of a demoniacal confederation. Yet a perusal of his letter to the public officers will lead the candid reader to the conclusion that he was less anxious for the effusion of blood, than for quieting the dissensions stirred up by the recent investigations; and more fearful that the reputation of his country would be tarnished, than that the great purposes of justice would be accomplished by awarding a capital punishment, on the feeble evidence of “a spectral representation.” But the evil report has gone abroad, and Mather’s belief in the demoniacal agency has been constantly misrepresented as his approval of the absurd and hasty examinations of the suspected individuals. The truth is, that in the letter to which we have referred, he besought the judges, on no consideration to sanction the condemnation of the accused, without the most satisfactory testimony,—without such testimony as they would require in a trial for murder. We would not in these remarks, insinuate his want of faith in the extravagant assertions of those who sought the gratification of personal revenge in accusing the inimical party of a league with the devil; his opinions on this subject are too strongly stated to admit a doubt. We would only explain his desire that the sentence of death should be pronounced with great caution, and in no case where there was not a palpable proof of guilt. That his earnest wish was to sacrifice his own indelible impressions, rather than hazard the life of a single human being, fully appears in a document that was addressed to the civil authorities of New England, signed by many influential individuals, and framed and presented by Mather himself. The interest however with which he listened to all the investigations that attended the charges of witchcraft, and the earnestness of his inquiries into the circumstances accompanying the alleged sufferings of the afflicted, were deemed satisfactory tokens of his determination to attain renown as the promoter of a persecution, the memory of which would live in after ages. He was immediately assailed on every side by all those arts which grovelling malice knows so well to employ, and unsatisfied with the success of their attacks upon his character in the public presses and in the various domestic circles to which they could gain access, his enemies resorted to the use of anonymous letters, filled with the bitterest imprecations, and the vilest and most abusive language. He received these epistles with no other emotions than those of pity at the folly and weakness by which they were dictated, and preserved them in a huge bundle, which was labelled on the outside, “Libels: Father, forgive them.”

In the year of 1703 Mr Mather was married for the second time, choosing as his future partner in life, Mrs Elizabeth Hubbard, who bore him six children. In 1710 he received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from the University of Glasgow, and in 1714 was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London; from which time we may date the commencement of his correspondence with Sir Richard Blackmore, Dr Watts, Whiston and Desaguliers,—the two latter among the most eminent mathematicians of the age. In 1715 he was united in wedlock to Mrs George, and from this period to his first illness in December 1727–8, we can collect little that would be interesting to the reader. He was aware that death approached, and in a note to his physician said, “My last enemy is come, I would say my best friend.” He died on the 13th of the following February, one day after completing his 65th year.

We have thus summed up the principal events of Dr Mather’s life, and proceed now to the consideration of his character and writings. Of the former, though seldom brought into strong relief by his assuming any extraordinary attitude in public emergencies, we shall learn something if we observe its development in the domestic circle and in his discharge of professional duties; the merit and influence of the latter afford a subject for a more copious criticism than our limits will allow us to indulge.

Mather’s character was a strange, we had almost said, an unnatural, compound. The ascetic gravity that enveloped his demeanor in his intercourse with society, was worn even in the midst of his family,—among his household gods, when, if ever, it would seem that the heart must leap up unconstrained, and assert its supremacy. And yet a quaint and awkward kind of humor accompanied this repulsive bearing, softening in some degree the asperity of his disposition; a humor that mingled itself with his devotional exercises and his discussions upon the attributes of divinity, more freely than with his worldly conversation. His familiar discourse, however, is represented to have been, at certain times, replete with the intrinsic wealth of mind, as well as with that which he had labored for, and dug deep to attain; to have blended instruction with entertainment, and counsel with reproof, the whole being seasoned with an ardent zeal for the advancement of religion. “His printed works,” says one of his eulogists, “will not convey to posterity a just idea of the real worth and great learning of the man. It was conversation and acquaintance with him in his occasional discourses and private communications, that discovered the vast compass of his knowledge and the projections of his piety.”

The greatest infirmity of his nature appears in that superstition which is looked upon as the most striking peculiarity of his character. The modern philosopher smiles at the credulity of those whose imaginations could conjure up the apparitions of the departed from the flitting shadows of a cloud, and hear the wail of congregated spirits in the moanings of the night wind; and yet there have not been wanting the names of eminent men to give a semblance of authority to a belief in those spectres which have their birth in a diseased imagination. Johnson, the colossus of English literature, had implicit confidence in their existence, and Dr Watts, writing to his new correspondent, Mather, uses this language: “For my part (though I cannot believe that the spectral evidence was sufficient for condemnation) yet I am persuaded that there was much immediate agency of the devil in these affairs, and perhaps there were some real witches too.” But Dr Mather’s superstitious notions were apparent in other instances than the inquiry relative to the witchcraft. In his diary, that wonderful repository of his passing thoughts, it is recorded that being troubled with the toothache, which caused him “to lose more time than could well be spared,” he concluded that he must have broken some holy law with his teeth, and was enduring the punishment of such aggression. “But how have I offended? “he asks. “Why, by sinful and excessive eating, and by evil speeches, for,” he continues, “there are literæ dentales used in them.” It may amuse the curious reader to know the method by which Dr Mather was relieved of his troublesome complaint. “By a course of washing behind his ears,” says his son, “and on the top of his head, with cold water, he obtained a deliverance from the uneasiness.”

Of his literary labors and the extent of his information, some idea may be formed when we are told that he wrote readily in seven languages, and was the author of three hundred and eighty-three publications. Many of these, it is true, were but single sermons, (Oldmixon calls them loose collections,) yet the pages of the Magnalia, The Christian Philosopher, and The Wonders of the Invisible World, evince a mind of great endowments and a fancy luxuriant though grotesque. They are sufficient proofs, at least, of his incessant industry.

In his ministry he was equally indefatigable. Besides the routine of his parochial duties, he accustomed himself to make catalogues of the names of his communicants, of their occupations and wants, and of such incidental circumstances in their lives as he deemed worthy of notice in his official services. Stated periods were devoted to the remembrance of each individual in his private worship,—days were set apart in which his relatives were the special subjects of his prayers,—weeks, and sometimes months, were spent in a rigid abstinence from every thing but the bare necessaries of life, that the sins of the flesh might be properly expiated by an uninterrupted devotion of his faculties to the work of repentance. Over his study door, an inscription, BE SHORT, was placed, as a warning to visiters not to intrude at unseasonable hours, and the hours allotted to meditation and prayer, to sleep, the taking of food and of exercise, to study and social intercourse, were all observed with the most scrupulous nicety.

His custom of recording the commonplace affairs of every day, and of preparing a train of thought for every trivial occurrence in life, though but the eccentricity of a great mind, exposed him justly to ridicule. Who, for instance, can refrain from a smile, on perusing a series of cogitations upon the winding up of his watch, the knocking at a door, the mending of his fire, the drinking of his cup of tea, and the paying his debts. The last event, it is true, may very properly be classed in the list of serious things. When he pared his nails, he would think how he might lay aside all superfluity of naughtiness, and “I durst not let my mind lie fallow,” says he, “as I walk the streets; but I have compelled the signs of the shops to point me unto something in my Saviour that should be thought upon.” He had for many years a severe cough, which, he said, raised a proper disposition of piety in him. In his fondness for the chase of words he often sacrificed his best intentions of doing justice to the subject under consideration. His biography of Ralph Partridge, is nothing more than a string of puns upon the birth, life and burial of a very worthy divine, who had suffered persecution for righteousness’ sake, and merited better treatment than he received after his death. He is represented as having been hunted from his home by the ecclesiastical setters of the old world,—as having no defence of beak or claw, but a flight over the ocean. He is pursued to his covert on these shores, (not by his enemies—they left him when he took to the water—but by our Nimrod of the Lexicon, who forgets every thing but the game he has started) from whence he took wing, says the Doctor, to become a bird of Paradise. Even over the grave of his friend, when called on for an epitaph, he will only ejaculate the brief but expressive Avolavit!

Charity, however, will cast the mantle of oblivion over these frailties, when she remembers his abundant labors in the cause of benevolence. He promoted societies for the suppression of civil disorders; projected an extensive association of peacemakers, for the composing and preventing of differences in private life; proposed the establishment of an Evangelical Treasury, for the maintenance of churches in destitute places; introduced into Massachusetts the method of inoculation for the small pox, and was constantly interested and zealously engaged in promoting the welfare of his country.

We can readily account for the deficiency of the imaginative power in his poetical compositions. His education had involved him in the venerable dust of antiquity, and had unfitted his mind for the luxuriant growth of fancy. The strong soil where the mountain oak has long flourished, will afford but little nourishment to the delicate exotic, and he who from infancy has been seeking for the treasures of ancient lore, is seldom willing, even in his moments of relaxation, to linger in the myrtle bower, or to listen to the murmurings of the silver fountain. Dr Mather’s toil was truly of that kind which produces “weariness of flesh,” and he sought for a more substantial mental aliment than that “camelion food,” with which the poet could supply him. To such a one, the gathering of flowers, even though they were those of Parnassus, and the wandering on the banks of Ilissus itself, would be deemed but an indifferent amusement. The poetic specimens that we have selected from Dr Mather’s works are distinguished by little else than the hardness of their style, and the want of that indescribable quality in which we recognise the spontaneous ebullitions of a mind “smit with the love” of song.