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

§ 8. Dryden and Pope in New England

The years between the close of the seventeenth century and the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 form a transition period in the development of American verse. It is interesting to note that the passing of the old century coincided almost exactly with the passing of the old models. About 1700 new literary influences came from England;the old forms of verse were discarded for others more polished; Quarles and Sylvester gave way, first to Waller, then to Pope. But the change was not one of form alone. The decline of clerical influence, the increase of security and comfort in the conditions of life, the more frequent intercourse with England—all these and other changes were reflected also in the subject-matter, the purpose, and the spirit of the new verse.

New England poets before 1700 learned nothing from the English poets of the latter half of the seventeenth century;for New England seems to have placed all the literature of the Restoration period under a rigorous embargo. There is no sufficient evidence that Dryden was known in America before 1700, in spite of some fairly regular quatrains by Michael Wigglesworth and an occasional polished couplet by Cotton Mather and Benjamin Tompson. If they knew even Milton they perhaps saw in him only the champion of divorce and of other heresies. But there are other and obvious reasons for this ignorance or neglect of Dryden and Milton. Although Cotton Mather had some correspondence with Quarles, there was not much literary communication of any kind between the colonies and England before the eighteenth century. New England was complete in itself.

Dr. Benjamin Colman (1673–1747), upon his return from England in 1699, brought with him both Blackmore and Waller. This decisive event in the history of American verse marked the beginning of a new era, that of the heroic couplet. But though Colman praises Waller and Blackmore and recommends both to his daughter Jane Turell, he himself, when he wrote his Elijah’s Translation (1707) on the death of the Rev. Samuel Willard, imitated Dryden in his heroic couplets and his method of applying a Bible story as in Absalom and Achitophel. Jane Turell (1708–1735), whose literary tastes were formed by her father, admired the “Matchless Orinda,” Blackmore, and Waller; but she wrote the couplet of Pope. Another and even earlier evidence of the influence of Pope is a poem by Francis Knapp, who was born in England in 1672, and at an uncertain date emigrated to America and settled as a country gentleman near Boston. In 1715 he addressed a poetical epistle to Pope beginning

  • Hail! sacred bard! a muse unknown before
  • Salutes thee from the bleak Atlantic shore,
  • which was included among the prefatory poems in a subsequent edition of Windsor Forest (first published in 1713). Thus promptly Pope crossed the Atlantic to begin his undisputed reign of almost a century. Knapp’s heroic poem Cloria Brittannorum(1723), an obvious imitation of Addison’s Campaign, celebrates “The most illustrious persons in camp and cabinet since the glorious revolution to the recent time,” and is perhaps the earliest example of the patriotic narrative poem that was to become so common in American after the Revolution.

    But a far more distinguished exponent of the style of Pope was the Rev.Mather Byles. “To let you see a little of the reputation which you bear in these unknown climates—I transmit to you the enclosed poems,”Byles wrote to Pope in 1727. It was perhaps these poems that Byles published in a volume in 1736, and which were published anonymously in the somewhat celebrated volume of 1744, Poems by Several Hands. Mather Byles is a more eminent figure in the annals of American poetry than is at all warranted by his poems, which are few and altogether imitative. His reputation is due in part to the general poverty of the transition period—the barest era in our verse—and in part to his fame as a preacher and a wit. He was born in 1707, was educated at Harvard, and served as pastor of the Hollis Street church in Boston through the greater part of his ministerial life. After the Declaration, he became a staunch and vehement Tory, lost his former popularity, and died embittered and broken in 1788. He corresponded with Lansdowne, Pope, and Watts, took himself seriously as a poet, at least in his younger days; in his attention to contemporary English literature and his setting up of something approaching an æsthetic standard in verse, represents a definite change from the point of view of the generation before him. But the Puritan is still at work in him, however modern may be his style. His most ambitious poem, The Conflagration, a description of the physical phenomena of the last day, and a shorter poem, The Comet, are both in the spirit of Wigglesworth, for all their heroic couplets and artificial diction. His elegies are unadulterated Pope; and his hymns are in imitation of Watts.

    One of the first volumes of miscellaneous verse published in America was the Poems by Several Hands (Boston, 1744). All the poems are anonymous; and aside from humorous ballads probably by Joseph Green, they merely echo Pope, with a plethora of “amorous swains” and “blushing charms.” Some were certainly written by Byles, and others are tributes to his genius. Indeed, the purpose of the volume was to extol Byles as a poet worthy to be mentioned with Homer and with his only modern rival, Pope. Already America was looking for its Homer, a search that was to continue with increasing assiduity throughout the century—and Boston found him in Byles.

    More original and interesting than the poems of Byles are the humorous verses of his friend Joseph Green (1706–1780), a Boston distiller possessed of literary tastes, who ranked with Byles as a wit and social favourite. After the outbreak of the Revolution he too became a Tory, and finally found refuge in London, where he died. Though his poems seem to have been written for his own amusement and that of his friends, they are important as the first attempt to lighten the heavy Puritanism of early New England with some leaven of humour and wit. An Entertainment for a Winter’s Evening is perhaps the earliest piece of Hudibrastic verse written in America. We have travelled far from Puritan New England when a Bostonian can find amusement in the godless spectacle of a drunken parson and his tipsy companions, and can edify his fellow townsmen with a burlesque account of their nocturnal adventures.

    Associated with Byles and Green in Poems by Several Hands was the Rev.John Adams, a young clergyman of Boston who died in 1740 at the age of thirty-five. Five years after his death his friends published his Poems on Several Occasions; Original and Translated, which contains among other pieces paraphrases from the Bible, translations from Horace, and half a dozen elegies, including one on Cotton Mather and one on Jane Turell. All these are written in the heroic couplet but in a diction more natural than Pope’s. That Adams knew Milton’s poems is apparent in his Address to the Supreme Being. Indeed these poems, though pervaded by the Puritan spirit, yet reveal a more purely æsthetic purpose and a more careful style than can generally be found before the later years of the century.

    The almanacs of Nathaniel Ames, father and son, of Dedham, Massachusetts, had their part in disseminating throughout New England a knowledge of the English poets and perhaps also in fostering a taste for humorous poetry. The brief passages from Dryden, Pope, and James Thomson (yes, and Blackmore!), prefixed to the astronomical data, and the unpretentious humorous verses scattered through the other matter, were far more widely read than the laboured and ambitious poems of the literary group in Boston. An Essay upon the Microscope is an elaborate poem, by the elder Ames, which, if not poetic, is interesting as perhaps our first ode in irregular verse.