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

§ 7. Michael Wigglesworth

We still possess in its original crudity the “epic of New England puritanism,” The Day of Doom; or, a Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment. This was the masterpiece of the Rev. Michael Wigglesworth (1631–1705), who was born in England, but emigrated to America, and graduated from Harvard at the age of twenty. He was a physician as well as a theologian and a poet, amiable and humane in character, and greatly beloved. The most widely read and perhaps the most representative poet of early New England, he was also, with the exception of Anne Bradstreet, the most prolific. In both subject-matter and style he is only too representative of his times. His Day of Doom, first published in 1662, versifies the scriptural passages concerning the last judgement, and adds to these a statement of the Calvinistic dogmas of eternal punishment. Its two hundred eight-line stanzas tell a story which still entertains the reader, even if it has lost its power to terrify. Relatively, no poem was ever more popular; the first edition of eighteen hundred copies was sold within a year; within the century after, ten subsequent editions were published; and its final passing was coincident only with the passing of the theology that gave it birth and rendered it tolerable. The opening stanzas of the poem show some imagination and power of description; but these are borrowed plumes; all that is good in The Day of Doom comes from the Bible. Wigglesworth had no real poetry in him; at no period and under no conditions would he have been a poet. His God’s Controversy with New England, inspired by the great drought of 1662, deserves no consideration as poetry; but the poem that followed in 1669 is of greater interest. This is Meat out of the Eater; or, Meditations concerning the Necessity, End, and Usefulness of Affliction unto God’s Children, a theological treatise in rhyme, over two thousand lines in length, in various metres and divided into many different sections. The reflections, with their references to biblical prototypes, the quaint and often fantastic style, point to Quarles’s Emblems as their inspiration. Though even less poetic than The Day of Doom, the poem contains the only two good lines that Wigglesworth ever wrote:

  • War ends in peace, and morning light
  • Mounts upon Midnight’s wing.
  • In his Vanity of Vanities, which was appended to the third edition of The Day of Doom in 1673, certain rather polished heroic quatrains suggest Davenant or Dryden as possible models. But, as Wigglesworth’s library contained not one volume of English poetry, the poet must have found his model outside of his library;it is beyond belief that either he or any other New England versifier of his period could have originated or even improved any form of verse.