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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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
    its Way;
  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.

Even 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.

Poetry 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.

Writers 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.

Like 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.

Two 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.

Although 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.

At 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 before.

Hundreds 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 male contemporaries.

Hampered 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.

The 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.

Though 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 estate.

Further 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.

In 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.

Pattie Cowell
Colorado State University

Ivy Schweitzer
Dartmouth College

In the Heath Anthology

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Secondary Sources

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.