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

§ 3. The First New England Poets

The earliest New England verse was an utilitarian and matter-of-fact as any prose. Narratives of the voyages, annals of the colonies, descriptions of flora, fauna, and scenery, written in the main for readers in the mother country, were versified merely sake of the jingle. Altogether this descriptive and historical verse amounts to less than a thousand lines. A Looking Glass for the Times (1677), by Peter Folger of Nantucket, derives interest from the fact that it was written by the maternal grandfather of Benjamin Franklin. Its four hundred lines in ballad quatrains are very bad verse, however, and, though it has been termed “A manly plea for toleration in an age of intolerance,” there is still question as to whether it was actually published in the author’s lifetime and, consequently, whether Folger ran any risk. The most important piece of historical verse in this period was the work of the first native-born American poet, Benjamin Tompson (1644–1714), who, as his tombstone at Roxbury informs us, was a “learned schoolmaster and physician and the renowned poet of New England,” and is “mortuus sed immortalis.” His chief production, New England’s Crises, is a formal attempt at an epic on King Philip’s War. The prologue pictures early society in New England and recounts the decadence in manners and morals that has brought about the crisis,—the war as God’s punishment. The six hundred and fifty lines of pentameter couplets are somewhat more polished than those of the poet’s contemporaries, and might suggest the influence of Dryden if there were any external reason for supposing that the Restoration poets gained admission to early New England. Tompson’s classical allusions, part of his epic attempt, are in amusing contrast to his rugged and homely diction, but his poem as a whole has at least the virtue of simplicity, and is interesting as the first of a long line of narratives in verse which recount the events of the wars fought on American soil.

A Brief Account of the Agency of the Honorable John Winthrop in obtaining a charter for the Connecticut], though not published until 1725, belongs in purpose and style to the seventeenth century. The author, Roger Wolcott, afterwards governor of Connecticut, was little more of a poet than Governor Bradford, but his literary pretensions ally him with Benjamin Tompson. His couplets are rugged and his diction prosaic, in the main, but the heroic style of the battle scenes and the lofty similes employed by the hero as he recounts to Charles II the settlement and the history of the Colony, show that Wolcott too was consciously attempting an epic. His poem is a link between the unliterary historical and descriptive verse of early New England and the more pretentious epics that appeared so abundantly during the latter half of the eighteenth century.