Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705)
Contributing Editor: Jeffrey A. Hammond
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students usually find The Day of Doom both accessible and puzzling. Although the poem is easy to follow, they are baffled by its popularity in early New England. Their confusion provides an excellent entry into the question of why most Puritans wrote and read poetry. Getting students to see that reading pleasure has meant very different things at different times is an important result of studying Wigglesworth's best-seller. This in turn will help students see that their reading expectations and responses also exist within a cultural, historical, and ideological moment. A related classroom issue is the degree to which Puritan popular art reveals the dominant values of early New England culture. The Day of Doom might help students consider the degree and manner in which various forms of popular art fulfill a similar function today.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Students might be asked to consider the poem in light of the Puritan sense of historical mission, Puritan views of the self in relation to redemptive frameworks, the sense of community fostered by the poem, and the relation of Wigglesworth's themes to the Restoration in England. Students should also consider the situational or performative dimension of a poem that was written for the widest possible readership and often read aloud in families.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Like all Puritan popular artists, Wigglesworth designed his poem to provide much the same aesthetic "pleasure" as a sermon. Once we recognize this, the central question becomes his effectiveness in trying to instill repentance in his readers. A good place to start is characterization. Not surprisingly, students are usually appalled by the harshness of Wigglesworth's Christ. But the portrayal makes sense within the religious ideology voiced by the poem: Christ appears here in the role of doomsday Judge, a role in which mercy was theologically inappropriate. Puritans insisted that to the rude and headstrong, Christ would be every bit as uncompromising as he seems in the poem, especially at doomsday, when the opportunity to repent and believe had passed. The harsh Christ in the poem was designed to push receptive readers toward the merciful Christ who existed outside the poem, the Advocate who still offered them a chance to repent. In addition, Wigglesworth's portrayal of the debating sinners would have produced contrition within readers who recognized echoes of their own worst thoughts in the poem.
Wigglesworth's choice of ballad meter is an important reflection of his sense of audience. Illness prompted him to preach through poetry, and his sing-song meter reflects a highly democratic definition of his readership. Many readers of the poem were actually "hearers" of it, for whom the poem offered a systematic treatment of theology that was easy to follow. The poem was used for many years as a verse catechism; there were reportedly people still alive during the American Revolution who had memorized it as children.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
In terms of purpose, language, readership, and effect, the poem may be profitably compared and contrasted with the equally "public" Bay Psalm Book and Puritan sermons, with the more personal lyrics of Taylor and Bradstreet, with the poems in " Selection of Seventeenth-Century Poetry," and even with Milton's more allusive treatment of similar themes.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Why does Wigglesworth stick so close to the Bible, in some cases offering virtual paraphrases of his biblical sources?
2. How does the poem embody dichotomistic structures reflected in the Puritan view of the Old and New Testaments, the Law and the Gospel, and the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace?
3. What does the poem suggest about how texts were used in Puritan culture?
4. In what ways does the poem link the private framework of personal salvation with the communal mission of the Puritans in New England?
5. How does Wigglesworth connect eschatology (the redemptive future) with psychology (the reader's current response)?
6. How does the poem--in both form and content--reflect Wigglesworth's conception of audience?
Bosco, Ronald A. "Introduction," The Poems of Michael Wigglesworth, edited by Ronald A. Bosco, ix-xliii. University Press of America, 1989.
Crowder, Richard. " 'The Day of Doom' as Chronomorph." Journal of Popular Culture 9 (1976): 948-59.
Daly, Robert. God's Altar: The World and the Flesh in Puritan Poetry. University of California Press, 1978.
Hammond, Jeffrey A. Sinful Self, Saintly Self: The Puritan Experience of Poetry. University of Georgia Press, 1993.
Pope, Alan H. "Petrus Ramus and Michael Wigglesworth: The Logic of Poetic Structure." In Puritan Poets and Poetics: Seventeenth-Century American Poetry in Theory and Practice, edited by Peter White. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985.