EARLY COLONIAL LITERATURE. 1607-1700I. The English in Virginia.II. Pilgrims and Puritans in New England.III. The New England Clergy.IV. Puritan Poetry in New England.
THE story of a nation's literature ordinarily has its beginning far back in the remoter history of that nation,
obscured by the uncertainties of an age of which no trustworthy records have been preserved. The
earliest writings of a people are usually the first efforts at literary production of a race in its childhood; and
as these compositions develop they record the intellectual and artistic growth of the race. The conditions
which attended the development of literature in America, therefore, are peculiar. At the very time when
Sir Walter Raleigh -- a type of the great and splendid men of action who made such glorious history
for England in the days of Elizabeth -- was organizing the first futile efforts to colonize the new world,
English Literature, which is the joint possession of the whole English-speaking race, was rapidly developing.
Sir Philip Sidney had written his Arcadia, first of the great prose romances, and enriched English poetry
with his sonnets; Edmund Spenser had composed The Shepherd's Calendar; Christopher Marlowe
had established the drama upon heroic lines; and Shakespeare had just entered on the first flights of
his fancy. When, in 1606, King James granted to a company of London merchants the first charter of
Virginia, Sidney and Spenser and Marlowe were dead, Shakespeare had produced some of his greatest
plays, the name of Ben Jonson, along with other notable names, had been added to the list of our great
dramatists, and the philosopher, Francis Bacon, had published the first of his essays. These are the
familiar names which represent the climax of literary achievement in the Elizabethan age; and this brilliant
epoch had reached its full height when the first permanent English settlement in America was made at
Jamestown in 1607. On New Year's day, the little fleet commanded by Captain Newport sailed forth on
its venturesome and romantic enterprise, the significance of which was not altogether unsuspected by
those who saw it depart. Michael Drayton, one of the most popular poets of his day, later poet laureate
of the kingdom, sang in quaint, prophetic verses a cheery farewell: --
"You brave heroic minds,
Worthy your country's name,
That honor still pursue,
Go and subdue,
Lurk here at home with shame.
"And in regions farre,
Such heroes bring ye forth
As those from whom
And plant our name
Under that star
Not known unto our north.
"And as there plenty grows
Apollo's sacred tree,
You it may see,
A poet's brows
To crown, that may sing there."
This little band of adventurers "in regions farre" disembarked from the ships Discovery, Good Speed, and
Susan Constant upon the site of a town yet to be built, fifty miles inland, on the shore of a stream as
yet unexplored, in the heart of a vast green wilderness the home of savage tribes who were none too
friendly. It was hardly to be expected that the ripe seeds of literary culture should be found in such a
company, or should germinate under such conditions in any notable luxuriance. The surprising fact,
however, is that in this group of gentlemen adventurers there was one man of some literary craft, who,
while leading the most strenuous life of all, efficiently protecting and heartening his less courageous
comrades in all manner of perilous experiences, compiled and wrote with much literary skill the picturesque
chronicles of the settlement.
Captain John Smith, the mainstay of the Jamestown colony in the critical period of its early existence,
was a true soldier of fortune, venturesome, resolute, self-reliant, resourceful; withal a man of great good
sense, and with the grasp on circumstances which belongs to the man of power. His life since leaving
his home on a Lincolnshire farm at sixteen years of age, had been replete with romantic adventure. He
had been a soldier in the French army and had served in that of Holland. He had wandered through
Italy and Greece into the countries of eastern Europe, and had lived for a year in Turkey and Tartary.