A Selection of Seventeenth-Century Poetry
Jeffrey A. Hammond
Classroom Issues and Strategies
While students are pleasantly surprised at the diversity of poets and
poetic themes in early America, they are often disappointed with the poems
themselves. This disappointment is a good starting point for discussion,
since it highlights the differences between seventeenth- and twentieth-century
expectations and responses regarding poetry. When students articulate what
disappoints them about much of the verse--the generalized speakers, the
religious themes, the artificial language, the high level of allusion--they
begin to understand that art and its cultural functions are subject to
historical change. Good questions to begin discussion of particular poems
in this selection include: Why was the poem written? What reading response
does the text seem to foster? What is the relationship between the poem
and the values of the culture that produced it? What view of poetic language
does the poem seem to demonstrate?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
These poems also become more interesting for students when they are
asked to identify the blend (or opposition) of Old World and New World
features--formal as well as thematic--within the texts. Another issue concerns
the expected functions of verse in the seventeenth century. Once students
realize that poets were more interested in voicing communal values, commemorating
important events, and seeking coherence in their world than in expressing
"original" ideas, the poems begin to make better sense. Students
may not agree with the literary conventions they encounter, but they will
gain a better contextual understanding of them. This in turn may help them
see that modern reading expectations also exist in a particular historical
and cultural framework.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
For most students these poems are quite difficult. The syntax is sometimes
cramped into a rigid meter (Johnson and Alsop), the allusions often seem
remote and excessive (Saffin), the speakers seem remote and impersonal,
and, for many, the poem's ideology seems trite or alien (Goodhue). A discussion
of "metaphysical" wit often helps students understand--if not
enjoy--the seemingly strained effects in many of the poems. The Renaissance
view of poetry as a frankly artificial discourse is also helpful. The poet
is usually not trying to replicate "natural" speech in texts
that were written, in one sense or another, for the ages.
The selections here reflect a wide range of intended readers. Students
might try to determine the nature of those readers (their social class,
education, reading expectations) as a means of humanizing the texts. This
will also underscore the contrasts between the literary culture that these
poems embody and the students' own literary culture, including its microcosm
in the English classroom.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Students familiar with the English cavaliers and metaphysical poets
will bring a great deal to the discussion of these poems, especially in
matters of form and style. It is also useful to compare the poems with
other treatments of similar themes: Saffin with Shakespeare's sonnets,
French with later slave narratives, Steere with later Romantic depictions
of nature, Goodhue with Bradstreet,
Alsop with promotional tracts and Ebenezer Cook, Johnson and Hayden with
Milton's Lycidas. In addition, any of the poems could be profitably compared
with works by Bradstreet, Wigglesworth,
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. What do the poems suggest about the cultural functions of poetry
in the seventeenth century?
2. What do they suggest about the relation between individual identity
and culture or ideology?
3. What do they suggest about seventeenth-century distinctions between
"poetic" discourse and everyday speech?
4. What implied readership is suggested in their diction and allusions?
5. In what sense(s), thematic or formal, are the poems "American"?
6. In what sense(s), thematic or formal, are the poems "British"?
7. What expressions of the cultural diversity characteristic of a later
America seem already present in these poems?
8. Do thematic or formal differences emerge in the work of the female
and male poets collected here?
Cowell, Pattie. "Introduction" and headnotes, Women Poets
in Pre-Revolutionary America, 1981.
Meserole, Harrison T. "Introduction" and headnotes, American
Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, 1985.
Scheick, William J. "The Poetry of Colonial America." In Columbia
Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
-- and Joella Doggett. Seventeenth-Century American Poetry: A Reference
-- and Catherine Rainwater. "Seventeenth-Century American Poetry:
A Reference Guide Updated." Resources for American Literary Study
10 (1980): 121-45.
Silverman, Kenneth. "Introduction" and headnotes, Colonial
American Poetry. New York: Hafner Press, 1968.
White, Peter, ed. Puritan Poets and Poetics: Seventeenth-Century
American Poetry in Theory and Practice. University Park: Pennsylvania
State University Press, 1985.