A Selection of Seventeenth-Century Poetry

    Contributing Editor:
    Jeffrey A. Hammond

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    While students are pleasantly surprised at the diversity of poets and poetic themes in early America, they are often disappointed with the poems themselves. This disappointment is a good starting point for discussion, since it highlights the differences between seventeenth- and twentieth-century expectations and responses regarding poetry. When students articulate what disappoints them about much of the verse--the generalized speakers, the religious themes, the artificial language, the high level of allusion--they begin to understand that art and its cultural functions are subject to historical change. Good questions to begin discussion of particular poems in this selection include: Why was the poem written? What reading response does the text seem to foster? What is the relationship between the poem and the values of the culture that produced it? What view of poetic language does the poem seem to demonstrate?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    These poems also become more interesting for students when they are asked to identify the blend (or opposition) of Old World and New World features--formal as well as thematic--within the texts. Another issue concerns the expected functions of verse in the seventeenth century. Once students realize that poets were more interested in voicing communal values, commemorating important events, and seeking coherence in their world than in expressing "original" ideas, the poems begin to make better sense. Students may not agree with the literary conventions they encounter, but they will gain a better contextual understanding of them. This in turn may help them see that modern reading expectations also exist in a particular historical and cultural framework.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    For most students these poems are quite difficult. The syntax is sometimes cramped into a rigid meter (Johnson and Alsop), the allusions often seem remote and excessive (Saffin), the speakers seem remote and impersonal, and, for many, the poem's ideology seems trite or alien (Goodhue). A discussion of "metaphysical" wit often helps students understand--if not enjoy--the seemingly strained effects in many of the poems. The Renaissance view of poetry as a frankly artificial discourse is also helpful. The poet is usually not trying to replicate "natural" speech in texts that were written, in one sense or another, for the ages.

    Original Audience

    The selections here reflect a wide range of intended readers. Students might try to determine the nature of those readers (their social class, education, reading expectations) as a means of humanizing the texts. This will also underscore the contrasts between the literary culture that these poems embody and the students' own literary culture, including its microcosm in the English classroom.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Students familiar with the English cavaliers and metaphysical poets will bring a great deal to the discussion of these poems, especially in matters of form and style. It is also useful to compare the poems with other treatments of similar themes: Saffin with Shakespeare's sonnets, French with later slave narratives, Steere with later Romantic depictions of nature, Goodhue with Bradstreet, Alsop with promotional tracts and Ebenezer Cook, Johnson and Hayden with Milton's Lycidas. In addition, any of the poems could be profitably compared with works by Bradstreet, Wigglesworth, or Taylor.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. What do the poems suggest about the cultural functions of poetry in the seventeenth century?

    2. What do they suggest about the relation between individual identity and culture or ideology?

    3. What do they suggest about seventeenth-century distinctions between "poetic" discourse and everyday speech?

    4. What implied readership is suggested in their diction and allusions?

    5. In what sense(s), thematic or formal, are the poems "American"?

    6. In what sense(s), thematic or formal, are the poems "British"?

    7. What expressions of the cultural diversity characteristic of a later America seem already present in these poems?

    8. Do thematic or formal differences emerge in the work of the female and male poets collected here?


    Cowell, Pattie. "Introduction" and headnotes, Women Poets in Pre-Revolutionary America, 1981.

    Meserole, Harrison T. "Introduction" and headnotes, American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, 1985.

    Scheick, William J. "The Poetry of Colonial America." In Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

    -- and Joella Doggett. Seventeenth-Century American Poetry: A Reference Guide, 1977.

    -- and Catherine Rainwater. "Seventeenth-Century American Poetry: A Reference Guide Updated." Resources for American Literary Study 10 (1980): 121-45.

    Silverman, Kenneth. "Introduction" and headnotes, Colonial American Poetry. New York: Hafner Press, 1968.

    White, Peter, ed. Puritan Poets and Poetics: Seventeenth-Century American Poetry in Theory and Practice. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985.