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FIRST POET IN ENGLISH
When any one of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything, comes to us, and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sweet and holy and wonderful being. But we must also inform him that, in our State, such as he are not permitted to exist: the law will not allow them. And so, when we have anointed him with myrrh, and set a garland of wool upon his head, we shall send him away to another city. For we mean to employ, for our souls’ health, the rougher and severer poet and storyteller, who will imitate the style of the virtuous only, and will follow those models which we prescribed at first when we began the education of our soldiers.
|Plato, The Republic c. 390 B.C.: 99-100|
Who is America's first poet in English? After five centuries that have made English the dominant language on this continent, does anybody care? Can we discover which early colonial writer most demonstrably deserves that distinction?
At first we might wonder that in 500 years of English contact with the Western Hemisphere, criticism has proclaimed neither a definitive name and poem(s), nor that an answer is impossible. Greece has Homer and Italy has Virgil, but perhaps insuperable obstacles block the way to a definitive American answer. Perhaps inevitably-arbitrary criteria must betray any hope of a full, fair, inclusive search; or, a deadly mire of jargoned “problematics” waits to swallow those who ask by way of research, evidence, comparison and reason. The challenge is obvious. Let’s begin.
This honorable title provides three criteria for evaluating poems written by the full spectrum of historical contenders. First, American, and Poetry define what we’re looking for. As critical terms—understood in their “New World” times of the Renaissance and Reformation—they can be grasped functionally enough to help readers evaluate and compare each candidate. The title should go to the poet who most thoroughly fulfills the meanings of all three criteria. While American and Poetry will never have final definitions, a review of their mainstream and minor meanings in the age of American “discovery” can illuminate those aspects in each contender’s case.
Anne Bradstreet of Massachusetts is the one poet occasionally crowned by citizen-scholars, if not by American critical tradition. Bradstreet actually comes fourteenth in the chronological list of contenders. What criteria eliminated so many earlier poets’ works from most educational anthologies through today? The reader is asked to judge afresh whether they were justified. The criteria for Bradstreet’s quasi-title grow elusive as we examine them. For Bradstreet’s poetry was not the first published in America: in 1650 her brother-in-law’s initiative printed The Tenth Muse in London. Was it, then, the first poetry written in America to be approved, sold and acknowledged there? Fair enough, but that is a far more qualified idea of “first” than we will apply in this search.
Bradstreet developed as a poet for almost 20 years before 1650. She is therefore here a contender via poems dated before and including that year; and, because The Tenth Muse first put her achievements on the map, 1650 must be the cut-off date in the search for all contenders. If Bradstreet has a challenger for the title, they must have written their American poetry before her. But the different groups of editors of her “Collected” works over time never claimed the title for her, wondering themselves if she was in an essential sense writing about “America.”
First: Let’s be clear about our three main instruments toward an answer about each case. Most generally: a poem’s publication happens after its composition. As we can see from one of the first English books written in the New World, William Bradford’s History of Plimoth Plantation, the fortunes of print and distribution are secondary aspects that follow literary achievement—however much or little the writing poet’s eye is on the audience, purses, fame and the authorities. Bradford’s History took almost 300 years to reach print, but its achievements began around the same time as his Pilgrim peer Edward Winslow’s in Good News From New England (1624). The more we apply matters of “publication” to the question of America’s first English poem, the further it leads us away from the unqualified meaning of First. In this study, First means “first composed” in a strictly chronological sense.
What about the American criterion? At the dawn of European contact, “America” signified the entire Western Hemisphere. Today, we do mean something different by the word. As William C. Spengemann’s A Mirror for Americanists has soundly argued, “’American literature’ as we practice it must mean literature [including poetry] written in any place that is now part of the United States, or by anyone who has ever lived in one of those places” (9).
According to Spengemann’s incisive reasoning, a contender for First American Poet in English must have been “a person who spent some time” in the lands so designated; so as to “fence off what would otherwise be a bewilderingly amorphous field” (35). Here, then, our search includes any contender who wrote in English about her/his direct experience in the “America” signified by the modern conception. With our question answered by 1650, this is an earlier title than “First U.S. Poet.”
While “being there” excludes English poets who never visited America but wrote of it (from More and Shakespeare to John Donne, Drayton and Marvell), this in Spengemann’s words (35) “recognizes a fundamental distinction between a writer’s immediate experience of a place (however linguistically conditioned that may be) and the impressions that writers receive from printed sources.”
It may seem obvious that a judgment about “authentic American” language (and poetry) has something to do with being there. Yet, ahead, we’ll need a clarity about this question that can strongly anchor diverse comparisons. American languages began for human inhabitants when the first of them living here began to change, expand and evolve their original languages in response to this particular landscape. Like every generation of immigrants after them, the first American pioneers were exploring and settling into a place where innumerable living and nonliving things were either new or different from those they had known. Whether they needed changes and new creations in their languages “to get work done,” or to express themselves about life here, their languages took on “American authenticity” as they became more able to describe and particularize their life on this continent, and no other: its unique facts and flavors, its ordinary and sublime things, its infinity of human experiences.
There never was a poet without an inheritance of language and culture affecting their direct encounters with reality (or, realities). What made poets American was their response to that place and their ability to articulate it in what we call poetry. Ahead, then, we can try to gauge an American poetry in English as it fulfills the same function as every other American language—and, as it does so to a high degree, in the same ways (below) that poetry is different from prose and speech.
If we can work with those conceptions of First and American, how most inclusively recognize Poetry from any possible contender, whatever form it might take? Most basically, the only discrimination separating “poetry” from “prose” in this study’s search for contenders was a formal one: that “poetry” is visually recognizable as language arranged by the author on a page as such, whether written or typeset. Language intended as poetry conventionally manifests line-breaks in patterns clearly different from margin-justified prose; patterns and groupings different as well from a work’s title and subtitles, subheadings, marginalia and textual glosses.
Early American archives, catalogs, books, pamphlets, journals and letters in English, from Hakluyt’s Voyages to dozens of early minor works and collections, offer a great deal of “poetic prose.” In this search, poetry is (at the very least) words, phrases, sentences formally “broken out” and arranged as such into a group of lines or related groupings: for examples, couplets, stanzas, verses, sonnets, lyrics of songs or ballads. The goal was to prevent any further critical discrimination from affecting the gathering of examples to compare.
In Poetry also we need a term inclusive and precise. Let’s look at the diverse and contradictory conceptions of it that influenced the pens of English Renaissance and Reformation people, some of whom after 1492 encountered and wrote about America. Seasoned to their range of discussions and understandings of what makes poetry a distinct quality of language, we’ll have a stronger third criterion.
The more so if we keep in mind that “rules and definitions” concerning “what is poetry and what is not” may not be quite enough. A defender of "ancient learning" in England's late 1600s "battle of the books," Sir William Temple, remarked that “the utmost that can be achieved or, I think, pretended by any rules in this art is but to hinder some men from being very ill poets, but not to make any man a very good one" (Of Poetry 1689, 550). Roger Ascham, another educator at the early end of England’s Renaissance, felt alike that "that rapt inclination" toward "the poetic" was "too ranging of itself, though it [cannot be] helped forward where it is, and would not in any case be forced where it is not" (qtd. in Halpern 54).
In the oldest, most influential definitions from ancient Greece on, a "poet" has been conceived as a "maker," and a "poem" a product of language "made or created" (Oxford English Dictionary). Poetry is an "effect of language" consciously produced by a myriad of choices, rather than a moment’s inexplicable inspiration." We call the latter “poetry” and it is, but what is the central nature of the thing “made”? How else than by trying to measure human skill and craft can we distinguish degrees of accomplishment (rather than luck) in language? Ben Jonson, influenced like many by Sir Philip Sydney (below), reflected that a poem was not only made—it "feigneth and formeth a fable." "The fable and fiction" were for him "the form and soul" of the art ("What Is A Poet?" in his essay-collection Timber, 1641). Many a contemporary essayist (for example, Owen Felltham) agreed that "the words being rather the drossy part, [the] conceit I take to be the principal" (Resolves, 1628: "Of Poets and Poetry").
The question “what is poetry” was approached from several directions: whether "true poetry" should have a "Classical" form, a particular meter if at all, should be "moral," merely whimsical or deep, philosophical and masterfully grand. Certainly most often, poetry was recognized as something "above" or at least different from "the level of ordinary prose" (OED): poetry grows distinct as it communicates "something more" than the literal sense or sum of chosen words. It can be something not always demonstrably "in" their meaning and/or form; yet poetry may require interplay between both to be recognized at all. Perhaps synergy is a modern word to clarify this aspect, the “something,” perhaps a subject’s higher and deeper understanding, that distills in the reading mind from the symphony of all the parts together.
Cicero's De Oratore, influential in “New World” times, came to this problem in exploring the orator's and the poet's need, as potent communicators, to "illustrate and adorn" their speech with words having "metaphorical" qualities. The problem for Cicero was that literal language was often inadequate for experience, and "that which can scarcely be signified by its proper word" had to be somehow communicated, "that the whole nature of any action or design...be more significantly expressed" (376-77).
Englishman Arthur Golding's 1567 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses agreed (as a "mythological handbook" for would-be poets including "a short survey...of the nature and value of true poesy"). For Golding, poetry is language arranged so that readers must "seek a further meaning than the letter gives to see," in order to claim having plumbed the intended message(s) of the words ("Epistle" XV, l: 542; text in Kermode 521). Poetry for Golding is what the reader experiences through this process of seeking a “further meaning” crafted into a poet’s language.
Sir Philip Sydney's Apology or Defense of Poetry (1595) terms poetry "an imitation," "a speaking picture" (110); an "image" as distinct from "the philosopher's word" (116). For Sydney, drawing upon Greek Aristotle and Roman Horace, poetry is usually both entertainer and teacher, working by “imitation” (mimesis) and "fiction" (or, mythos—Howell 158-160; Goldman 68). Poetic imitation, like dramatic gesture, uses tricks of its medium to simulate the presence or the artist’s experience and knowledge of something, to “borrow its power” into their act of speaking/writing: the fiction speaks its story. For Jonson, these features constitute its recognizable “form and soul.”
Sydney's main purpose is defense of poetry. But he does contrast what he conceives as poetry, with its origins in "divine delightfulness," and a "school art" that he says "philosophers" later made (141). He suggests that despite disregard and even hostility to poetry, it merits mention in the same breath with The Bible and its Psalms. The Psalms, he writes, are poetry (106), "nothing but Songs":
For what else is the awaking [of King David's] musical instruments—the often and free changing of persons, his notable prosopopeias [personifications], when he maketh you, as it were, see God coming in His majesty, his telling of the beasts' joyfulness, and hills' leaping—but a heavenly poesy, wherein he showeth himself almost a lover of that unspeakable and everlasting beauty to be seen by the eyes of the mind, only cleared by faith?
Sydney “knows poetry” when the sum effect of crafted language seems to put him in the presence of David's instruments and speech: it is like what one may feel in imagining "God," or "the beasts' joyfulness." What we gather so far, then, is that a poet selects (and invents devices of) language, and crafts the elements toward or into a conceit, by which literal words communicate and reach beyond themselves (by imitation, fiction and more), in the effort to articulate and point toward “the whole nature” of a subject.
As we seek more conceptions by the English generations whose offspring colonized America—a period which J. W. H. Atkins' detailed survey found "vague and confused" (138), full of "confusion and poverty of ideas concerning poetry" (156)—we find that others, for example George Gascoigne's 1575 Notes on English Verse, take a technical approach to recognizing "true poetry," and debate the need for and effects of rhetorical techniques to achieve it; usually specifying that the "most necessary point is to ground [a 'delectable poem'] upon some fine invention" (31). The demand for its “making,” and for a “conceit” that takes language beyond the literal, seems to be consistent and even dominant.
Among most official and ecclesiastical authorities on all sides of the Renaissance/Reformation, the trend was to justify poetry (or not) according to moral and social agendas. Spanish Catholic Father Jose de Acosta's Introduction to his Natural and Moral History of the Indies (1588-89) herded together "vain philosophers," "Greeks and Romans," Native Americans and "poets" en masse, and proclaimed them "heathens" because of the idolatrous confusion they supposedly shared regarding The Divine Creator and the created thing, born of an "inordinate" love of beauty on the poet’s part. Humanist educators generally regarded poetry as "unwholesome for young boys" and suffered anxiety over "the problem of poetic content" in the Classical authors' texts they so admired (Halpern 47). Poets, like "fire, wind, swift air...stars...[and] the beauty of these things,” as Acosta wrote, were dangerously likely to lure people away from their duty to Deity and country. It was a charge as old as Plato’s.
Puritans too, according to Robert Daly (God's Altar 55), strove to define poetry as "descriptions of God's world, not creations of the poet's fancy." They had something in common with Anglican readers of The Book of Common Prayer, which like The Bible's Luke I: 46-55, celebrates the "scattering" of "the proud in the imagination of their hearts." The "growth of Puritan feeling...challenged anew the status and value of poetry" (Atkins 102). Its self-styled "new creatures," reborn in Biblical literalism, became anxious that, without incessant instruction, people might stray into imaginative thoughts under the influence of "frothy bumbasted words" (Higginson's 1630 New England's Plantation in Force 1:12).
Furthermore, the Ramist revolution in Renaissance rhetoric "demoted” poetry to a relatively humble place within a scholar's or speaker's inventio (one’s bag of linguistic tricks). In a Puritan world, the humanly-crafted language, metaphor, “fiction” or conceit was beside the point—officially at least, as New Englanders were buying and proud of Bradstreet’s poetry. In this conception, they spoke and wrote best who called the least attention to their non-Biblical means of “truth.” The Puritan form and soul of poetry would manifest less the "prideful" ability to "make" or "create," and more the ability (from Jehovah alone) merely "to come upon," "discover" or "lay open to view" His Works, and their power to evangelize (Daly 56, Atkins 104). Roger Williams’ verses (below) from his Key Into the Language of America, and much later, Edward Taylor’s, worked with these definitions.
As Perry Miller sums it up, a Puritan usually "expected that the example set by Classical poets might guide him to achieve a higher virtue in life...[Poetry should be] a speculum or compendium of the profoundest spiritual mysteries drawn from the most diverse learnings. " And yet, Miller concludes that most Puritans “probably gave it little consideration as an art...and remained curiously indifferent to the quintessential breath and finer spirit of the poetic idiom" (Puritans II: 546). We may agree with Bercovitch (2) that Miller "drastically underrated" the Puritan "aesthetic dimension.” “Indifferent" is a strange term for people who would have shut down Shakespeare (Rowse, Biography 71).
Even the great Renaissance expositor of the "idols of the tribe" Sir Francis Bacon, though he granted that poetry was more than "wine of devils" (Essays 40), demanded that its matrix, "imagination," be held a subservient handmaid to his definition of "reason"; and "not to oppress it.” At this end of the spectrum, “poetry” was serviceable as long as its qualities beyond literal language (for example rhythm, metaphor, personification, elegance etc.) served the ends of reason and not “imagination” for its own sake (see also Howell 157).
What are our best parameters of a Renaissance definition of poetry? George Puttenham's 1589 Arte of English Poesie—although it shared some of the fears seen above, and was cited at times by Puritans against the liberal arts (Hammond 9)—described poetry as simply "any witty or delicate conceit" (qtd. in Atkins 160). Sir William Temple, cited above, wrote that poetry seems so much more powerful than other forms of language because of its synesthetic effects: it "assembles all the powers of Eloquence, of Music and of Picture, which are all allowed to make [such] strong impressions upon human minds" ("Of Poetry," 547). Edmund Spenser, meanwhile, held somewhat mystically that poetry was "no art, but a divine gift and heavenly instinct”: it was language "adorned" with but not "gotten" by "labor and learning”; a language touched with "a certain enthousiasmos and celestial inspiration" (his essay “The English Poet”: see Maclean ed., Faerie Queene 427).
These secular, quasi-scientific, religious and Puritan ideas all implied that a person creating “poetry” had to produce the words for even a wholly “inspired” effect. We find the requirement of a deliberate “maker and making” in almost every view, while the demand for deliberate craft is greater from the secular literary men. Because some denied that poetry and/or a poem had to include a crafted “fiction” or “conceit,” we should not therefore let that criterion be all-decisive. In all cases, however, poetry is language whose meanings and effects exceed the sum of its literal parts in what it reaches to describe, encompass and express—whether diverting or didactic, packed (deliberately or not) with compelling human observation, experience and feeling, or delivering the merest remarkable effect.
And so we turn, with our First, American and Poetry criteria, to the contending examples from English primary sources about The New World.
The learned young scholar Stephen Parmenius, born in Hungary circa 1560 and a member of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's 1583 expedition to North America, might have seized the title of America's First English Poet with relative ease. His American visit came earlier than any (known) poetic contender, and he was, as historian David Beers Quinn and others conclude, without question a "maker" quite likely capable of an "epic of the exploration of eastern North America by the English" (Quinn North America 3), which he fully intended to write upon seeing the place. Hence he took ship with Gilbert, with a ready publisher in the tireless Richard Hakluyt.
Unfortunately, Parmenius drowned when his ship ran aground off Sable Island (Gilbert's ship, overloaded with weaponry, disappeared on the same voyage home). Secondly, though some of Parmenius' appreciable compositions survived him, these were all pre-American, and written in Latin, woven with spiritual as well as geographical explorations, including Hermeticist theories of "the dual nature of the function of the human soul" (Quinn North America 35). Parmenius imagined a Virgil's role in the budding Empire, and filled early pieces with "subjected foreign peoples" and storm-tossed ships. These lines come from his 1575 poem to Elizabeth I, translated from Latin by Quinn:
Now having launched our Ship we plough across
The Ocean; now may you provide fair winds,
Fair goddess. Be both poop and prow to us,
Be our ship's anchor and direct the sails
Of this our craft in all her voyaging...
When Parmenius actually came to write (still on ship off the Newfoundland), he tried to warm up with letters home. The expedition (focused on mineral wealth) had so far seen "only the barren shoreland" and failed to penetrate the "thick interior forest": "the wild, impenetrable woods, the high, bare headlands, the dubious minerals, the plentiful fish, the absence of Native inhabitants—all these added up to very little" for Parmenius (Quinn 55-6). The "absent" Native people were Beothuk, already attacked, then despised for refusing trade and most contact. Parmenius wrote: "Now, I ought to tell you about the customs, territories, and inhabitants; and yet, what am I to say, my dear Hakluyt, when I see nothing but desolation?" We can never know whether Parmenius realized what was still his for the effort.
By 1600, Richard Hakluyt's editorial efforts to improve English writings about America (and thus, make the place more convincing to investors) had produced "an extensive library of the sea" (Quinn, English New England Voyages 220-221)—and his suggestions to explorers can give us an idea of how American poetry slowly emerged from "exploration prose":
The first, immediate impression had, in his eyes, much more interest—usually more value—than the considered and generalized impression of men who had gone over a particular course many times [and took] much indeed for granted....[Haklyut's writers] should not be allowed to spend too much time on the day to day progress of the ship through monotonous seas…[but] describe the people of the strange country in as much detail as possible and make comments on the fitness of the place for trade or settlement....He did not expect assessments of scenery, though he appreciated some indication of the impression it made....
Certainly "the poetic" returned in the first mariners' descriptions of scenery and Native peoples. These included the promisingly-named "Dionyse Settle," who accompanied Frobisher; Captain Davis' accounts (1585-87); Sir Walter Ralegh's Virginia writings of the 1580s, which, like Guiana, brought no "American verse" from that accomplished author; and the voyage-accounts of Gosnold, Pring, Brereton and Waymouth between 1602 and 1605. These were at times almost a "Paradise school" of Northeastern-American prose writers whose dominant notes John Smith, Christopher Levett and Thomas Morton (with others) took up in the following decades.
But only the "New France" planter, attorney and historian Marc Lescarbot wrote or published any deliberately American poetry through this period (The Theatre of Neptune 1606, and Les Muses de la Nouvelle France, published with his History's third edition in 1618). In this example, laced with imperialism's ventriloquism, a colonist-welcoming man in "Indian" costume (one of the players of Neptune, translated by Richardson, 26) sang about “caraconas” or “bread”:
Now, I am about to try/ my luck upon this rocky coast.
Perchance upon the shore will lie/ something for your cook to roast.
And now, monseigneur, if you see/ within the locker of your sloop
Some caraconas, give to me/ And I will share it with my troop.
The English struggled on. Captain John Smith's first book, A True Relation of...Virginia, appeared in 1608, and he more than others before him liked to punctuate his prose with couplets and quatrains. But none of it (according to editor Philip L. Barbour) was Smith's own: the verses were lifted from Martin Fotherbey's Atheomastix, a sententious translation of Ovid (for exs. see Barbour ed., Works II: 125 and III:326). Most of Smith's books were festooned with commendatory poetry, and there may well be a contender among those compositions. We should trouble to find out, if only because we have located scarcely one poet for the first 125 years of England's relationship with North America, from John Cabot's 1490s to the 1610s.
The untitled poem below, from the front of Smith's 1616 A Description of New England, appears to be the work of “Michael and William Phettiplace, and Richard Wiffing,” three "Gentlemen and Soldiers under Captain Smith’s Command: In his deserved honor for his Work and worth." It recounts their and Smith's adventures among the Powhatan, Pamunkey and “Paspeheh” peoples of Virginia, and Smith's capture of a Native leader, Opechancanough, in a skirmish that is also illustrated on Smith's maps. The text below is spelling-modernized from Barbour (I: 317):
Why may not we in this work have our mite,
That had our share in each black day and night,
When thou Virginia foiled, yet kept unstained;
And held the King of Paspeheh enchained.
Thou all alone this savage stern did take.
Pamunkey's king we saw thee captive make.
Among seven hundred of his stoutest men
To murder thee and us resolved; when
Fast by the hand thou led this savage grim,
Thy pistol at his breast to govern him,
Which did infuse such awe in all the rest
(Since their dread Sovereign thou had so distressed)
That thou and we (poor sixteen) safe retired
Unto our helpless ships. Thou (thus admired)
Did make proud Powhatan, his subjects send
To James his town, thy censure to attend;
And all Virginia's lords and petty kings,
Awed by thy virtue, crouch, and presents bring
To gain thy grace, so dreaded thou hast been;
And yet a heart more mild is seldom seen;
So, making Valor Virtue, really;
Who has naught in thee counterfeit, or sly;
If in the sleight be not the truest art,
That makes men famous for fair desert.
Who saith of thee, this savors of vainglory
Mistakes both thee and us, and this true story.
If it be ill in Thee, so well to do,
Then is it ill in Us, to praise Thee too.
But, if the first be well done, it is well
To say it doth (if so it doth) excel!
Praise is the guerdon of each dear desert,
Making the praised act the praised part
With more alacrity: Honor's Spur is Praise;
Without which, it (regardless) soon decays.
And for these pains of thine we praise thee rather,
That future times may know who was the father
Of this rare Work (New England) which may bring
Praise to thy God, and profit to thy King.
In terms of our three criteria—First, American, and Poetry—this is the earliest-written verse located by all this study’s searching, and hence it might be First. Secondly, it appears to have been written by men who were there, with Smith in Virginia. In what further way(s) is this poem American?
To find out, we gather up and look at its elements: "seven hundred stout men," it says, lived in Virginia under the "proud" "savage grim" and "dread Sovereign" called "Powhatan," "King of Paspeheh" and "of Pamunkey"—where, now, "all Virginia's lords and petty kings" bring "presents" to gain English "grace." What we find of substantial reference to things American is: three opaque Native tribal names, one of them (Powhatan) substituting for Opechancanough’s; five adjectives for their characteristics (“savage, stern, proud, grim, dread”]; and, what came to be the standard inaccurate English term for Native American political associations ("lords and petty kings").
Beyond this information, if that is what it is, and the historical (or true, vs. fictional) fact that Native people were fighting Englishmen for some unstated reason, we have to look among the words and lines to see if this testimonial-poem tells more about America. It would be hard to deny that it refers to an actual event; but, harder to argue that the five chosen adjectives, individually or working together, construct and deliver any realistically complicated knowledge or understanding of Virginian Native people, their experience, participation and point(s) of view. (Let’s look at all the contenders before we decide that “this was simply normal for those times.”) If there is not exactly an American feast here, perhaps this poem tells more by means of a “conceit” subtly crafted into it—which, as a desirable but nonessential part of our third criterion, might be evidence that this poem is not only “first,” but “authentic American poetry” in the full sense of the term.
As a testimonial, the poem’s core and purpose detail the model of virtue found in Smith's (and the authors' own) forcible subjection of Native tribes: a “dark” tide turned one day by Smith's capture of “Powhatan” in battle. Smith's heroic actions and qualities—boldness, truth in his word, and hence above all, his credibility about America—are what the poem is made to manifest. The authors’ facts and poetic craft will inspire you to believe what Smith’s prose says about all subjects in this, his next book about America.
If there is, then, a Jonsonian "fable and fiction" crafted into this poem's "form and soul," it is just that, about Smith; supported by a small and mostly-opaque flourish of Native language, five similar abstract adjectives, and (English) testimony of Native peoples’ "murderous intent."
In a way, on its own levels, this poem does satisfy all three criteria. Its poetry tells a great deal about Englishmen in America (or at least, how they “should” behave). Beyond that, it communicates or expresses little more about Virginia than what a savage, dreadful foreign place it is, where native inhabitants—like Irish and African peoples, for that matter—can be expected to resist their subjection.
That is not to reject this poem as a contender. Now we need to take what we’ve learned forward to the next example for comparison, until a most-demonstrable, definitive answer begins to emerge. If we do come back at last to this poem, at least we will know it for the first time as the First American Poem in English.
Captain Smith continued to publish through the 1620s; and a contending (1631) poem of Smith's own appears below. Meanwhile, however, after the above 1616 publication, the next contender does not appear until he writes the first version of his American poem between 1623 and 1625: the Anglican Reverend William Morrell, of whom little is known except that he spent a year (1623-24) among the small company of would-be planters at Wessagusset or Weymouth on Massachusetts Bay.
The site's first colonists (under merchant Thomas Weston in 1622) had failed after a 1623 massacre of Native leaders there by neighboring Pilgrim leaders. A second group under Robert Gorges then arrived with Morrell along for their spiritual maintenance. Yet within a year, most again departed, and Morrell with them, "having scarcely saluted the country" according to Plimoth's Bradford (History II: 336).
Morrell, "a good classical scholar...a man of observing mind and gentle tastes," busied himself at Weymouth composing "a Latin poem" (Adams Three Episodes 157), and by the time of publication (London 1625), he had also turned it into English. In Nova Anglia, or New-England, A Briefe Enarration of the Ayre, Earth, Water, Fish and Fowles of that Country, Morrell began by proclaiming his purposes in a way that, briefly and in parts, tried to meet Jonson's dictum that a "fiction" was at the heart of true poetry. Interestingly, Morrell’s first line seems aware that, unless somebody counts that 1616 poem in Smith's book, he may be "first.”
(Morrell's own English translation presents grammatical and other problems that this editor cannot ease: spellings slightly modernized below, from Mass. Hist. Soc. Colls. I , 125-139.)
Fear not poor Muse, 'cause first to sing her fame
That's yet scarce known, unless by map or name:
A Grand-child to earth's Paradise is born,
Well-limb'd, well-nerv'd, fair, rich, sweet, yet forlorn.
Thou blest Director, so direct my verse
That it may win her people, friends commerce;
Whilst her sweet air, rich soil, blest, seizes my pen
Shall blaze, and tell the natures of her men.
New-England, happy in her new true style [name],
Weary of her ‘cause she's to sad exile
Expos'd by her's unworth of her Land [sic]
Entreats with tears Great Britain to command
Her empire, and to make her know the trine [Trinity]
Whose act and knowledge only makes divine.
A royal work well worthy England's king
These natives to true truth and grace to bring....
If our first-examined poem stimulated appetite for more America, Morrell’s poem sets out to answer. He begins with promising energy to weave together what it feels like to be there ("sweet air, rich soil, blest"), with indeed a conceit; that this land is like a woman, and she longs for “Great Britain’s” evangelical and other "command," “her men” apparently the same. Before we ask how or whether Morrell develops this “fable or fiction,” we note how it contrasts with the “America” in the 1616 poem above.
“America” therein corresponded to “savage” resistance, while Morrell—like Spenser (Faerie Queene III, 49), Ralegh (Guiana 428), Donne (Elegies XIX) and Drayton (“Virginia Voyage” 1619)—figures the America he briefly knew as a female, and she “entreats” the manly English to command her, rich landscape and benighted soul (if not, necessarily, to understand or marry her). Both one-dimensional “conceits” about America are sides of the same English imperial face (see Chiapelli, Honour, Hulme, Jennings). Both “fables” paved the way to “command” of America; and, as Anglo-Indian wars developed, the sad female became the figure of England, thus justified in its conquests.
The question between if not “in” these first two poems is the same one debated in their day’s early American-promotional pamphlets: a question simply of the means, and to that, we must return ahead to arrive at a comprehensive answer to our search. At this point and forward, in relation to our American and Poetry criteria, we begin to find that factual history—content and its relation to what happened—must have a certain weight as we compare each contender’s poem(s). For some poets of that time, as we’ll see, did clearly know and try to communicate or suggest that understanding and even marriage were crucial to a civilized and successful approach to America.
Poetry in more than a journeyman’s sense, as Morrell’s New-England reflects, is more than its descriptive content, and a simplistic (rather than simple) fictional surround cannot make the difference. Some kind of “conscious” dynamic involving poet, subject, language, form, and context—whether the work is “delectably slight” or has a complex development—seems indispensable to recognizing a poem’s reach toward fulfillment of the term.
How well in terms of Poetry, then, did Morrell deploy and consummate his conceit about America? As we read beyond his above introduction, the more the fictive female figure of America slips through the minister's fingers. Nova Anglia, or New-England suddenly turns to flatly literal lists of natural conditions and commodities. A stock touch of merry May tries to revive the failing fiction:
Blest is this air with what the air can bless,
Yet frequent gusts do much this place distress....
Whose looming greenness joys the seaman's sense,
Invites him to a land if he can see
Worthy the Thrones of stately sovereignty.
The fruitful and well watered earth doth glad
All hearts, when
Flora's with her spangles clad....
The only further touch of language in the work that communicates “something beyond the literal meaning of the words” concerns Native New England women:
Besides, their women, which for the most part are
Of comely forms, not black, nor very fair:
Whose beauty is a beauteous black laid on
Their paler cheek, which they most dote upon.
for they by Nature are both fair and white,
Enriched with graceful presence, and delight;
Deriding laughter, and all prattling, and
Of sober aspect, graced with grave command:
Of man-like courage, stature tall and straight,
Well-nerv'd, with hands and fingers small and right,
Their slender fingers on a grassy twine
Make well-form'd baskets wrought with art and line...
Rare stories, Princes, people, Kingdoms, Towers
In curious finger-work or parchment flowers.....
These people are the beings symbolized in Morrell's first imagery; but he can sustain no more-than-literal discourse about weather and “greenness.” While Native women were usually the unthreatening ambassadors of the fur trade, Morrell’s poet’s eye sees them from afar, except to sense “rare stories” woven among them and into the things they make. As a poet, Morrell interrogates his colonial “female” conceit not at all: the poem’s structure is that of a catalogue bound in her image. Morrell has felt the vigor of New England's air, enjoyed its seasons, glanced over its "aborigines" (as C.F. Adams Jr. amplified Morrell's "disgust" with them, Three Episodes 158). But his closing, directly in the wake of appalling epidemics that swept Native New England from 1616 to 1618, describes the caliber of conscious poetics behind Morrell’s “conceit”:
If Heavens grant...to see here built I trust
An English Kingdom from this Indian dust.
This is not a moralistic evaluation. It is to hold to Spengemann’s distinction (35, quoted above) that “recognizes a fundamental distinction between a writer’s immediate experience of a place (however linguistically conditioned that may be) and the impressions that writers receive from printed sources.” How “immediate” was Morrell’s experience? Did it speak, in his poetry, to his “printed sources”?
Nova Anglia, or New-England certainly tells more of particularity about the place and people. As Poetry, should it also supplant the testimonial poem by John Smith's colleagues? Let us hold that decision until we have a maximum range of examples of Poetry about America from these decades leading up to 1650.
The next contender, roughly contemporary with Morrell, is the "fantastical"-tempered Welshman William Vaughan, an Oxford-trained gentleman who for six years financed a plantation at "Trepassy" (a.k.a. Cambriol) on the southern tip of Newfoundland peninsula. In 1622 Vaughan bestowed the latter name on the land himself, hoping his presence might turn the tide of profit his and the new King Charles I's way. Despite his two-year stay, it did not (Rowse details reports of "idle fellows" there, Elizabethans 172). But after two years more Vaughan gathered verses he apparently wrote in The New World into The Golden Fleece (London 1626), a prose/poetry potpourri offered in honor of Charles’ marriage to Queen Henrietta.
Fleece was "Divided into three Parts…the Errors of Religion, the Vices and Decays of the Kingdom, and lastly the ways to get wealth, and to restore Trading so much complained of" (title page). And, Vaughan promised, this "compound of truth and fiction, quaint prose, and still quainter verse" had been "Transported from Cambrioll Colchos...commonly called the New Found Land, by Orpheus Junior, for the general and perpetual Good of Great Britain." The Dedication told his King,
This no Utopia is, nor Commonwealth
Which Plato feigned. We bring Your Kingdom's health
By true Receipts, which You will relish well.
But for all the "quaint" literary qualities of The Golden Fleece (including Don Quixote and "Marsilius Ficinus" in the allusive backgrounds, 4), that was all Vaughan had to say about America in verse, passing chapter after chapter instead upon religious factions, on "proving the Pope Antichrist," explaining "how to restrain lawyers" and the uses of tobacco. Vaughan fictionalized his authorship as "Orpheus Junior" and then (Part 3, Ch. 1) been "required by Apollo to discover where the Golden Fleece lies”—that is, to reveal the purpose behind the book's many conceits and ironic poses. It was America's legendary wealth, "reduce[d] into one main Trade, to the Plantation and Fishing in the Newfoundland"; and this, he adds in prose, was "the general cause which [had] moved Orpheus to regard this Golden Fleece" (Part 3, Table of Contents):
This is our Colchos, where the Golden Fleece flourisheth on the backs of Neptune's sheep [beaver etc.], continually to be shorn. This is Great Britain's Indies, never to be exhausted dry. This precious Treasure surmounts the Duke of Burgundy's Golden Fleece, which he called...by reason of his large customs...received from our English Wools....(10)
An "advertisement” or testimonial poem in the front of Vaughan's book called this quasi-inspiration "the Golden Fleece moralized." According to its poet ("Stephen Berrier," otherwise unknown), Vaughan had transformed a Greek "pagan" symbol into a worthily-inspiring colonial concept. These planters, including John Mason and John Guy, were completely frank about the sole mercenary hope they shared to "fleece" America of its wealth. But Berrier—perhaps he too had been there—emphasized one thing about the Newfoundland as they made it King Charles’ wedding gift: it was gloriously real, in poetic as well as practical ways:
Orpheus but late our woods did make to ring,
And to his Harp great Charles his Carols sing[s]...
Orpheus now forsaking Eastern Greece
From Western Colchos brings the Golden Fleece;
Which no Utopia is, nor fairy-land,
Yet Colchos in Elysian Fields doth stand....
American and Poetry in places, but fragments only, struck off by a hammer with hardly-related purposes. The Golden Fleece was born of what Rowse called "exaltation of temperament" (174) more than of America: Vaughan and his colleagues, libertine lovers of raucous rhetoric, would have cheered themselves up with poetry and fictions wherever they'd planted. Vaughan cast slender conceits over what they wanted from American land and peoples, and both in their own right he mentioned no more than you have seen and can evaluate.
The fourth contender is Englishman George Sandys, whose translation of Roman author Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published in London (1626): a work accomplished earlier that decade during Sandys’ stay in the southern Virginia Colony. He begins:
Fire, Air, Earth, Water, all the Opposites
That strove in Chaos, powerful LOVE unites
And from this Discord drew this Harmony
Which smiles in Nature....
Along with history, literary-critical history has always had weight in this search for America’s First English Poet. For the editor of the first major, 2-volume History of American Literature anthology in 1880—Moses Coit Tyler, a former Congregational Minister turned public speaker and university instructor (profiled in Vanderbilt)—George Sandys’ Ovid was the one ray of American poetic light, from "the banks of the James River" (1:53), until Bradstreet’s 1650 The Tenth Muse. Indeed, Tyler’s mostly-unexplained omissions from his History left out numerous Puritan and other early writers and poets (including the three we’ve examined); who, in his judgment, possessed "little skill in and little regard for" literature "as a fine art...as the voice and the ministress of aesthetic delight" (History 1:8). As we go forward more inclusively, we’ll be more able to evaluate that judgment. Manifestly, for Tyler (and for teachers and students who looked no further), Sandys’ Ovid was the American poetic foreground to the Mistress of Andover.
Tyler filled seven pages on Sandys as "the morning-star at once of poetry and of scholarship in The New World" (1:55); an effort admirable, Tyler wrote, for its defiance of the "rough desert" all around Sandys, by America's "oppressive tasks of...official position" and by the "frightful Indian massacres" of the 1620s, prompted by an unmentioned invasion of Virginia. Tyler crowned Sandys' Ovid (London 1626) as "the very first expression of elaborate poetry...the first utterance of the conscious literary spirit articulated in America" (1:54).
So, Sandys was there, and while there, he translated an ancient work foreign to both England and The New World, creating a new work of unmistakable poetry. Unfortunately, America is in no way a demonstrable, visible or “between the lines” element, concern, conceit, part or subject of it. His Ovid happened "in" America. But in no way that any critic has shown was it born "of" or connected with The New World. Sandys himself informed King Charles that this work was "a double Stranger: Sprung from the Stock of the ancient Romans, but bred in The New-World, [and] of the rudeness thereof it cannot but participate; especially having Wars and Tumults to bring it to light, instead of the Muses" (emphasis added: i.e., the work avoided all it could of participation in America).
In what sense does this represent the conscious literary spirit of an American poet writing about the place that surrounds her or him? This seems mostly to result from Tyler’s refusal to include any other factual contenders before Bradstreet; a refusal related to Tyler’s moral agenda as an American literary historian. (Again, see Vanderbilt’s study of Tyler, and later researches by Spengemann and Nina Baym).
For Sandys in his own words, America was the opposite of inspiration (reason for writing). America may have added "rude tumult"—wild energy?—to his translated lines about Hercules. But his Niobe weeps for nothing American. The New World is no intended or demonstrable part of its elements, meanings, and/or rewards for reading. If such a single trace could be shown in any passage, you would see it here.
Critic and editor Frank Kermode (523) followed Tyler in calling Sandys' translation America's "first literary poetry (balladry aside)." Literary, and poetry, perhaps: America's, not likely. We must not repeat unexamined mistakes. Let a different but parallel set of cultural signifiers help us to reason about this. Sandys was a speaker of English, in North America, translating Latin prose about Greek myth. Consider: If a scholar born and trained in Japan inhabits a fortified residence in Munich, and there, strictly translates Egyptian prose legends of Babylon into Japanese rhymed verse, is the result "German poetry”?
Sandys’ Ovid, written in but not about America, must be among our contenders, but his chances at the title seem doubtful, and now we can see why.
The fifth contender is New England planter Thomas Morton, who, in disparaging Vaughan’s 1626 approach to America, chose the word "respect" as that work's antithesis (“Colchis’ golden fleece reject:/ This deserveth best respect”; from his "Epilogus" to New English Canaan's Book 2, on American nature and commodities).
Thomas Morton was born a West Country “middling” gentleman under Elizabeth I. Skilled in the outdoors, educated for the law, he shared in London’s Inns of Court literary life with the rising Ben Jonson. In his forties, Morton’s options and preferences landed him on Massachusetts Bay in June 1624, with a small group in search of beaver-pelts and other trade for The Council of New England. When this venture failed, Morton and his “consociates” reorganized at Mount Wollaston, three miles south of future Boston. Then they set about getting to know Massachusetts land and Native peoples: by “a mixed language” (17) they grew comfortable enough to trade guns for beaver and furs (to the worry of the “Separatists” of nearby Plimoth). Such illicit if not illegal trade—also at times involving interracial cohabitation, “strong waters,” and festive mutual entertainments—had been known frontier practices long before 1620 (see the voyages of Davis, Gorges’ reports, and D.B. Quinn on Norse and Bristol contacts). Morton’s essential motto was, “I will go the surest way to work first, and see how others are answered in the like kind.” Guns of that time were not deciding frontier conflicts. A man to ridicule a “Martialist” approach to America as “needless,” Morton bought into what had slowly become English “fair means” of engaging with Northeastern Native Americans.
They were going to become the contexts of a different breed and level of American poetry. Fishermen at Richmond Island in Maine often set up Maypoles: Davis’ crews brought along musical instruments and a dancing “hobbyhorse,” and traders with Champlain had staged feasts and scripted pageants using the same “fair means” in New France. Lescarbot’s Theatre of Neptune (1608) even paraded a flotilla of boats, dugouts and canoes, and Morton back in “law school” had likely seen them fill The Thames during multimedia shows for Elizabeth in 1595’s public potpourri, Gesta Grayorum. He was a colonizer, and his means suggest he was building a home.
With Morton’s partners “wanting wives” by May 1627, the company staged a full-blown May Day Revels for “all comers,” with an 80-foot Maypole. They crowned it with buck’s horns as “a sea-mark” to fetch in trade, and “they” nailed to it “The Poem” below: perhaps along with it, “The Song” that follows here as it does in Morton’s chapter on the Revels (Canaan 135-138). Both, he writes, were “performed” with a “Chorus,” perhaps he declaiming the poetry with other designated company adding responses and/or music, mime and dance. Bradford’s History (2:47-49) points to Morton as author, who “to show [his] poetry, composed sundry rhymes and verses,” and both agreed that their occasion and function concerned the plantation’s new name, Ma-Re Mount or Merrymount. See Murphy Note 3: the name is as dense as a poem, denoting this Massachusetts “hill by the sea,” marriage, and highly erotic Revels.
“The Poem” is daunting. We might go at it knowing at least some of the Old World forms of language Morton borrowed for the New. "The Poem”—with its "Spenserian mix of history and fiction, Hebrew and Classical mythology" (Bush, "Spenser's Treatment" 592)—is a riddle or question that has intrigued, defied and enraged Anglo-American understanding since it appeared on the 1627 Maypole and in Canaan. Crafted in three allusion-packed sentences, it is also a kind of séance, or conjuring of spirits to witness something; an “epyllion,” or “little verse love-story with epic implications,” in the formal terms of Morton’s Inns of Court peers (where “solemn foolery” had real implications); a christening oration, as it announces and articulates the plantation’s new name; and a manifesto of what that will mean to the gathered peoples on this frontier, if Revels like these are held each year.
“The Song” follows “The Poem” in the program like an invitation to imitate what the oration calls for. Let us see what we can find of American Poetry in both.
Rise Oedipus, and if thou canst, unfold
What means Charybdis underneath the mould,
When Scilla, solitary on the ground
(sitting in form of Niobe) was found;
Till Amphitrite's Darling did acquaint
Grim Neptune with the tenor of her plaint,
And caused him send forth Triton, with the sound
Of trumpet loud; at which the seas were found
So full of Protean forms that the bold shore
Presented Scilla a new paramour,
So strong as Samson, and so patient
As Job himself—directed thus, by Fate
To comfort Scilla so unfortunate.
I do profess, by Cupid's beauteous mother,
Here's Scogan's choice for Scilla, and none other;
Though Scilla's sick with grief because no sign
Can there be found of virtue masculine.
Aesculapius come: I know right well
His labor's lost when you may ring Her knell,
The Fatal Sisters' Doom none can withstand
—Nor Citherea's Power; Who points to land
With proclamation that the first of May
At Ma-re Mount shall be kept hollyday.
CHORUS: Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys,
Let all your delights be in Hymen’s joys:
Yo! to Hymen, now the day is come:
About the merry Maypole take a room...
Make green garlands, bring bottles out
And fill sweet Nectar freely about:
Uncover your head, and fear no harm,
For here’s good liquor to keep it warm.
So drink and be merry, merry, merry boys...
Nectar is a thing assigned
By the Deity's own mind
To cure the heart oppressed with grief
And of good liquors is the chief.
Give to the melancholy man
A cup or two of it now and then:
This physic will soon revive his blood
And make him be of a merrier mood.
Give to the Nymph that’s free from scorn
No Irish stuff nor Scotch o’er worn:
Lasses in beaver coats, come away,
Ye shall be welcome to us night and day.
To drink and be merry, merry, merry boys...
Clearly there is much to understand. To try to corroborate what must be demonstrated too briefly here, the fact is that this scholar published an explication of these May Day poems in Early American Literature in 1999 — see “Reading The Revels” on this website — and that long article drew The R.B. Davis Prize Committee’s Honorable Mention for Best Essay in Its Field that year, based on its “startling insights based in comprehensive literary and historical research.” In 2004, John McWilliams’ revised study of Morton found the reading of May Day in “Reading The Revels” and below “ingenious and convincing” (“Phoenix of New England Memory,” 319); and in 2005 Ethnohistory called these “unravelings” of Morton, Canaan and their poetry “required reading,” perhaps because they demonstrated, in Morton’s poetry, a “remarkable inclusion of Native American cultural matter in its vision of colonial regenerative possibilities” (The Society of Early Americanists Newsletter). These facts are relevant only as external but professional confirmations of what might be shown here about “The Poem” and “The Song.”
First, thanks to McWilliams, to clarify their 1627 date. He suggests that at least “The Poem” was “in all probability…a late construct,” part of Morton’s “historical artifice” in creating the legal arguments inherent to his 1637 New English Canaan. If “The Poem,” McWilliams writes, were actually nailed to the Maypole that day, we’d have to explain Morton’s holding onto it (and “The Song”) for 10 years, through all the sheer physical trials imposed on him by Plimoth and Boston.
Merrymount withstood Morton’s casting-out by Plimoth in 1628. In a year he returned “not even rebuked” (which came as a shock to the elders of Plimoth). In that interim, an angry lawyer had reason to get things safely down on paper before he returned. Twenty-one American months later, burned out by Boston (December 1630), Morton “repaired” to West Country “Axbridge” to regain his health by 1631. By then, if he’d saved nothing, he did begin writing down what was important to him and of course to his legal suit, like Roger Williams (below), who managed to begin his encyclopedia with “a rude lump at sea.” (It was easier for John Winthrop to hold onto a threatening Morton letter for an equal 10 years.) So, McWilliams is right that we cannot know when our “final text” of “The Poem” and “Song” were set down: their dates range from May 1627-1630, or from 1631 through the 5-6 years of Canaan’s full composition. In both cases, we will see how those dates (and those of Morton’s other poems) play their part in comparisons with contenders.
According to Morton and Bradford alike, “Merrymount” planted poetry in American soil. What is the “conceit, fable or fiction” in “The Poem”? That a riddle-reader “directed” from over the sea must rise to ponder the mystery of the whirlpool under the mold, namely Death; when he, in America, finds a woman suffering in grief for her children, like Scilla and Niobe of Greek myth, as well as like the actual Native New Englanders decimated by “plague.” That his strong and patient approach to her must offer comfort, here through all the “comers” and forms of the Revels themselves; that he (perhaps a “fool” like court jester Scogan) and she alike must choose to live, here in this place; and, that they will fail or succeed together, holding off death by embracing love, and so engendering the future with each “hollyday” at Merrymount.
“Morton’s views on the Indians are critical to understanding his ‘Poem,’” writes Edith Murphy in “’A Rich Widow, Now to be Tane Up or Laid Downe’” (1996, 760). This is why Morton’s “sad female figure of America” is very different from Morrell’s (above) and others’. Morton’s “conceits” are part of his share of colonization, but they are not wholly self-referential. They point the fact that this “widow” has a story of her own, must be heard and addressed, and that her response to “The Poem’s” address is crucial to a mutually successful resolution of this frontier situation. Scilla/Niobe, in poetic treatments by Thomas Lodge and others at the Inns, was figured this way in part as Lodge’s mockery of the Inns’ carbuncular Englishmen and their dominative lusts (Keach). Morton’s Greek, Roman, Biblical and English metaphors and references—each one adding an element or layer to his main conceit or fable—point directly to American and Native American realities at that time and in that human-American place.
The first thing his “riddler” sees is mass death and suffering; and, while both Scilla and Niobe were in many myths figured as a “rock” beside the sea, one mile up the coast at the promontory called Squantum we find a rock formation known since earliest times as Squa Rock or Weeping Rock. Morton’s colonial boss Sir Ferdinando Gorges financed a great ship called the Neptune, and Kings James and Charles “ruled the waves.” The “Protean” frontier types faced with this challenge included seamen and traders, planters and missionaries; and Morton made a wise joke out the requisite Samson’s strength, for in The Bible, Samson could not resist the women of the Philistines. To triumph in this conceit or conception of America, one has to give in (Cupid’s mother, Aphrodite and Cytherea are names for the Goddess of Love). At last, Oedipus the riddler turns to Asklepios the healer for help; for Love’s and Death’s “fatal sisters” together “point” this land and the necessity to build new community upon it, an Anglo-American one in every real sense. “The Song’s” music, hand-holding and dance then begin to show how, by means of far more accessible mysteries.
Terence C. Cave's study of French Pleiade poet Pierre de Ronsard and his Les Bacchanales (c. 1552-1560) provides a good comparative source for excavating deeper levels of Morton's poetry. Cave: Ronsard had in mind a "medium through which the unified divine force of inspiration is bodied forth in the spectrum of human passions": “the true poet," he continues, "although dealing with images which might be condemned as fictions, uses these...as a cloak in which to convey to man the hidden truth....Ronsard clearly perceived the enduring value of myth as a means of embodying profound insights" (264). Morton’s were about the whole human situation around him in frontier America, and how to go forward “the surest way first.”
His poetic roots were with Elizabethans who studied Ronsard's forms and themes (Prescott 76-115, Lee 210-216, Merrill 56). Cave: Ronsard's Bacchus "rises above conventional moral judgments, harmonizes vice with virtue, and converts potentially destructive qualities into a source of strength" (256). In his Bacchus we have "not...a god of drunkenness but...a god who utilizes the forces of the human personality, even those which a stricter code would condemn as potentially sinful, [toward] the liberation of the mind and of passionate impulse from conventional limitations.”
The minute supporting details of all this, the European sources and direct American connections of Morton’s poetry, stand acknowledged by professional criticism. And with these two poems we find ourselves in conversation with "climates of a higher nature than are to be found within the habitation of the Mole" (Canaan 137). They are crafted, complete, coherent, deftly and thoroughly-handled "fictions" in verse that carry on sophisticated multi-leveled play with a number and range of English and Continental traditions, all of it addressed and applied to American realities. The same is true of Morton's ”Bacchanal Triumph,” best-dated 1629, whose mock-heroic couplets narrate his first arrest by Plimoth Pilgrims. At stake in their conflict, as Bradford wrote also, is “order” on the English/Native frontier, and ironies abound.
“Triumph,” modeled in ways on Ronsard, and on Jonson’s “On the Famous Voyage” (see notes to Canaan 149-156, and David Read’s 2005 New World, Known World, 88-90), shows Morton reaching poetically for more: it turns cultural forms and expectations upside-down as it weaves perceptive conceits around New England's founding cast of real persons (Bradford for example as a judge in Hell, whose guard-dog at the entrance is “Captain Shrimp” Myles Standish), and it mocks Plimoth’s "perplexity" over supposedly-amoral methods for success. By the poem’s end, the “order” that interfered with Morton’s is lost in its own stupefying, sterile victory-feast, all of it doomed by its ignorance of fair means and actual English law.
For the record in this fifth contender’s position, Morton’s short “Carmen Elegaicum” or “Verses on Mortality” (132) most likely dates with “Triumph” between 1628-29, just before our next (sixth) chronological contender’s poetry. Canaan’s “Author’s Prologue,” “Epilogus” and shorter poems, although as demonstrably “American,” were most likely written after our next examples. So, let Morton’s 1627 “Poem” and “Song” comprise his entry here as fifth contender. We have studied the 1616 poem that alone can be called First. We will have to discover by full survey and comparison what American and Poetrytell us at last about the most demonstrable First American Poet in English.
The next contender hails from among William Vaughan's gentlemen who affiliated with Northeastern plantations. This was Quodlibets (London 1628) by one Robert Hayman, like Morton a Devonshire gentleman and 1590s Inns of Court graduate, who somehow after 1621 succeeded Captain John Mason as "governor-general" of the Newfoundland's "swarming fishermen."
Like his colleagues, Hayman styled himself "Lately Come Over from New Britaniola, Old New Found Land" with "Epigrams and other small parcels, both Moral and Divine," which he had "composed and done at Harbor Grace." His Latin title means "What You Will"—or, as Sir Philip Sydney explained the word in other context, "Whatever I shall try to say shall become verse" (Defense 147: recall Puttenham's idea of poetry as simply "any witty or delicate conceit"). Hayman's work included four "books" of original work and a pair of translated "epistles" from "that excellently witty doctor” Rabelais; and behind some of his "Whatever’s" were some of Morton's social values.
Though Puritans the [Anglican] Litany deride,
Yet out of it they best may be descried;
They are blind-hearted, Proud, Vainglorious,
Deep Hypocrites, Hateful and Envious,
Malicious, in a full high excess,
And full of all Uncharitableness. (5)
"To One of the Elders of the Sanctified Parlor of Amsterdam,” Hayman wrote,
Though thou mayest call my merriments, my folly
They are my Pills to purge my melancholy,
They would purge thine too, wert not thou Fool-holy.
Those lines concern America because the country at that time included Plimoth’s “Pilgrims” who had emigrated by way of Holland exile. Hayman found the American air "salubrious, constant, clear," and worked in three prosaic couplets on it (53: they are almost identical to Morrell’s). Near the end of Quodlibets' first "book," Hayman then attempted a whole "Skeltonical continued rhyme, in praise of my New Found Land" (first below, from his page 19); and he made one further attempt to address the New World (next page, from 34: spelling in both poems modernized).
Although in clothes, company, buildings fair,
With England, New Found Land cannot compare:
Did some know what contentment I found there,
Always enough, most times somewhat to spare,
With little pains, less toil, and lesser care,
Exempt from taxings, ill news, Lawing, fear,
If clean, and warm, no matter what you were,
Healthy, and wealthy, if men careful are,
With much much more, then I will now declare,
(I say) if some wise men knew what this were,
(I do believe) they'd live no other where.
America is no England, but it has some good aspects. Witty? Delicate? How does Hayman’s “conceit” compare with previous others? He is at least unquestionably writing about America, and readers are equipped to evaluate and compare how much they learn about it from Hayman’s verse. Like Morton reaching for his best Poetry, Hayman tried again, and tackled a more sophisticated conceit.
‘Tis said, wise Socrates looked like an Ass;
Yet he with wondrous sapience filled was;
So though our New Found Land look wild, savage,
She hath much wealth penned in her rusty Cage.
So have I seen a lean-cheeks, bare, and ragged,
Who of his private thousands could have bragged.
Indeed she now looks rude, untowardly;
She must be decked with neat husbandry.
So have I seen a plain swarth, sluttish Joan
Look pretty pert, and neat with good clothes on.
To paraphrase Thackeray in Vanity Fair, “Them’s his sentiments.” As if sensing that his readers might notice how much was lacking, Hayman provided at last "A Napkin, to wipe his mouth that waters at these deserved Commendations":
Thus for this hopeful Country at this Time:
As it grows better, I’ll have better Rhyme.
Unfortunately, Hayman died before much more of America’s improvement.
By 1631, the publication-year of our seventh poetic contender, Captain John Smith's careers as colonist and author were over, and his last work, 1631's brief Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or Anywhere, included his one known original poem, "The Sea Marke" (in Barbour, ed., III: 265). It appears to dramatize sailing past a ship wrecked on a sandbar, and offers a comparative conceit about the American voyager John Smith's difficult final years:
Aloof, aloof, and come no near,
the dangers do appear;
Which if my ruin had not been
you had not seen:
I only lie upon this shelf
to be a mark to all
which on the same might fall,
Than none may perish but myself....
What sea are we sailing? What coastline wrecked this ship, England’s, America’s, an Azores or Caribbean isle’s? As for Poetry, the one conceit is that old John Smith, like the stranded ship, still cannot help trying to be helpful. The emotions delivered in its rhythms, rhymes, images and “fable” are considerable. “Ponder what happened to me as explorer, as author, and as cast-aside colonial consultant, and be warned.” Thus as a sea-mark (like Morton’s Maypole), it points, presumably, between English colonists and New World. But every word and beyond-literal meaning in the poem has its referent, substance and import, again, in John Smith, now-old explorer. That is the extent of its three-stanza conceit, and of its demonstrable connections or references to America.
Even so, those are not intrinsic grounds to deny Smith’s poem as a contender here. It might be argued likewise that Morton’s “Poem” and “Song” are, in the end, self-referential—all about him. First-rate analyses of Morton published by John P. McWilliams show a redoubtable ego within “Mine Host” of Merrymount. But part of that argument would have to erase the vast visible web of objective American subjects and situations in May Day’s locally-adapted, Old World verses and conceits.
We are all “trapped” in egos and language. The measure of American Poetry may lie with how much a poet’s art strives and succeeds in reaching out of those abysses. That is not a moral measure: it asks how much of a problematic heritage a given poet adapts and re-creates, that the work (in Cicero’s cited words) make language adequate for experience. “That which can scarcely be signified by its proper word" alone has to be somehow communicated, "that the whole nature of any action or design...be more significantly expressed" (376-77). Hopefully, the reader will find that this dialogical relation between our criteria and each contender’s examples continues to build good reasons to support whichever poet at last best-fulfills the title.
Our eighth contender is William Wood, who broke up sections of his 1634 prose survey New England's Prospect with four rhyming lists of New England trees, animals, birds and fish (39, 41, 49, 54). In the last one, we glimpse a Native woman gathering food at the seaside. Wood, true to his promise to avoid "voluptuous discourse" (19), makes his closest approach to American poetry:
Kinds of All Shellfish.
The luscious lobster, with the crabfish raw,
The brinish oyster, mussel, periwig,
And tortoise sought by the Indian's squaw,
Which to the flats dance many a winter jig,
To dive for cockles, and to dig for clams,
Whereby her lazy husband's guts she crams.
It was a mark worth shooting at, and Thomas Morton could not resist a few volleys in Canaan about the “wooden prospect” here for American letters.
Anne Bradstreet, according to critics cited below, began her poetic "apprenticeship" at this time (in the mid- to late 1630s), having survived a "lingering sickness" and settled at Ipswich and Andover, Massachusetts. But to best-represent even her works in this early period before 1650, we’ll examine them together as our final (fourteenth) contender, rather than (ninth) here. How, though, to characterize Bradstreet’s works as she began, from about age 19, to write poetry?
Josephine Piercy’s Twayne Series study: it would be "a neat trick" to demonstrate any correspondence between Bradstreet's life and poetic work during her 1630s "apprenticeship" (43-44). Jeannine Hensley, 1967 editor of her Works: "She seems to have written by way of escaping from the conditions of her experience, not as expression of what she felt and knew"; and, "New England never enters her book: the landscape, the emotional weather of the New World are totally absent." Hensley adds of the early poem "Four Seasons" that it "woodenly reproduces England, like snow-scenes on Australian Christmas cards" (xiv). Nor do more recent Complete Works editors McElrath and Robb report any reason to disagree about Bradstreet’s 1630s beginnings.
Our ninth contender, therefore, is William Bradford of Plimoth Plantation, who arrived in 1620 and began his prose History circa 1630. While Westbrook doubts that Bradford was author of "six quatrains" on the death of Plimoth’s pastor John Robinson (they were inserted under “1626” in Bradford’s History by his nephew Nathaniel Morton), America is no part of them except external context: Westbrook’s review of Massachusetts Historical Society and other manuscripts (111-112) doubts that Bradford wrote any poetry before 1650, and then a small "Verse History" among other "poetic dialogues" on religious issues. These lines, however, appear to concern late 1620s-early 1630s affairs, when more colonists grew willing to trade firearms to Native people for advantage in the fur trade. Bradford rued,
…The gain hereof to make they know so well,
The fowl to kill, and us the feathers sell.
For us to seek for deer it doth not boot,
Since now with guns themselves at them can shoot.
That garbage, of which we no use did make,
They [Indians] have been glad to gather up and take;
But now they can themselves fully supply,
And the English of them are glad to buy....
In the second line a dry conceit flashes in the pan: gun-traders get the goose and Plimoth gets the bird. Other than that, the verses hold true to Puritan poetic dicta and make their literal point without another flourish.
And that is the entire field of English-American poetic contenders up through the 1637 publication of Thomas Morton's New English Canaan. Because we are considering every single contender in time-order, Morton merits this place as our tenth contender also because of his American compositions written after 1627’s “The Poem” and “The Song,” and after his “Bacchanal Triumph” of 1629. His 1637 book includes his “Author’s Prologue” (7) and the “Epilogus” verses (99) that conclude Canaan’s Book 2: while the Prologue figures America as “Canaan” and “a fair virgin, longing to be sped/ And meet her lover in a Nuptial bed,” the Epilog calls for “respect” toward the land in all its described aspects (including naturalistic Naiads, Druids and Nymphs).
Book 3 also contains “Epitaph” (121) and “Carmen Elegaicum” or “Verses on Mortality” (132). Those brief ironic poems meditate on the American misadventures of an English servant-girl who, shipwrecked and brought to Plimoth, was seduced there by her master, miscarried, and fled prosecution for the “crimes” to Merrymount, where she became temporarily suicidal. Morton’s main conceit for her is “The Barren Doe”—a creature more hunted than maternal, more sinned against than sinning. And yet, why such ironic treatment? Perhaps Morton, a frontier bachelor, would have wed her himself but was rebuffed.
None of these post-May Day poems equal the ones Morton presented as “his” first, in their complex conceits and American-referential sophistication; but a complete chronology of contenders must include and consider them.
Puritan colonist Thomas Tillam comes next (eleventh), whose "Upon the first sight of New-England June 29, 1638" expresses, according to critic and editor Harrison T. Meserole, "dedication mixed with wonder as he viewed the land that was to be shaped into the modern Canaan." And, Meserole adds, “none other” recorded his response “in lines so unmistakably inspired and genuinely lyrical" (397).
Hail holy land wherein our holy lord
Hath planted his most true and holy word:
Hail, happy people who have dispossessed
Yourselves of friends, and means, to find some rest
For your poor wearied souls, oppressed of late
For Jesus' sake…
Clearly Tillam has composed poetry inspired by the American land before him. But his “conceit, fable or fiction” is a reenactment of Exodus. He sees and describes Palestine: a pre-formed representation, a hopeful mirage or overlay, produced by his ideological commitment to Christianity and Puritanism—in fact, a mirror, that can protect his fragile (easily "tempted" or threatened) sense of identity and purpose from the overwhelming actualities that teem with life upon the continent in front of him ("untamed" Nature, plus unknown multitudes of human beings happily different from and indifferent to himself). Tillam’s poem exemplifies what Bercovitch called the Puritans' "breathtaking" gifts for "sweeping assertion": it demonstrates how they "created America in their own image" (9).
This narcissism is demonstrably different from Morton's use of European mythological languages to describe, articulate and address American subjects. Morton calls the land “Canaan,” but with (as usual) a poet’s double edge. America may seem an English “promised land,” but its first real and colonially crucial demand—starkly clear in his book’s title, and in its first twenty chapters on Native Americans—is to recognize, understand and respect that it is, like ancient Canaan, inhabited already by human beings. His May Day poetry articulates his best counsels on that proposition.
Tillam, on the other hand, sees his church-brethren as the only “dispossessed” people in the picture. Morton’s May Day manifests a full range of “conceits” by which the English can reach out: Tillam's immersion in a Biblical worldview, the very fabric, form and soul of his verse, inscribes a blank America as the habitation of "Satan's wily baits.” Here, “ideally” in Puritan terms, nothing but Christianity will inform, influence or inspire Tillam and his fellows where their bodies live. The rest of the poem is not presented because there is no more “America” in it than in the above. Virtually all American criticism rues this problem as predictable fruit of Puritan aesthetics, and we should ask again whether we agree (below) with the editors of Anne Bradstreet.
For Bercovitch in The Puritan Origins of the American Self (138): Puritan poets repeat this pattern because of their commitment to ideology: they write of America "either exegetically, as a figure of heaven, or metaphorically, to denote a haven from civilized corruption, or literalistically, to suggest topological [rather than typological] comparisons"—for example, finding cause to wonder at America because it partly shares the same latitude and "fertility" as familiar Old World "gardens."
So did Morton; but his Paradise lacks forbidden fruit and Devil. In his constructions, “Hell” is “in Westminster under the Exchequer Office,” and “evil” is the willful ignorance of a “Master Bubble” who lives in needless terror of his own demon “savages” (176 and 127 respectively). Rather, as soon as one walks his American Paradise, one meets some human individual with a story conditioned by the continent.
America for Tillam is only there "to be shaped," into what Roger Williams (below) was already beginning to call a "delusion," meaning England's rights to Native American soil (see his Key 167). Tillam’s reason for "singing" is to cry in the "waste," like those before who "scarcely saluted" the land. This is borne out twelve years after Bradstreet’s 1650 volume, with Reverend Michael Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom—for Westbrook, "a supreme realization of the Puritan theory of poetry and, incidentally, one of the most popular, as well as one of the aesthetically and morally most revolting, poems ever written” in America or about it (105-6).
Few colonists can match the attempts by Roger Williams, our twelfth contender, to know America and its peoples as closely as he personally could (“God was pleased to give me a painful patient spirit to lodge with them, in their filthy smoke holes, even while I lived at Plimoth and Salem to gain their tongue”). His 1643 A Key Into the Language of America was another watershed of observational prose, Native-evangelical effort, and lists of their words and expressions (not least, that Native New Englanders knew themselves as Ninni-mis-sin-nu-wock, or “men, folk, or people”).
Williams, however, feared “to see too much” (Letters 192), sharing perhaps anxieties like Tillam’s: this may partly explain the form of each chapter in his Key, and partly, the nature of his poetry.
Each chapter mixes prose “Observations” with word-lists, and then concludes with a summary in verse, all of them titled “More Particular.” Below (spelling modernized) are the first and last of his book’s 32 such verses.
[Chapter 1]: The courteous pagan shall condemn
Who live like foxes, bears and wolves,
Or lion in his den.
Let none sing blessings to their souls
For that they courteous are:
The wild barbarians with no more
Than nature, go so far:
If Nature’s sons both wild and tame
Humane and courteous be,
How ill becomes it sons of God
To want humanity? …
[Chapter XXXII]: The Indians say their bodies die,
Their souls they do not die:
Worse are then Indians such, as hold
The soul’s mortality.
Our hopeless body rots, say they,
Is gone eternally:
English hope better, yet some’s hope
Proves endless misery.
Two worlds of men shall rise and stand
‘Fore Christ’s most dreadful bar:
Indians, and English naked too
That now most gallant are.
True Christ most glorious then shall make
New Earth, and Heavens New:
False Christs, false Christians then shall quake,
O blessed then the true.
Williams’ prose could not be more packed with American reference and information (one advantage of learning the language). In each poetic example, though, his conceit is a comparison between Native and English ways based in their values (or lack of values); and always the core purpose and meaning is, visibly above, less a particularizing of American life than an evangelizing of it—all things to the detail in life show that Native and English had better get straight with his God. Explore these poems, contextualize them, connect them with Williams’ relevant prose about a Native-ethnological point: they are poetry and they do concern America; but how their theological varnish helps them compare with our other contenders’ achievements is finally the reader’s task to decide.
We have one more (our thirteenth) contender before Bradstreet—He is Jerome Bellamie, whose The Simple Cobbler of Agawam (London 1647: rpt. in Force 3:VIII) at times gave its prose "a little use of my stirrup" with couplets mixed into its colonial New England portrait. Here is a representative measure:
The world is full of care, much like unto a bubble
Women and care, and care and women,
and women and care and trouble.
And this brings us to our final (fourteenth) contender for the title of First American Poet in English: Anne Bradstreet, the Mistress of Andover.
Bradstreet, an already-learned woman whose heart “rose” at the sight of The New World, arrived in New England in the summer of 1630 as part of “the Great Migration” of Puritans including John Winthrop and Roger Williams: Thomas Morton, soon to be burned out of the country, was watching from the hills as Boston struggled to find its footing. Morton and Bradstreet had in common at least what John Berryman in 1956 called “the almost insuperable difficulty of writing high verse at all in a land that cared and cares so little for it” (qtd. in Brooks et al, 48). Let us see what Bradstreet the poet was doing as her family began to establish American roots, eventually settling at Andover. All the Bradstreet scholars and editions cited above date her “earliest extant” poem to its title-date (when she was 19), “Upon A Fit of Sickness, Anno 1632”:
O Bubble blast, how long can'st last?
That always art a breaking,
No sooner blown, but dead and gone,
Even as a word that's speaking.
O whilst I live, this grace me give,
I doing good may be,
Then death's arrest I shall count best,
because it's thy decree.
This poem, though composed in a ballad meter, embodies all the Puritan dictates about poetry studied above: it rises to a prayer for spiritual commitment in the midst of mortal incertitude. Its slender conceit (life, a bubble) leads no part of that focus astray; nor does America locate, enrich, contextualize or complicate it.
Another poem dated among Bradstreet’s first efforts, “A Dialogue Between Old England and New” (circa 1642), might in some passages include Bradstreet’s personal feelings of attachment to America during the years when “her early conventional verse…reveals more about the literary influences on her writing (Quarles, DuBartas, Sylvester, Sydney, Spenser, Thomas Dudley) than about her responses to a new environment” (Pattie Cowell, co-editor of the 1990 Heath Anthology, 290). The point leads us to recall the same distinction that emerged in examining William Morrell’s Nova Anglia; that, while all poets (consciously or not) draw upon “printed sources” and literary “influences,” some of them manage to make those sources and influences say more than they themselves told the poet about America—because of the poet’s responses to a new environment. That is precisely to the meaning of what makes a language American. Can we demonstrate this in Bradstreet’s work up through 1650?
The stanzas below from her “Dialogue,” all three spoken by “New England,” provide its best examples for learning anything about New England in the poem: they speak to comfort “Old England” torn apart by Civil War. Perhaps they represent expressions Bradstreet actually heard in her American church and community:
Dear mother, cease complaints, and wipe your eyes,
Shake off your dust, cheer up, and now arise.
You are my mother nurse, and I, your flesh,
Your sunken bowels gladly would refresh.
Your griefs I pity, but soon hope to see
Out of your troubles much good fruit to be;
To see those latter days of hoped-for good,
Though now beclouded all with tears and blood…
Let’s bring Baal’s vestments out, to make a fire,
Their mitres, surplices, and all their [attire],
Copes, rochets, crosiers, and such trash
And let their names consume, but let the flash
Light Christendom, and all the world to see
We hate Rome’s whore, with all her trumpery…
Then fullness of the nations in shall flow,
And Jew and Gentile to one worship go;
Then follow days of happiness and rest.
Whose lot doth fall to live therein is blest.
No Canaanite shall then be found in the land,
And holiness on horses’ bells shall stand.
New England’s Puritans recognize, want to comfort and help the mother country. They hate “Rome’s whore,” want to burn “Baal’s” religion and wipe its name, its “Canaanites” from “the land” (which may mean Old and New alike); in order to “light Christendom.” Let this example stand as we look further.
Most editors date Bradstreet’s “In Honor of That High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory” to 1643, and there again, in the midst of her treating a grand but distant subject, most critics begin to detect personal opinions and feelings coming into her composition (“Nay Masculines, you have thus taxed us long,/ But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong”). Still, only external contexts can locate this work in America, or America in this work: it manifests American poetry, but it does not conceive it.
This remains “the American question” across the contents of 1650’s collection, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. As noted from the editors and critics cited above, not one has been able to demonstrate anything explicit in the book specifically about America, from its “Prologue” to its “quaternions” (“The Four Elements,” “The Four Humors of Man,” “The Four Ages of Man,” “The Four Seasons”). Certainly, Bradstreet the poet writing in America makes herself and her situation visible:
I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits:
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stolen, or else it was by chance.
Beyond doubt, this is the rare voice of a rare woman developing herself as a poet. What difference would it make in reading this poem, however, if her Puritan kin had colonized Ireland? Does it locate and articulate, like Thomas Morton’s “The Poem,” both the speaker’s situation and the particulars of how he relates to entities beyond his own inherited vocabulary? The state of Bradstreet’s health and her family’s, her soul, her reception as a poet, her feelings for her father, husband and children—these are her subjects, Poetry in every way, except that they have no demonstrable relation to where they are as a particularized place. These lines from her “Four Ages of Man” may obliquely describe her own sufferings as a frontier mother:
What gripes of wind my infancy did pain,
What tortures I in breeding teeth sustain?
What crudities my stomach cold has bred,
Whence vomits, flux, and worms have issued?
The poems recognized, however, as her mature works—“Contemplations,” “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” “Upon the Burning of Our House” and more—belong to the years after 1650’s Tenth Muse, and were gathered posthumously in Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight (Boston: John Foster 1678). They, also, manifest Bradstreet’s American life, things she observed and pondered and felt there: the poetry of her living, in full Puritan fashion, is almost wholly literal, and virtually always a day’s measure of her soul in relation to God. Yet, after the early “Dialogue,” we search in vain even to find her naming the place where she lives her life, let alone consciously particularizing it, as Andover, New England or America. It seems impossible to demonstrate some intrinsic way in which her work fulfills our American criterion beyond the fact that she lived there.
Then higher on the glistering Sun I gazed,
Whose beams was shaded by the leafy Tree,
The more I looked, the more I grew amazed,
And softly said, what glory's like to thee?
Soul of this world, this Universe’s Eye,
No wonder, some made thee a Deity:
Had I not better known, (alas) the same had I.
|("Contemplations" 4: 1678)|
This lyric—from the constantly maturing Bradstreet after 1650’s Tenth Muse—proves the levels of poetry she reached. At first her heart “rose” against America. Above, with the instinctual conceit that the Sun is like a Deity, her being rises to the actual world around her. The lines know this is forbidden, nor can they shake regret for a relationship with the “Soul of this world” that must not be. And we see how much the mere position of a comma (after “known” in the final line) helps Bradstreet to show and interrogate her dilemma. Is she thanking her true God for not allowing her that mistake, or does she wish she could have made it? The ambiguous answer makes this a masterpiece that reaches beyond the limits of Puritan poetic (and other) thought. Yet, the same qualifications found above must apply: what makes the “glistering Sun” American? There is simply nothing conceived as such in “Contemplations.”
The above last pages demonstrate every aspect of “America” that they can find in Anne Bradstreet’s poetry up through her 1650 The Tenth Muse. Finally we come to draw some conclusions from our search.
That brilliant lyric from “Contemplations” has peers in Bradstreet’s poems: her complicated love for husband Simon, the pathos of the ashes of her house and family table. All, however, date after 1650—and, you recall, that was the cut-off date in our search for contenders, because of her own indispensable achievements by that year. In other words, has this search according to our three defined criteria uncovered any earlier contender for the title of First American Poet in English?
Any one of them before Bradstreet can take the title on First grounds. It seems clear that Thomas Morton—between May 1627 and 1637—fulfilled every definition of Poetry met by Anne Bradstreet. When Canaan appeared 10 years after May Day, she was about five years from composing “A Dialogue Between Old England and New” (1642, above). And it seems supported by the evidence that both of them as poets soundly overmatched the other contenders before Morton, and until Bradstreet. On these grounds, two of our three criteria—First Poetry—must go to Thomas Morton, because he most thoroughly fulfilled them before Anne Bradstreet.
Compare the demonstrable evidence of “writing about America” in Morton’s May Day at Merrymount and Bradstreet’s poems. One delivers an almost-overwhelming American presence and one presents a challenge to find it there. Compare their works’ substantive “linguistic traces” of thoroughgoing, intimate relations with the actual place America; relations which produced poetry anchored to American soil, and reaching beyond their influences. Compare their conceits and poetic figures, their creations of language, form and context so that the whole nature of the subject be “more significantly expressed.” Then we can appreciate Boston Globe critic Michael Kenney’s insight as to why we have generally held Anne Bradstreet America’s First Poet. “She had a better lobby,” he remarked to this writer.
Investigation points, by a substantial weight of evidence and criteria, to Thomas Morton of Merrymount as America’s First Poet in English.
That is our most demonstrable finding. Library collections of anthologies will confirm that Morton's "First American Poet in English" stock has been rising over time. Some examples: If Leon Edel's 1959 American Literature anthology opened with nothing before Edward Taylor, and 1973's Makers and the Making editors Cleanth Brooks, R. P. Warren and others omitted Morton completely, a 1974 Macmillan anthology by George McMichael positioned Morton after the prose of John Smith and William Bradford; and the 1990 Heath Anthology (Paul Lauter et al editors) also featured Morton thus, as second writer and, manifestly at least, first with "American poetry."
All this points to a need to recognize Morton’s honorable achievements in life and art. Along the way, we might say goodbye to the American traditions that gave its first two poets in English such a hard row to hoe in the garden of America.
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