The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 4. The Memorial Poems
The most characteristic poetic products of early New England are the memorial poems. Subsequent generations have made merry over their matter and style, and indeed little can be said in their favour if they are to be taken as an index to the poetic taste of the time and not simply as conventional tributes to the dead. If, however, the New England elegy is to be judged on its literary merits, we should remember that it was not an isolated type, unique in the poverty of its matter and style, but that it simply reflected its English origin was closely related to its English counterparts. Unlike the English, though, the writers of New England did not evolve a better style of their own, the elegies at the close of the century being, if anything, worse than those at the beginning. Perhaps Quarles was chiefly responsible for their pentameter couplets, rough with run-on lines and imperfect rhymes. Despite occasional variety of form in six-line stanza or quatrain, there is little variety of tone or style; and in all these thousands of lines scarcely a line of genuine poetry, or a single poem worth preservation in its entirety.
The succession of these elegies is surprisingly unbroken for at least forty years. Both authors and subjects are in the main the divines who controlled the destinies of New England and who provided its literature. When such an elegy as that on the Rev. Thomas Shepard by the Rev. Urian Oakes, president of Harvard, is discovered amid this dreary elegiac waste, its merits are sure to be exaggerated. This poem in fifty six-line stanzas, though commonplace in though and style, is not without pathos, and gives an impression of sincerity. But the Rev. Urian Oakes himself was not so fortunate in his elegist, no less a person than the Rev. Cotton Mather, the most prolific elegist of his time. His elegy on Oakes reaches a length of over four hundred lines. To adorn his subject he “ransacks the ages, spoils the climes”; his pentameters and his quatrains are mere doggerel, his rhymes are atrocious, and his lines rife with conceits and puns and classical and biblical allusions. John Cleveland at his best could do no worse. The real feeling that probably inspired Mather’s writing is obscured by the laboured insincerity of his style. But the nadir is reached by the Rev. Nicholas Noyes (1647–1717), who in his elegies on the Rev. John Higginson and the Rev. Joseph Green shows promising possibilities of bathos, but who in his poem on the Rev. James Brayley’s attack of the stone revels in such a plethora of conceits and puns as to put to the blush his most gifted English contemporaries. The one elegiac poem of early New England that may be worth preserving is the Funeral Song (1709), written by the Rev. Samuel Wigglesworth, son of Michael, on the death of his friend Nathaniel Clarke. Together with its real feeling, it exhibits a certain felicity of diction that bespeaks Elizabethan models; and such phrases as “where increate eternity’s concealed,” “solemn music,” and “warbling divinest airs,” seem to show that Milton had reached New England. As a genre the elegy died with the decline of the clergy, and passed as a fashion passes with changed conditions.