Tuesday, October 13, 2015
October 13, 2015: Early American Writers: Bradstreet and Taylor
[To complement last week’s series on pre-Revolutionary histories, this week I’ll AmericanStudy some of the many compelling writers and voices from the nation’s exploration and colonial eras. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a wonderful new anthology of Native American writing!]
On Puritan confessional poetry.
Imagining our way into the perspectives of the past is never an easy task, and I don’t know that there’s a more challenging community into which to imagine ourselves than 17th century Massachusetts Puritans. This was the group for whom both Anglican England and Protestant Holland were sufficiently liberal to force them across the Atlantic, for whom Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson represented dangerous characters who must be banished, for whom every minute element of nature and life presented what Cotton Mather would term Wonders of the Invisible World (1693). And if we take Michael Wigglesworth’s hugely popular mid-17th century epic poem “The Day of Doom” (1662) as a representative literary text from this community, then we see the most extreme version of their perspective; Wigglesworth’s speaker takes great joy, for example, in imagining the souls of newborn babies who died before being baptized suffering for all eternity in the fires of hell.
Wigglesworth may have sold the best of any Puritan poet, thanks in no small measure to his ability to gratify his audience’s holier-than-everybody impulses, but I would argue that two 17th century poetic peers had him beat in talent: Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. To be sure, both Bradstreet and Taylor feature their own representations of extreme Puritan perspectives: in two of Bradstreet’s most famous poems she expresses understandable sorrow for the death of a grandchild and the burning of her house but then instantly rebukes herself for that emotion and instead celebrates these losses as examples of God’s Providence; while Taylor not only composed individual poems in which he imagined himself the Lord’s “Spinning Wheele” and portrayed all humans as flies caught in spider webs of sin and damnation, but also wrote thousands of “Preparatory Meditations,” poems intended to be read nightly before taking the Lord’s Supper. In these and many other works, both Bradstreet and Taylor reflect not only their close relationship to Puritan orthodoxy (Taylor was a pastor, while Bradstreet’s father and husband would both serve as governors of the Massachusetts Bay colony) but also the central role of Puritan ideology in their personal perspectives and lives.
Yet it is precisely because Bradstreet’s and Taylor’s poems are so much more personal than (for example) Wigglesworth’s epic that I find them far more compelling and successful as well. Long before the concept of confessional poetry had been coined, that’s what Bradstreet and Taylor were producing—not just in the religious sense, although certainly both poets were influenced by and could be said to participate in the 17th century American genre of the Puritan confession narrative; but also, and most relevantly for my purposes here, in the sense of turning their intimate emotions and thoughts into carefully constructed, formally complex poetic works. This is perhaps most clearly reflected by Bradstreet’s wonderful “The Author to Her Book,” a poem in which Bradstreet captures a number of different emotional responses to learning that her first book of poetry had been published (without her knowledge) in England. Bradstreet’s poem is the expression of both an individual person surprised and yet gratified by publication and a Puritan woman unsure of the appropriateness of what has happened—yet it is also a carefully composed, cleverly structured, well-written and engaging poetic work, as are all the texts produced by these two talented Puritan poets.
Next early writing tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Early American writers or works you’d highlight?