| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
A Sheaf of Eighteenth-Century Anglo–American Poetry
Before the American Revolution, the
English comfortably considered that the course of empire would lead to the
progressive betterment of the new colonies. George Berkeley envisioned the
westward translation of the English empire and the arts when he attempted in 1725
to found a college in Bermuda. Published in 1752, Berkeley’s poem, “On the
Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” speaks of the “Seat of
Innocence” in “Happy Climes,” “Where Nature guides and Virtue rules”:
There shall be sung another golden Age,
The rise of Empire and of Arts,
The Good and Great inspiring epic
The wisest Heads and noblest Hearts.
Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
Such as she bred when fresh and
When heav’nly Flame did animate her
By future Poets shall be sung.
Westward the Course of Empire takes
The first four Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the
Time’s noblest Offspring is the last.
For Berkeley and his
early-eighteenth-century contemporaries, poetry was still, as it had been in
the Renaissance, the privileged literary genre and epic was the privileged
form. Yet the epic era of European colonization was fast waning, and the
demographic changes occurring in the colonies brought a wider readership that
would find prose works, from almanacs to travel journals and fictional
vignettes to novels, more appealing and accessible. Poetry—especially epic
poetry, based upon the precondition of a classical education—became the
province of intellectuals and, to some extent, of pietists.
as the colonies engaged in the Revolution that would break down hierarchic
social and political structures, the epic impulse remained. Philip Freneau and
Hugh Henry Brackenridge, in their 1771 Princeton commencement poem “On the
Rising Glory of America,” and Joel Barlow in his 1787 Vision of Columbus,
an attempt to write an American epic, along with many lesser-known poets, would American writers
speak of the country’s promise and of necessary American progress. That both
promise and progress would require less privilege and a more democratic
ideology seems to have escaped most of these writers who sought for Americans a
place in epic literature like the places held by ancient Greeks and Romans.
was a signal literary genre of the dominant class, and the dominant poetic
voice was public and male. This is not to suggest that men wrote poems only on
public issues and that women wrote only on private ones. Nor is it to imply
that men did not write on friendship or concerns typically considered
“domestic.” Yet it is true that men
controlled the printing presses and that men’s writings more frequently
reached print than women’s writings. Thus poems on topics of political, social,
or literary importance were usually written and published by men through the
first half of the century.
generally used the same neoclassical poetic models and methods as their English
contemporaries. English neoclassicism had reached its height with the works of
Dryden, Pope, and Swift. These poets’ interest in the classics was a response
to the social chaos caused by the civil wars in seventeenth-century England.
They replaced the disruptions in language and meter and the multitudinous
poetic conceits of seventeenth-century writers by what they considered
precision and control, “correctness” and regularity, in their forms and themes.
The marked regularities of eighteenth-century poetic lines were thought to
model for readers the regular and harmonious attitudes that writers sought to
inculcate in society. Literature, they argued, should be didactic; it should
teach those less informed about manners and morals in a refined society. What
emerged in the neoclassic era was a highly public and social poetry, where
satire flourished and the lyric nearly disappeared.
the Anglo-American the poetry of the
seventeenth century, then, eighteenth-century poetry is marked by its
use and transformation of poetic styles common in eighteenth-century England.
Anglo-American poets, writing for an audience in England as well as in the
colonies, versified colonial experiences in forms common to English
readers—pastorals, odes, elegies, and satires. The writers thus proved to their
European counterparts their familiarity with the accepted modes of the elite
groups that held, as they did during the Renaissance, that poetry was the
highest form of written art. By displaying a knowledge of “high” forms—and thus
their intellectual and educational equivalence with their English
contemporaries—Anglo-American writers could claim for themselves a position in
the New World that counterbalanced the tendency of those in English elite
society to view all Americans as hard-scrabble hicks trapped in a wilderness.
of the most common forms of early-eighteenth-century English poetry are satire
and pastoral, both of which had roots in classical Greek and Roman writing. In
fact, the classicism of early-eighteenth-century England is often called
Augustan, so named after Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor. English
writers, seeking ways to address contemporary cultural transformations, took
refuge in classical forms. Life’s complications and uncertainties were more
palatable if mocked in satire or transformed into pastoral allegory. Writers, living in a world of change, not only in England but in the colonies,
found these English models useful.
the dominant form was public in the earlier part of the eighteenth century,
there remained a distinct tradition of pietistic writing, both public and
private. Christian epic poetry had reached its height during the Renaissance,
and ministers had long been accustomed to writing devotional poems, as the work
of Edward Taylor amply demonstrates. Indeed, writers produced a large
devotional poetic literature during the middle of the eighteenth century, at
the time of the Great Awakening, combining evangelistic fervor with
nationalistic calls to a manifest “American” destiny.
this time of social and political shifts, more and more young men and women
required guidance. Education was on the rise, and many more women than ever
before were able to read. Some women were trained in writing as well. Often,
their writing, like their reading, addressed public concerns. Yet most women
who published their writings confined themselves to those matters that society
considered within their province, issues domestic and devotional. It is not
clear whether women freely chose to publish on these subjects or merely
acquiesced in public expectation. However, as the century wore on, the
increased public interest in women’s education combined with a widespread
evangelical movement (beginning with the first Great Awakening and enhanced by
the Second Great Awakening) that enabled women in greater numbers to find voice
for their concerns—on both private and public issues—as they had never done
of poems by colonial women have been preserved over the centuries in print and
manuscript, yet few have been readily available. Most remain in manuscript or
have been out of print for many decades. Written largely by white women from
well-to-do families—Lucy Terry, North America’s first black poet, is a
significant exception—the poems provide an important addition to our
understanding of colonial life. Colonial women poets shared the concerns of
their male contemporaries: religion, politics, social events, important public
figures, death, love, marriage, war, family. And they wrote in the many poetic
forms available to the literate populace of their day: verse letters and plays,
elegies and odes to friends or prominent figures, religious meditations, love
poems, historical narratives, hymns, social and political satires, translations
and paraphrases of the classics and the Bible, poetic dialogues. But these
women frequently brought a new perspective to familiar themes and forms. They
wrote of conflicts between internalized gender roles and competing aspirations.
They wrote of child bearing and rearing, the deaths of children, loving (and
not-so-loving) husbands, parents, domestic duties, and home life. In the
process, they adapted a range of image and metaphor less available to their
by rigid role definitions and social expectations, most colonial women were
neither expected nor encouraged to develop artistic or literary talents. The
toll of gender-defined work roles and of continuous childbearing was incalculable.
If lack of leisure did not prevent women writers from developing their skills,
the social stigma attached to stepping outside of conventional gender roles may
have. In 1650, Thomas Parker, minister of Newbury, Massachusetts, forcefully
clarified colonial attitudes in an open letter to his sister, Elizabeth Avery,
in England: “your printing of a book, beyond the custom of your sex, doth
rankly smell.” Nearly a century later, an anonymous writer in the Boston
Weekly Magazine for March 2, 1743, explained “to a poetical lady” the
social consequences of a woman’s insistence upon writing poetry:
What's beauty, wealth and wit beside?
Nor God, nor man will love her.
attitudes of the colonial patriarchy provided more subtle obstacles than
damaged reputations in the form of publicly voiced condescension that
inevitably influenced women’s perceptions of themselves and their abilities.
colonial society seldom supported their work, colonial women poets encouraged
one another. They read the published works of a few well-known women, British and American—Anne Bradstreet,
Elizabeth Carter, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Katherine
Philips, Anne Finch, Margaret of Newcastle, Mary Astell, Anne Killigrew,
Catherine Macauley, and Elizabeth Montagu among them. In addition, many
colonial women poets knew one another personally, corresponded and exchanged
their poems. For instance, one of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s extant
commonplace books was evidently prepared for the New Jersey poet Annis
Stockton. Anna Young Smith, Fergusson’s niece and ward, occasionally wrote
verse. Ann Bleecker’s verse was published posthumously by her daughter,
Margaretta Faugères, herself a poet. Abigail Dennie almost certainly read the
verse of her sister Jane Turell, and her only extant piece is a verse letter to
Turell. Other occasions for intellectual and literary contact were fostered
when Fergusson followed the tradition of the European salon by initiating
regular gatherings of talented women and men at Graeme Park, north of
Philadelphia. Annis Stockton held similar salons at Morven, the Stockton
evidence of this direct contact among women poets lies in their frequent verses
to one another. Susanna Wright wrote poetry to and corresponded with a circle
of female friends. Judith Sargent Murray and Sarah Morton exchanged poems in
the Massachusetts Magazine. Even those women who did not seek
publication of their verse circulated their manuscripts among friends. Such
networks allowed women to encourage one another in an activity generally
unsupported by society at large. Men’s networks were more typically those made
available through their college or work experiences and the flourishing
coffeehouses, which provided a public arena for poetry.
the selections that follow, we offer a sampling (arranged chronologically
according to date of the poets’ births) of the variety and versatility of
poetic writings by men and women of the northern, middle, and southern colonies
in British North America. An examination of the poems by Nathaniel Evans and
Thomas Godfrey will show that men, just as much as women, versified their
thoughts on friendly associations. Likewise, readers can see the extent to
which women wrote on “public” and “political” issues. All of the poets reveal
an Anglo-American consciousness of poetic norms established in Europe, and many
poets—Cook, Lewis, Dawson, and Godfrey, especially—suggest the extent to which
Anglo-American writers sought to test the formal conventions typical of European
writings. Readers interested in the poetry of the eighteenth century should
consult additional readings—by Jupiter Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, Mercy Otis Warren, Ann Eliza Bleecker, Judith Sargent
Murray, Philip Freneau, Timothy Dwight, Joel Barlow—in this anthology.
In the Heath Anthology
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Pattie Cowell, ed., Women Poets in Pre-Revolutionary America, 1650-1775, 1981
J.A. Leo Lemay, Men of Letters in Colonial Maryland, 1972
Carla Mulford, ed., Only for the Eye of a Friend: The Poetry of Annis Boudinot Stockton, 1995
Kenneth N. Requa, ed., Poems of Jane Turnell and Martha Brewster, 1979
Jeffrey H. Richards, Mercy Otis Warren, 1995
David S. Shields, Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690-1750, 1990
Cheryl Walker, The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture, 1982
Emily Stipes Watts, The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945, 1977.