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Early American Poetry

by Jane Donahue Eberwein

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Although this book contains a great deal that deserves your attention, the only writers included in our reading list are Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Bradstreet is especially noteworthy, of course, because she is America’s first legitimate poet (she arrived in America long before the Revolution, in 1630). Taylor is noteworthy, I believe, because he rivals John Donne in his ability to convey how central brokenness is to the Christian life.

With Bradstreet, everyone wants to make a federal case out of the fact that she was a woman living among puritans. Some critics, in the interest of their own political agendas, have sought to make Bradstreet representative of the indisputable “fact” that puritans oppressed women. I don’t see how you build that case; the fact that a puritan woman was the first great poet in the Americas suggests to me that the Christian faith granted her more freedom rather than less. But it certainly is significant that Bradstreet was female; this affords her a perspective half of humanity can never fully share when she writes, for example, a poem before the birth of one of her children. As a sickly woman living at a time when childbirth was very hazardous, her realistic opening seems to flaunt the precariousness of her position: “All things within this fading world have end . . .”

Taylor is not as well-known as Bradstreet, largely because he wrote his poems only as “preparatory meditations” for his sermons, so that they were never published in his lifetime and indeed were only re-discovered in the 1930s (the manuscript of his meditations wasn’t published in its entirety until 1960). This makes the poems seem like buried treasure to me, made all the more precious when you consider that Taylor lived in a frontier town from around 1671 until his death, and that he served that town as both pastor and doctor. What a blessing to get to hear, hundreds of years later, from an honest man going before God to find what he should teach his flock in the wilderness! We know, because we were never meant to overhear, that it is not false piety when Taylor cries out to God: “O that Thy love might overflow my heart/To fire the same with love! For love I would./But O my straiten’d breast! my lifeless spark!/My fireless flame! What chilly love, and cold!”

by Jeff Baldwin