Puritan Poetry in New England


Early Puritan Poetry.

The Puritans were not susceptible to the charms of poetry. The strenuous life of the pioneer left little time for cultivating any of the arts, and the spirit of New England was too serious and too stern to permit indulgence in what was merely pleasant or beautiful. Even after the first critical years of danger and struggle were past, the intellectual life of the people was bounded by the narrow limits of religious discussion and theological debate. That the Puritan was not without imagination, however, is abundantly proved by the forceful figures and impassioned rhetoric of the prose writers whom we have been considering. Moreover, some of these same men did occasionally slip into rhyme. William Wood has been quoted.1 Even John Cotton was the author of verses, halting and rough-hewn, and full of the queer conceits which were common at the time. It is significant that this pious man wrote much of his verse in the pages of the household almanac, where it remained hidden from the public eye; and sometimes he disguised its metrical character by inscribing it in Greek.

Much ingenuity was expended upon epitaphs and obituary tributes -- so solemn a theme as that of death justifying poetical expression. If there were any opportunity to play upon the name of the deceased, the opportunity was gracefully seized. When the Rev. Samuel Stone, the successor of Thomas Hooker at Hartford, died in 1663, his colleagues vied with one another in their fervid appreciations of his virtues. He was compared to the stone which Jacob set up and called Ebenezer, and also to the stone with which David slew Goliath; he was termed

"Whetstone, that edgefy'd th' obtusest mind:
Loadstone, that drew the iron heart unkind."
-- and this within the compass of a single epitaph.

One quotation will serve to show the skill with which these versifiers were sometimes able to conquer the difficulties of rhyme:--

"Here lies the darling of his time,
Mitchell expirëd in his prime;
Was four years short of forty-seven,
Was found full ripe and plucked for heaven."1

The Bay Psalm Book.

If poetry be rare among our forefathers, it is nevertheless true that the first English book printed in America passed for poetry with them, and for poetry of an edifying and noble type. The Whole Booke of Psalmes, commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book, was printed on the new press at Cambridge in 1640.2 This work, designed to provide a metrical version of the Psalms of David, to be used in the churches, contains the joint efforts of three New England ministers -- "the chief divines in the country," -- Richard Mather of Dorchester, Thomas Welde, and John Eliot, of Roxbury. The preface, written by Mather, declares that

"It hath been one part of our religious care and faithful endeavor to keep close to the original text. . . . If, therefore, the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect, let them consider that God's altar needs not our polishings, for we have respected rather a plain translation than to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrase; and so have attended Conscience rather than Elegance, fidelity rather than poetry."

In illustration of the art displayed by these divines in their paraphrase, historians have invariably cited some of the most atrocious of the compositions. This seems hardly fair. The following examples are sufficient to show the average result of "the sad, mechanic exercise" of these godly men:--

"I in the Lord do trust; how then
   to my soul do ye say,
As doth a little bird, unto
   your mountain fly away?

"For lo the wicked bend their bow,
   their arrows they prepare
On string; to shoot in dark at them
   in heart that upright are."
      From paraphrase of Psalm xi.

"Praise ye the Lord, praise God
   in's place of holiness;
O praise

  By PanEris using Melati.

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