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Colonial Era Poetry

Updated on April 17, 2013
A meeting between American Indians and colonists.
A meeting between American Indians and colonists. | Source

The Colonial Period in literature ran from 1607 to 1765. Poetry in the Colonies was largely influenced by the realities of life there.

In the Colonial era, metaphysical and devotional topics were the norm. Two influential Puritan poets include Edward Taylor and Anne Bradstreet. Taylor wrote in a more florid, sermon-like style while Bradstreet's style spoke of home life and familial love.

The Time Period

Jamestown founded in Virginia
Only 32 survivors remain from 105 by the end of the year.
1st session of the 1st legislative assembly
22 burgesses represent 11 plantations.
The Mayflower lands at Cape Cod, Massachussets
The Mayflower Compact sets a precedent for colonies setting up governments.
John Winthrop leads a group of 900 colonists to Massachussets Bay
Boston officially established and serves as the seat of Winthrop's government.
Law approved in Massachussets making religious heresy a capitol crime
Law sets foundation for Salem Witch Trials
Mass hysteria grips Salem, Massachussets; witchcraft suspected
In under 4 months, 150 people are accused, 20 people are executed; 14 of the 20 are women.
Boston Massacre
British troops fire into a group of protesters, killing 5 -- intense public protests follow.
Boston Tea Party
Colonial patriots protest by disguising themselves and dumping more than 300 crates of British-imported tea into the Boston Harbor.
A Puritan man preparing for a sermon.
A Puritan man preparing for a sermon. | Source

Poetry in the Colonial Period: Edward Taylor

Edward Taylor (1645-1729) wrote Puritan-style poetry. He was known to write a meditation poem before each supper.

An Address to the Soul Occasioned by a Rain

Original Source: The poetical works of Edward Taylor. Edited with an introduction and notes by Thomas H. Johnson. New York, Rockland editions, 1939.

Ye Flippering Soule,
Why dost between the Nippers dwell?
Not stay, nor goe. Not yea, nor yet Controle.
Doth this doe well?
Rise journy'ng when the skies fall weeping Showers,
Not o're nor under th' Clouds and Cloudy Powers.

Not yea, nor noe:
On tiptoes thus? Why sit on thorns?
Resolve the matter: Stay thyselfe or goe:
Ben't both wayes born.
Wager thyselfe against thy surplic'de see,
And win thy Coate, or let thy Coate win thee.

Is this th' Effect
To leaven thus my Spirits all?
To make my heart a Crabtree Cask direct?
A Verjue'te Hall?
As Bottle Ale, whose Spirits prison'd must
When jogg'd, the bung with Violence doth burst?

Shall I be made
A sparkling Wildfire Shop,
Where my dull Spirits at the Fireball trade
Do frisk and hop?
And while the Hammer doth the Anvill pay,
The fire ball matter sparkles ev'ry way.

One sorry fret,
An anvill Sparke, rose higher,
And in thy Temple falling, almost set
The house on fire.
Such fireballs dropping in the Temple Flame
Burns up the building: Lord, forbid the same.

The spelling is a bit tricky as many words were spelled differently at the time. For example "Soule" is soul and "Controle," control, perhaps obviously. The word "thy" was a possessive for your, and "doth" stands in for does. Omitting a syllable by contracting it, as in "ev'ry," or "journey'ng" was a poetic technique used so that the meter could be maintained.

The rhyme scheme of this poem is as follows: ABABCC, DEDEFF, and so on. In a sense, then, there is a quatrain followed by a couplet in each stanza.

Taylor is addressing his soul, which falls under the poetic device of apostrophe. In addition he addresses the soul as if it is human, speaking to the poetic device of personification. He also uses quite a few sensory-related words: "sit on thorns," "burst," "sparkling wildfire," relating to imagery.

This poem is clearly devotional. He is speaking to his soul, asking if it will rise (to heaven) or fall (to hell.) The thorns, though painful to sit on, are also a reference to Christ's crown of thorns. He speaks of alcohol with "casks," and "ale," perhaps hinting at a vice that will bring him down. Indeed, in the next stanza he begins speaking of fire, hinting at a descent into hell.

A Puritan woman at her writing desk.
A Puritan woman at her writing desk. | Source

Poetry in the Colonial Period: Anne Bradstreet

Bradstreet wrote in a more conventional style than Taylor. She wrote particularly about home and hearth, the family. She also holds the honor of being the author of the first book of American poetry, published in 1650, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung up in America.

To my Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;

If ever wife was happy in a man,

Compare with me ye women if you can.

I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,

Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

My love is such that rivers cannot quench,

Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

Thy love is such I can no way repay;

The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.

Then while we live, in love let's so persever,

That when we live no more we may live ever.

The rhyme scheme of the poem runs as follows: AABBCCDDEEFF. It reads similar to a Shakespearean sonnet, though it is composed of 12 rather than 14 lines.

Bradstreet indulges in a bit of hyperbole with "I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold." This is an exaggerated way to state that she loves him a lot. She makes an allusion to the riches of the East, likely Asia, which was stereotypically wealthy at the time.

On the surface, Bradstreet is simply describing her compatibility with her husband (lines 1-4), going overboard with how much she loves him (lines 5 – 10), and urging herself and her husband to keep loving each other (lines 11 and 12).

Poetry Quiz Colonial Era

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    • nArchuleta profile image

      Nadia Archuleta 4 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Yes, the difference between the plain and ornate styles of writing is quite interesting.

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

      LastRoseofSummer2 4 years ago from Arizona

      Really good! This is a great subject to write on as most people don't know much about the poetry from this period.