A Selection of Eighteenth-Century Poetry

    Contributing Editors:
    Pattie Cowell and Carla Mulford

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Beginning students struggle with these materials, partly because they arise from a time and aesthetic unfamiliar to them and partly because poetry as a genre seems more difficult to many of them. I find it most effective to try two contradictory strategies simultaneously: I ask students to stretch their historical imaginations with a bit of time-travel ("Dr. Who" comes to mind), and I try to highlight the ways in which the themes and concerns of these poets are still with us.

    Though the time-travel is more fun at first for me than for the students, most of them get the idea soon enough. I take them back to a time when there was no United States, when poetry was the primary literary genre (and changes were in store), when midwives outnumbered physicians, when western Pennsylvania seemed like the outer edge of white civilization, when manuscript culture flourished alongside a fledgling printing industry, when individualism was not a cultural value (or even a part of the English language), when periodicals were a new phenomenon, when literacy rates were changing dramatically. The more concrete the context becomes, the more accessible the poetry. Some of this can be structured around a fairly accessible piece -- Turrell's "Lines on Childbirth," for example -- if we try to reassemble as much as one can of Turrell's world as we read: Her literary aesthetic, her educational opportunities, health care, family life, and so forth.

    Finding issues relevant to contemporary concerns in these poems is deceptively easy. While it is important not to construct eighteenth-century poets in our own image, they wrote about many of the things that concern us still: the stresses of war, the joys and struggles of family life, health and its absence, nature and human nature, travels, gender roles, religion, race and racism, the human comedy.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The eighteenth-century poets represented here concern themselves with issues of class, race, and gender. Ebenezer Cook's "Sot-weed Factor," for example, is a freewheeling satire tha ttakes class consciousness as a given for commenting on the conditions of life in colonial Maryland. Much of the humor derives from the pitiful way colonial subjects -- farmers, yeomen, business people, laborers -- measure up to their English counterparts. Sarah Morton's "The African Chief" is a prominent example of colonial concern over slavery. The anoymous "Lady's Complaint" attacks gender-based inequalities. And many other examples in this selection touch these issues as well.

    From a historical perspective, eighteenth-century poets struggled with the cultural devaluation of poetry as a genre. As prose became more popular and socially influential, poetry lost much of its audience. Poets wrote implicit defenses of poetry, perhaps as counterweights to the shared cultural assumptions that produced de Tocqueville's (later) disparaging comment: "I readily admit that the Americans have no poets; I cannot allow that they have no poetic ideas." Thus poetry itself becomes an important theme.

    In addition, the perennial question of geography may be significant here. Is this poetry English or American? Is the tradition that produced it a continuation of Old World traditions or evidence of New World exceptionalism? Or both? Poets continued to invent the New World, and in the later part of the century, the New Republic. What shape did these inventions take? How did they change over time? How did expectations clash with reality? How did authority mediate experience?

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    The selections here vary tremendously in form, but students will find a background in neoclassical aesthetics useful for most of them.

    Original Audience

    The original audience for eighteenth-century merican poetry depended on the vehicle for distribution. Of course it was restricted to the literate, making it a mostly white audience. But beyond that given, audiences would vary. Periodical poetry would have wide regional circulation, especially in urban areas. Books and chapbooks might circulate in both England and the colonies.  Manuscript verse would circulate largely among family and friends of the writer, perhaps in a club or salon setting, groups more frequently found among well-to-do readers.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Comparisons with contemporary English poets can be instructive.  Geographical or regional contrasts among the colonial selections illustrate the lack of a national voice until very late in the century.


    Cowell, Pattie. Women Poets in Pre-Revolutionary America. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1981. Entries grouped by individual poets, so access to relevant material is relatively easy.

    Davis, Richard Beale. Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, Vol. III. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978. On William Dawson.

    Individual entries in American Writers Before 1800, edited by James A. Levernier and Douglas R. Wilmes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1983.

    Lemay, J.A. Leo. "Ebenezer Cooke." In Men of Letters in Colonial Maryland. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1972: 77-110.

    --. "Richard Lewis and Augustan American Poetry." PMLA 83 (March 1968): 80-101.

    Silverman, Kenneth, ed. Colonial American Poetry. New York: Hafner, 1976. Anthology.

    Watts, Emily Stipes. The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977: 9-61.