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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

IX. The Beginnings of Verse, 1610–1808

§ 2. Verse in the Southern and Middle Colonies

Even in the light of the unliterary conditions that prevailed in the Southern and Middle colonies it is surprising to find how little verse was produced south of New England before the middle of the eighteenth century. The Southern colonists were not of a literary class, and probably would have written little or nothing under any conditions; in the Southern colonies and, to a less degree, in the Middle colonies, conditions were distinctly unfavourable to literature; and in Virginia, especially, there were no schools, no printing presses, no literary centres, and few people who cared to write books or, apparently, to read them. Yet, though the New England of the seventeenth century left us many thousands of lines of verse of various kinds, as against the less than one thousand lines left by all the colonies to the south of that region, it was Virginia that produced what is perhaps the one real American poem of the seventeenth century. This is the epitaph on the insurrectionary leader Nathaniel Bacon, written “by his Man.” The “Man” clearly was no menial but a reader and a poet. His brief elegy of forty-four lines is worthy of Ben Jonson himself, and is indeed written in that great elegist’s dignified, direct, and manly style:

  • In a word
  • Marss and Minerva, both in him Concurd
  • For arts, for arms, whose pen and sword alike
  • As Catos did, may admireation strike
  • In to his foes; while they confess with all
  • It was their guilt stil’d him a Criminall.
  • Maryland has even less to show than Virginia. The rhyming tags of verse appended to the chapters of George Alsop’s Character of the Province of Maryland (1666) cannot be taken seriously. The description of Maryland contained in the Carmen Seculare of a certain Mr. Lewis shows that Pope had not yet reached Baltimore in 1732, however at home he may have been in Boston and Philadelphia. Of the same type is a True Relation of the Flourishing State of Pennsylvania (1686), by John Holme, a resident of that colony. The True Relation is utilitarian in purpose and homely in style, but on the whole its five hundred lines in various metres, with their catalogues of native animals and plants in the manner of William Wood’s verses in his New England’s Prospect, are rather pleasing. New York produced practically no English verse until the Revolution; and the Carolinas and Georgia continued barren until near the close of the eighteenth century, when Charleston became something of a literary centre. But Pennsylvania came to be fairly prolific early in the transition period, and continued so for almost a century until New York and Boston, as literary centres, finally displaced Philadelphia.