From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature (Routledge Classics)

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“I am drawn, in pieties that seem/the weary drizzle of an unremembered dream.”—John Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956)

At the height of their dominance, the North American mastodon traversed from the Arctic Circle to as far south as Costa Rica, going extinct during the Pleistocene about 11 millennia ago. With an average height of 14 feet and a weight of around eight tons, the pachyderm foraged throughout the frozen American forest for millions of years; white tusk glinting in moonlight, coarse brown hair hanging in ragged clumps from massive haunches, trumpeting trunk echoing in Yosemite, the Berkshires, the Adirondacks. Sometime in the last 20, or 30, or 40 thousand years, one of these mammoths perished in those virgin woods near what would be Claverack, N.Y., her body covered over in rich soil and her bones transmuted into fossils. Above her decaying corpse the glaciers would recede, then the ancestors of the Mahican would arrive, after them came the Dutch, and finally the English. A Knickerbocker whose name is lost to posterity was digging in a marsh by the Hudson in 1705 when he unearthed a five-pound honey-comb ribbed bright-enameled ivory molar. On July 23, the Boston News Letter printed report of a “great prodigious Tooth brought here, supposed by the shape of it to be one of the far great Teeth of a man.” Some of those who were enslaved, recalling their lives in Africa, remarked that the tooth looked similar to that of an elephant, but those observations were dismissed.

Edward Hyde, the infamous cross-dressing 3rd Earl of Clarendon and Governor of New York and New Jersey, had the molar dispatched to the Royal Society in London, with his own evaluation being that it was from some Antediluvian monstrosity, possibly the Nephilim spoken of in Genesis, the giant progeny of fallen angels and loose women. The Puritan divine Cotton Mather came to the same conclusion, citing the teeth in his Biblia Americana as evidence of the flood. And in Westfield, Mass., a minister named Edward Taylor wrote a poem about the gargantuan teeth. A private man, Taylor was taken to penning verse entirely for himself, and in the molar he saw a muse, writing 190 verses about how it evidenced the glory of God. “This Gyants bulk propounded to our Eyes/Reason lays down nigh t’seventy foot did rise/In height, whose body holding just proportion/Grew more than 7 yards round by Natures motion.” Taylor recorded his epic in a commonplace book of some 400 pages, which included lyrics that would eventually be regarded as the greatest of early American verse, described by Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets as a “strange voice, new and yet with old and tested tonalities,” sealed away in a leather-bound volume donated by his family to Yale’s Beinecke Library and fossilizing on some shelf until discovered in 1937, like an ivory tooth sifted from the silt.

After Professor Thomas H. Johnson’s uncovering of Taylor’s poetry, some of the lyrics would be printed in The New England Quarterly, and just as a mammoth tooth had charged imaginations in the early 18th century, so would scholars construct grandiose interpretations of the significance of this yeoman farmer, Paracelsian physician, Congregationalist minister, and religious poet. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark van Doren pronounced Taylor the author of the “most interesting American verse before the 19th century,” and critics quickly heralded this forgotten writer who had prohibited the publication of his work during his lifetime as the equivalent of the Spanish Baroque poets who were his contemporaries in Mexico City, or as a frontier George Herbert or John Donne, who doesn’t just make “one little room an everywhere” but who counts out iambs and trochees while splitting wood on his homestead, plumbing metaphysical poetry’s intricacies while braving Nor’easters and fortifying his town’s defenses during King Philip’s War. Whether or not Taylor was the equivalent of Donne (he wasn’t), the poet crafted some brilliant and beautiful poems, with Werner Sollors writing in his contribution to the Greil Marcus edited New Literary History of America that the minister was a “tinkerer, risk taker, language explorer, multilingual punster, lover of metaphors, and coiner of strange images, a trained rhetorician skeptical of eloquence, a divine with an odd sense of humor, an isolated frontier poet striving for new ways of expressing.” Hyde and Mather looked at a mammoth tooth and saw a giant; Johnson and van Doren read Taylor’s Preparatory Meditations and God’s Interpretations and detected the greatest American poet until Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. What the truth was, in both cases, happened to be different, but no less wondrous because of it.

The strange epic inspired by the mastodon tooth wasn’t included in Johnson’s first edition of the Poetical Works of Edward Taylor, perhaps a bit too eccentric for the New Critics of the day, but the lyrics that made the cut were lauded as among the finest of the 17th century. “Am I new minted by thy Stamp indeed?” Taylor addresses God, writing that “Mine Eyes are dim; I cannot clearly see./Be thou my Spectacles that I may read/Thine Image and inscription stampt on me.” Editor of The Poems of Edward Taylor, Donald E. Stanford, snarks that the “puritan tendency to invest all aspects of life with religious meaning had a profound and often unfortunate effect on Taylor’s choice of images… [he] had little concern with incongruous connotations. He saw resemblances rather than differences,” and yet I’d argue the source of his genius is simile. Taylor has a wit and a metaphorical cleverness that’s indicative of conceit; configuring himself as a book stamped with register’s approval and God as a pair of glasses is certainly clever. In such a comparison, one sees love as a compass or conjugal pleasure in a flea. The rhyme scheme and rhythm are simple but they’re not rustic. Some critics claimed to see in Taylor crypto-Catholicism (inaccurate), or his verse as prefiguring Ralph Waldo Emerson or Gerard Manley Hopkins (fairer). Such claims dehistoricize Taylor, who though a brilliant poet was an orthodox Puritan, concerned more with the Half-Way Covenant than what it meant to be an American poet, much less an American (he was English, after all).

During graduate school, I would read fat anthologies of early American verse filled with names that are forgotten. David S. Shields’s beautiful Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Centuries with its bible paper and black ribbon bookmark; Harrison T. Meserole’s slightly gothic purple covered American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, and Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco’s The Puritans in America: A Narrative History, its cover adorned with a ghostly close-up of the woodcut engraved shortly after Richard Mather landed in Massachusetts, depicting his disembodied hands and glasses. During dusk, the sunlight would filter through the canopy of trees that looked over my 19th-century apartment’s communal courtyard— which was rounded on two sides by kudzu covered hills and the building behind me, a rickety wooden fence separating me from the railroad tracks and the Lehigh River beyond—and with the sound of crickets and the occasional blare of a train whistle as the bestial metal monstrosity lumbered past, I’d read. Poems like John Wilson’s “To God our twice-Revenger,” Edward Johnson’s “New England’s Annoyances,” Urian Oakes’s “An Elegie Upon that Reverend, Learned, Eminently Pious, and Singularly Accomplished Divine, my Ever Honoured Brother, Mr. Thomas Shepherd,” Nathaniel Evans’s “To Benjamin Franklin Esq: L.L.D., Occasioned by hearing him play on the Harmonica,” and of course Ned Botwood’s “Hot Stuff.” Sometimes I’d sojourn to Bethlehem’s northside where 18th-century dormitories of the German-speaking Moravians still stand, walking through a cemetery of flat gravestones down a lonely red-brick path to sit on a bench behind the federal-style church, perusing my collections of forgotten poetry. What I’m saying is that, as with all reading experiences, the atmosphere of where you first encounter early American poetry can make a difference, can add a romance.

The early Americans whom we’ve enlisted in our national story were abundantly and irrevocably different from us. Their concerns were not our concerns, their lives were unfathomable. They were not better than us —often they were clearly far worse (and yes, sometimes they were noble, or steadfast, or loyal). Taylor’s obsession with whether he was worthy of administering communion speaks little to secular people. Cracking the spine of one of those anthologies was a way of being with folks whose views were divergent from mine, whose beliefs I sometimes find abhorrent. They would recognize me at best as an apostate and at worst as a papist heretic. I respected them. Sometimes I even liked them. “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome,” wrote Anne Bradstreet in her 1664 Meditations Divine and Moral, as Yankee a sentence as has ever been written, and true, I think, even as the winters get shorter and warmer. Coming to love Puritan poetry is an odd aesthetic journey, for poets like Taylor are not easy. It’s the sort of thing you expect people partial to bowties and gin gimlets to get involved with. Perhaps that’s how one Ipswich realtor read my wife and me, back when we lived north of Boston and with mortgage dreams of millennial wanderlust we toured a 17th-century house just to see how wooden shoe people lived. When the agent discovered my job, I detected his misguided sense of luck, and he told me that just the previous autumn he’d sold “Mistress Bradstreet’s house,” pointing toward a wooden-planked salt-box across the road. Latter, when I examined the brass plaque affixed to the side, I discovered that he was telling the truth.  

Seventeenth-century America had no Donne. There was no Shakespeare or Jonson or Milton in Boston or Philadelphia or New Amsterdam. Still, something about the mistiness of the period, the distance and oddity of these people who were ministers and physicians and the enslaved who wrote verse moved me, as if putting on a pair of divine glasses to read something intrinsic stamped on the soul. Taylor and his mirror of infinity, Bradstreet on hardship and duty, Michael Wigglesworth’s meditations on sin, and dozens of others who if they didn’t rise to the heights of the country they left still struck me as beautiful because they were so enigmatic—not because of any perceived universalism, but precisely because they were so unlike us, unlike me. That is, I suppose, a reason to read early American poetry. Not because it’s a mirror, but rather a window of fogged, dimpled, rough-blown glass. Too often the justification of engaging with centuries-old literature is because readers will see themselves reflected in those works, but if you want to see yourself go on Twitter. If you want to spend time with something alien, foreign, strange, and odd, read early American poetry.  

Preparatory Meditations is an odd book because it wasn’t written for consumption, at least not by human eyes. The poet had no concern of readers, or critics, or scholars; Taylor’s verse was the most pure that there can be, written for him and Him alone. The work’s title refers to the purpose that those lyrics served, to prepare for administering the sacrament of communion (that perseveration being a reason why he was misinterpreted as secretly sympathetic to Catholicism, which he adamantly wasn’t). Today such a poet would be seen as an oddball eccentric, an outsider. By contrast, Taylor wasn’t just a respected minister, his family was so esteemed that his grandson became president of Yale. Which speaks to the alterity of Puritan poetry—it’s very reasoning is countercultural. “Did God mould up this Bread in Heaven, and bake,/Which from his Table came, and to thine goeth?” Taylor writes. “Its Food too fine for Angells, yet come, take/And Eate thy fill. Its Heavens Sugar Cake.” Christianity is so obvious in Taylor’s verse that it demonstrates how secular our current age is (especially among Christians). To read Taylor is to be in the presence of somebody with a gem-like intensity, a flame as much as a man, and unless you’re a very particular type of person, he is most likely somebody who is little like you. And his poetry can be beautiful. Though Taylor couldn’t have thought of himself as an American in the sense that citizens of the United States do, I think it’s helpful to countenance that fiction, in part because I find that myth as instructive in and of itself. “Infinity, when all things it beheld/In Nothing, and of Nothing all did build,/Upon what Base was fixt the Lath wherein/He turn’d this Globe, and rigalld it so trim?” wrote Taylor. Hemispheric turning and building an everything from nothing, not dissimilar to inventing the idea of America, a fictional domain that’s its own type of heretical divinity.

No period of American literary history raises the question of what an American is more than our earliest poetry, which during the twilight of empire becomes an ever more urgent query. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury note in their study From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature that “more than most literatures, American literary history is frequently dominated by the interpretations modern writers make of their predecessors,” good enough justification at midnight to go back to sunrise. That’s not to mention the other reasons to contemplate such verse—that it’s often beautiful and almost always deeply weird. At the time of Taylor’s rediscovery, the nascent field of American Studies was constructing a new understanding of what this nation meant, and in part that involved retroactively reading events in the 16th through the 18th centuries as prophetically pointing towards the United States, the sort of typology practiced by Puritans when they read the Hebrew Scriptures as foreshadowing Christ. Ruland and Bradbury write that “any discussion of American literature draws on long-standing speculation… shaped by large questions about the nature of American experience, the American land and landscape, American national identity and the nature of language and expression in the presumed ‘New World.'” That’s all fantasy of course, albeit useful fantasy. For those constructing a new canon nearly a century ago, these early authors became an invaluable argument for the nation’s singular literary origins. William C. Spengemann writes in A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature that the “reigning theory of American literature as an independent, autochthonous, unique collection of writings with a history of its own appears to be little more than a political fiction” whereby “American literature comes from a certain place” rather than being written in a particular language (namely English).  

Such an “ambiguous literary status,” writes Spengemann, is due to thinking of writers like Taylor as “American rather than as English, as a primitive phase in the evolution of a truly ‘American’ literature that would not arrive until a century or two later.” Johnson and van Doren saw a giant, when really Taylor was a mammoth (but being a mammoth is good enough). What’s fascinating to me about early American literature, if we acknowledge Spengemann’s point while turning him on his head, is that works from that gloaming period makes us question what “America” means, that word that after all should be applied to a whole hemisphere and not just 13 British colonies (of 38 that were part of British North America in 1775). American literature is marked by an obsession with defining itself, because in every way that matters, “America” has never actually been a place so much as a variable, contradictory, and difficult idea. From the Aleutian Islands to Tierra del Fuego, both continents of this hemisphere have been endowed with millennial, utopian, and Edenic associations. The Spanish historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara wrote in 1552 that the “discovery” of America was the “greatest event since the creation of the world” (he made an exception for the incarnation and the crucifixion), while in his India Christiana of 1721 Mather would apocalyptically write “we have now seen the Sun rising in the West.” To read American literature then—but especially early American literature—is to read letters from an imaginary realm. From beginnings to endings, Genesis to Revelation, to be an inhabitant of the more than16 million square miles of the New World is to be the citizen of a myth.

Who knows if that’s how Bradstreet felt as she approached Boston Harbor aboard the Arbella in 1630, among the first of the Puritans to follow the Pilgrims who’d arrived in Massachusetts a decade earlier. “I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose,” Bradstreet recalled, “But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church.” In her father’s spacious library in Northampton, England, she studied the verse of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas and the once-popular Englishman Joshua Sylvester. In America, Bradstreet raised six children in Cambridge. During all this time she wrote poetry. While darning her husband’s socks, she wrote poetry. When preparing cornmeal johnny cakes for her children, she wrote poetry. When scrubbing rough wooden floors held together with iron joists, she wrote poetry. When cleaning clothes with burning lye, she wrote poetry. When breastfeeding her babies, bathing her daughters and sons, and burying her children—Bradstreet wrote poetry. Apocryphally it was the Rev. John Woodbridge who filched her verse to London in 1650, where without her knowledge it was published with the grandiose title The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America. She was lauded as a brilliant voice, the first sapling of American verse to grow from the stony soil of New England. Much of her poetry, written when she was younger, is inspired by the historical, theological, philosophical, and natural interests of DuBartas and Sylvester, Bradstreet penning miniature epics known as the “Quaternions” about subjects as varied as the seasons or the four providential kingdoms of eschatology. Her poetry that is most remembered, however, is that which is sometimes called “domestic,” whether because it conforms to our understanding of what a woman’s verse should sound like or because it’s far more moving to contemporary readers (in a manner that Taylor isn’t).

“I wakened with thundering noise/And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice./That fearful sound of ‘Fire,'” Bradstreet wrote in a 1666 poem about the accidental burning of her Cambridge house. “When by the ruins oft I passed/My sorrowing eyes aside did cast/And here and there the places spy/Where oft I sat and long did lie.” Bradstreet attributes the burning to divine providence, though she doesn’t let the reader forget what it would mean to see the place where you raised your children, loved your spouse, and wrote your verse, burnt to ash. Today the site houses a Starbucks and a CVS, across the street from the legendary Harvard Square newsstand. Part of my attraction to early American poetry, long before I ever lived in Massachusetts, was the charged aura its presence seems to leave behind. Mistress Bradstreet isn’t there anymore, but I spent hours reading her poetry where her house used to be, drinking a venti black dark roast. That presumed familiarity can be misleading though, as we try to transform those whom we love into images of ourselves. A detriment and fallacy in contemporary critical thinking is often to refuse taking those in the past on their own terms, to torture them into the Procrustean bed of whatever we believe so that they become ethically more palatable. Not that we shouldn’t condemn them when they deserve it, but intentionally misreading them doesn’t do justice for them or us either. Emory Elliot writes in The Cambridge Introduction to Early American Literature that the “advocates of Anne Bradstreet continue to construct an image of her as a cultural rebel who produced poetry in spite of the religious and social forces against her as a woman and a Puritan,” while Heimert and Delbanco explain how some see her as a subversive celebrating “things of this world, rhyming out a pagan heat in forced solitude.” All of it reminds me of a panel I attended at a conference that was titled something like “Queer Bradstreet,” and one of the presenters rather honestly admitted that as much as they wished there was something subversive, radical, or transgressive in her poetry, there simply wasn’t. “If ever two were one, then surely we,” wrote Bradstreet to her husband, a sometimes governor of Massachusetts, “If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;/If ever wife was happy in a man,/Come with me ye women if you can.” Perhaps one can engage with this in a hermeneutic of suspicion, reading against the grain, searching for signs of duress. Certainly that’s sometimes the case with poetry. And yet it also does a disservice not to take Bradstreet at her word—not that we should want to emulate the Puritans, not that we don’t see what was stifling, zealous, or constricting about their world (though we’d do better to note those instances in our own) but that we show her the respect to acknowledge her humanity, as distant as her time may have been. Anne Bradstreet was Anne Bradstreet, and that was more than enough.

Bradstreet and Taylor are the most frequently taught and anthologized of American poets from that vast hinterland of years before the 19th century, since as even Meserole admits “time and circumstance have been unkind to the poetry of this era.” They’re the most read because, if you’ll forgive the simplicity here, they’re the best. Dismissing the rest would be a mistake, though. Rhymes are often rough, meters awkward, and Christ knows the themes can be didactic, but to reduce such verse to mere “historical evidence” is to ignore the fact that idiosyncrasy and temporal distance are their own literary affects. Nobody would ever mistake Michael Wigglesworth with Milton, even while he was the author of per capita the single most popular book in American history, the apocalyptic epic poem The Day of Doom. A kind person might surmise that Wigglesworth’s name sounding like a character from a British children’s television show is some part in why it’s hard to take him seriously, and yet the poetry speaks for itself in that regard, for as Bradbury and Ruland conclude, his writing “was not, admittedly, a joyous read.” A minister at First Parish in Malden, Wigglesworth was tortured by nocturnal emissions, and believed that his depravity made him incapable of preaching the word of God. He resigned, and the subsequent minister embezzled church funds, so the congregation begged Wigglesworth to return, which he reluctantly did. Almost too spot-on as a parody of the black-clad, dour, humorless and abnegating Puritan, Wigglesworth haunted by his own dirty thoughts and semen. Elliot writes that “Puritan doctrines may have led to self-destructive repression and even depression,” which seems clear, but in losing sight of the fact that Wigglesworth was a suffering neurotic, we harden our hearts. And yet the sheer popularity of The Day of Doom speaks to why we should pay attention to Wigglesworth, pages worn to gossamer thinness and ink smudged from fingers periodically licked to turn those pages, binding loose and covers missing.

Virtually no copies of The Day of Doom’s first edition survive because the book was literally loved to death.  “Still was the night, Serene & Bright,/when all Men sleeping lay;/Calm was the season, & carnal reason/though so ‘twould last for ay.” Wigglesworth’s ballad meter gallops along, giving a poem about the apocalypse a juvenile feel, something almost ironic or even kitsch. If anything it makes the verse more ominous. “For at midnight brake forth a Light,/which turn’d the night to day,/And speedily a hideous cry/did all the world dismay.” If we are residents of the United States of Apocalypse, Americans forever obsessed with our dramatic collective leave of this world, than Wigglesworth was the first consummate master of Armageddon, writing a poem that with eerie prescience seems to almost describe a nuclear explosion. Inevitably the Puritans spoke an idiom that was violent, even if they themselves wouldn’t have necessarily thought of it that way. Paradise was lost before William Bradford’s slipper ever hit Plymouth Rock, and yet the gleeful despoiling of a land that they thought was virginal speaks to a collective rapaciousness that still slinks its way across our culture. For that reason, and that reason alone, it would be worth it to pay attention to those earliest indications of what this land is, as in their own bloody conflicts they forced themselves into a new type of human being known as the “American.” Benjamin Tompson, the first English-language poet to actually be born in America, writes of the colonists’ adversaries in New-England’s Tears, his 1676 epic about the hideous violence of King Philip’s War, that they should be “besmeared with Christian blood & oiled/With fat out of white human bodies boiled./Draw them with clubs like mauls & full of stains,/Luke Vulcans anvilling New England’s brains.”   

Important to observe that this generation of New Englanders were the first who self-described themselves as Americans even while they continued to eliminate the original Americans. It’s what’s disturbing about reading early American poetry—those authors may have configured themselves as new Adams in Eden, but none of them were innocent. More than Atlantis, the Hesperides, or Utopia, America was a blood-soaked, skull-bedecked howling wilderness, and the Puritans were aware of that contradiction (if less confessional in their role in making it that way). “The Puritan imagination… was central to the nature of American writing,” write Ruland and Bradbury, in a way that wasn’t the case in other colonies whose great literatures—often far more accomplished than what was being produced in Boston—were extensions of national literatures in Spain or Portugal. They write that the Puritans brought to the New World a sense of ” millenarian promise— the ‘American dream’ that is still recalled in so much modern literature.” As crafters of an idea, the Puritans saw themselves as entering into a covenant, where to be an American was to ascent to a particular creed more than it was anything else. But at what price is that dream purchased, especially to acquire the deed to a cursed house that has yet to be built? American literature is always haunted—by a place that never really existed, and the innumerable dead whom we murdered in the land that really did. America is a Faustian bargain.  

Now that the sun really does seem to be rising in the West—hard yet to tell whether it’s a mushroom cloud or a California wild fire on that horizon—there is something essential about returning to when those myths were crafted, when the fresh green breast of the New World was first espied, or at least invented. Could it have been any different? And what voices do we refuse to hear when we listen to only these? I think about the earliest verse believed to have been written in English in the New World, penned by the notorious libertine Thomas Morton who established his own ecumenical, interracial, non-conformist, and neo-pagan colony known as Merrymount on the site of present-day Quincy, Mass. During their Mayday revels, when Morton invited the Native Americans to Merrymount to celebrate the forging of his new country, he affixed to the Maypole two hermetic, occult, and bizarre poems, but they are lyrics that predate Taylor, Bradstreet, and Wigglesworth by decades. “Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys;/Let all your delight be in the Hymens joys;/So to the Hymen, now the day is come,/About the merry Maypole take a room,” Morton records in New English Canaan, the account of his brief carnivalesque experiment before the Puritans cut down the Maypole, arrested and then expelled Merrymount’s leader. The other lyric is all the more mysterious, in keeping with Morton’s boast that it was “enigmatically composed… [and] puzzled the Separatists’ most pitifully to expound it.” The author gleefully supplies a gloss of “The Poem,” mocking Plymouth dunderheadedness, but even so the reader might have trouble making sense of such lines as “What meads Caribdis underneath the mold, / When Scilla solitary on the ground / (Sitting in form of Niobe,) was found,” continuing that “the Seas were found/So full of Protean forms that the bold shore/Presented Scilla a new paramour/So strong as Sampson and so patient/As Job himself, directed thus, by fate,/To comfort Scilla so unfortunate.”

Jack Dempsey gives an enigmatic reading in Early American Literature, arguing that such verse addressed “the most catastrophic human event in seventeenth-century New England: the ’Great Mortality’… [which] between 1616 and 1619 killed as many as ninety percent of an estimated 90,000-135,000 Native Americans inhabiting land from Maine to Connecticut.” The critic claims that Morton is honoring the cemetery upon which his experiment was being enacted, writing that the poem “invokes three famous healers for the world of human troubles it describes”—Oedipus, Proteus, and Asklepios—as well as the pain of the biblical character Job. “Morton’s Oedipus seems called upon to read a riddle concerning epidemic,” writes Dempsey, so that his verse could function as a “’comfort,’ if not exactly a cure, for the ‘sick.'” Odd to think about that Maypole today, gnarled tree stripped of bark, two pages of verse nailed to its side, the whole thing crowned with a set of stag antlers. During our own season of pandemic, undoubtedly more than a million Americans already dead, it’s a duty to recall the smallpox horror that killed those who lived here before. Our time feels as apocalypse, theirs was. Morton’s verse does nothing to resurrect them—he doesn’t even name them—but he acknowledges them. He mourns them. That, maybe even more than Merrymount, gestures towards an America-that-could-have-been. Puritan poetry is a verse of the frigid strand and cold shoals, leafless trees whose spindly branches frame a gray sky and of perennial drizzle in an overgrown marsh, of slate gravestones with winged skulls and austere white churches ringed with a foreboding wilderness—solemn, gothic, macabre. I love it in spite of itself, but I mourn for all of the poems too muffled for me to listen. Returning to such verse, I try to make out the sound of that other America, and I wonder if it’s possible to hear what future poems may sound like, if there are future poems, lest we get buried in the silt like Pleistocene monsters forgotten beneath the earth.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

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