InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

A Sheaf of Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Poetry
Despite the distance from London literary circles and the rigorous demands of colonial life, colonists read and wrote a great deal of poetry in seventeenth-century America. Heirs of the Renaissance, educated colonists, like their English contemporaries, read classical poets as well as the chief “moderns”: Sidney, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Quarles, and later, Milton and Dryden. Many colonists considered themselves heirs of the Reformation as well, and they cherished the poetry of the Bible, especially David’s Psalms and Solomon’s Song. Finally, British Americans were avid readers of each other’s verse. Poems were circulated in manuscript, exchanged in letters, read aloud in families, copied into diaries and commonplace books, committed to memory, and sometimes published.

Considered the most stately and moving form of language, poetry offered a popular vehicle for commemorating important events in personal and public life. Such New World occasions as the death of a local political or religious leader, conflicts with Native Americans, a bountiful harvest, or a crippling drought were addressed in adaptations of Old World poetic forms: the elegy, the epic, the ballad, the verse satire. Private lyrics commemorated personal and domestic events: spiritual episodes, courtship, family love, deliverance from illness, the death of a loved one. Whether public or private, poetry helped reveal the preordained order presumed to govern human lives—a goal especially important to settlers facing the illegibility of a strange new world. Poetic wit, defined far more broadly than today, offered a means of connecting the particular with the general, of discovering one’s place on the cosmic and cultural map. For many New Englanders, that map was biblical and religious; in the more secular middle and southern colonies, it was often English, patriotic, and mercantile. Puns, conceits, emblems, anagrams, and acrostics served as verbal tools for confirming harmony beneath a chaotic surface. This baroque or metaphysical tendency, as much a habit of mind as a literary style, often joined seemingly disparate and even contradictory elements: classical mythology with Biblical literalism, a sensitivity to nature with a celebration of commerce, a lament for societal corruption with extreme pride of place, verbal play with earnest piety, sensory imagery with otherworldly devotion. Such juxtapositions reflected post-Elizabethan verbal exuberance and an unremitting drive to make sense of things—especially to reconcile Old World culture with New World realities. Seeking to celebrate and internalize pre-existent truths rather than to create new truths, most poets wrote for specific purposes: to teach, to preach, to warn, to inspire, to console, and to entertain. To read their work is to rediscover an important early role of poetry in confirming cultural values and identity.

The era’s major poets—Anne Bradstreet, Michael Wigglesworth, Edward Taylor, and Ebenezer Cook—appear elsewhere in the anthology, as do selections from the Bay Psalm Book, which had considerable influence on Puritan poetry. Poems in English can also be found in the selections from John Smith, Thomas Morton, Roger Williams, Cotton Mather, Samuel Sewall, and Sarah Kemble Knight. Poetry was also the most popular form of literature in Spanish-speaking America, since the promulgation of fiction in the colonies was banned by the Spanish crown. A contest held in Mexico in 1585, for instance, attracted more than three hundred entries fashioned after Spanish models, a good half-century before the first book of poetry came out of the British colonies. It is instructive to read Gaspar Perez de Villagrá’s epic on the conquest of Mexico, or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s lyrics and satires, both in the anthology, alongside works by their English-speaking contemporaries. The poets gathered in this section, arranged by date of birth, further underscore the range and diversity of early Anglo-American poetry.

Jeffrey A. Hammond
St. Mary's College of Maryland

Ivy Schwatzer
Dartmouth College

In the Heath Anthology

Other Works

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this entry.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this entry.


Secondary Sources

Jose Fernandez, "Hispanic Literature: The Colonial Period," in Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, eds. R. Gutierrez and G. Padilla, 1993: 253-264

Jeffrey Hammond, Sinful Self, Saintly Self: The Puritan Experience of Poetry, 1993 Harold S. Jantz, The First Century of New England Verse, 1944, 1966

J. A. Leo Lemay, Men of Letters in Colonial Maryland, 1972

Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick, "Seventeenth-Century American Poetry: A Reference Guide Updated," Resources for American Literary Study, 10, 1980, pp. 121-145

William J. Scheick, "The Poetry of Colonial America," in Columbia Literary History of the United States, ed. Emory Elliott, 1998

William J. Scheick and JoElla Doggett, Seventeen-Century American Poetry: A Reference Guide, 1977 Donald P. Wharton, Richard Steere: Colonial Merchant Poet, 1979

Peter White, Benjamin Tompson, Colonial Bard, 1980

Peter White, ed., Puritan Poets and Poetics: Seventeenth-Century American Poetry in Theory and Practice, 1985