In this article, we’re going to take a look at Puritan poetry. My aim is to help you have a good general understanding of Puritan poetry, how it was influenced by Puritanism, what are the characteristics of Puritan poems, who are their famous poets and finally enjoy some of their poems. Sounds good? So without further ado, let’s dive in!
Who are Puritans?
To understand Puritan poetry, first we need to talk about the Puritans. Who are they? What’s their history?
According to Wikipedia, the Puritans were English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to purify the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices.
In their opinion, the Church of England had not been fully reformed and should have become more Protestant.
Even though Puritanism was never a formally defined religious division within Protestantism, it did have a significant role in English history.
In the scope of this article, I cannot go deep into the history of Puritans, but for the context of the next sections, just remember that they are a group of people who disagreed with the Church of England’s certain practices.
Now let’s look at their poetry.
An overview of Puritan poetry
Common knowledge about Puritans is that they saw almost nothing redeemable or good in creation.
The Puritan movement was one for very literal expression, to the point of ugliness.
Fortunately, over time, some poets in the Puritan age produce some of the greatest masterpieces of their time when creativity arose.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked factors that granted the Puritans such degree of impact in Reformed Christian is their facility with the English language.
The wealth of their words connects deeply with the worth of subjects. The Puritans direct truth towards readers’ hearts with well turned phrasing and precise aphorism.
Another great part about Puritans’ poetry is that they can perfectly deliver sophisticated expression without surrendering to sophistry. Very rarely you see them sacrifice the content of their writing on the altar of form.
Finally, we have to talk about the authenticity of Puritan poetry. Almost always, what they wrote down is what they preached.
Perhaps one of the reasons behind the genius of Puritan poets is that many of them were preachers before authors.
To read the Puritans means witnessing a preacher using his best skills to articulate the best ideas he wants to deliver to a crowd. This element ignited Puritan poetry, that can be no doubt.
3 distinctive characteristics of Puritan poetry
Poetry is one of the three important genres in Puritan literature: sermons, historical narrative and poetry. Puritan poetry is abundant, but you can always find some distinctive traits that set them apart. Below are X characteristics that you can see in pretty much any Puritan poem:
The influence of the Bible
As we already know from the overview section about Puritans above, they had a very deep belief system based on their own point of view about Christianity.
Needless to say, the Bible played a significant role in the daily lives of the Puritans. All families had at least one Bible in their homes. They attended church regularly.
It’s no surprise that the writing styles of most poems are learned from the Bible itself. Puritan poets frequently use biblical characters and events to illustrate their points.
People who followed Puritanism compared their own lives to the narratives in the Bible, so we can easily how this affected their poetry.
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Plain writing style
The life of a typical Puritan is anything but glamorous. They lived a simple life follow two values that they put highly: humility and simplicity.
The two values come from, yes you guessed it, their religious beliefs and the Bible. To a Puritan, things like wearing fancy clothes make them uneasy or even offended.
With a strong belief and value system like that, of course their poetry was going to be influenced. It shows most clearly through their plain writing style.
Unlike the elaborated writing style that became much popular in Europe, Puritan poetry was written in a way that is direct and to the point.
Much like a Puritan who doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, Puritan poetry uses simple sentences and common language that is easy to read and understand.
A sense of purpose
To Puritans, poetry is not for “entertainment”. When they wrote, they wrote with specific purposes in mind. Oftentimes, the goal was to demonstrate their religious beliefs and values.
The themes were only relevant if they referred to the glory of God. Anything that didn’t was frowned upon.
For example, any work of fiction was considered “useless” and not necessary for a life dedicated to worshipping God. Novels were strictly forbidden.
Want to read for leisure? Here, read these sermons, they are already transcripted. I can imagine the Puritans were not the most fun people to be around but hey, that was how they rolled.
3 famous Puritan poets worth paying attention to
Even though Puritan poetry had very strict rules and doesn’t sound very appealing, they still produced some of the best poets of their time. Here’s the list:
1. John Milton
John Milton (1608-1674) was an English poet who served as a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England.
His most popular work is the epic poem Paradise Lost, a poem that is considered by many one of the greatest works of literature ever written.
John Milton achieved great success in his lifetime, being known by many people internationally.
He was also the first modern writer to employ unrhymed verse outside of the theatre or translations. The English writer William Hayley called him “the greatest English author”.
While not everyone fully agrees with that big statement, John Milton is widely regarded as “one of the pre-eminent writers in the English language”.
2. Edward Taylor
Edward Taylor (1642-1729) was an original English and a colonial American. He’s not only a poet but also did the work of a pastor and a physician.
What’s interesting about Edward is that his poetry was never published in his lifetime. It was kept private in a manuscript book with the instruction to never publish these poems.
Taylor’s poetry remained unpublished like that for about two centuries. Much like Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations for himself, Edward Taylor’s works are mostly private meditations and lines written in preparation for serving of communion.
As soon as his poems were published, however, they established him as one of the foremost writers of his time.
3. Anne Bradstreet
This is won’t be complete without Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). She is probably one of the best known Puritan poets and the first writer in England’s North American colonies to be punished.
Anne Bradstreet was born in a wealthy Puritan family and had been introduced to poetry at a young age.
As a mother of eight as well as a wife and daughter of public officials, Anne obviously had a very busy life. So writing poetry was not her main focus.
Her work can easily be divided into two sections: the poems she wrote early on in life and the poems she wrote after going through the struggle of life. It’s the later section that really made her famous.
Her early poems were especially affected by Du Bartas’s writing style. Later on, as she went through life, her work developed into a unique style.
In it we can see her writings had been influenced by the Puritan faith, one’s struggle with the sufferings of life and the perspective of a mother.
Examples of Puritans poetry
After reading about all the interesting facts about Puritan poetry, you must be wondering what an actual Puritan poem is like? In this last section of the article, we’re going to give you some examples of Puritan poetry. Enjoy!
Meditation 1.1 – Edward Taylor
What Love is this of thine, that Cannot bee
In thine Infinity, O Lord, Confined,
Unless it in thy very Person see,
Infinity, and Finity Conjoyn’d?
What hath thy Godhead, as not satisfide
Marri’de our Manhood, making it its Bride?
Oh, Matchless Love! filling Heaven to the brim!
O’re running itL all running o’re beside
This World! Nay Overflowing Hell; wherein
For thine Elect, there rose a mighty Tide!
That there our Veans might through thy Person bleed,
To quench those flames, that else would on us feed.
Oh! that thy Love might overflow my Heart!
To fire the same with Love: for Love I would.
But oh! my straight’ned Breast! my Lifeless Sparke!
My Fireless Flame! What Chilly Love, and Cold?
In measure small! In Manner Chilly! See.
Lord blow the Coal: Thy Love Enflame in mee.
A Letter to her Husband, Absent upon Publick employment – Anne Bradstreet
My head, my heart, mine Eyes, my life, nay more,
My joy, my Magazine of earthly store,
If two be one, as surely thou and I,
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich Iye?
So many steps, head from the heart to sever
If but a neck, soon should we be together:
I like the earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in’s Zodiack,
Whom whilst I ’joy’d, nor storms, nor frosts I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now nummed Iye forlorn;
Return, return sweet Sol from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Then view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living Pictures of their Fathers face.
O strange effect! now thou art Southward gone,
I weary grow, the tedious day so long;
But when thou Northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest.
Where ever, ever stay, and go not thence,
Till natures sad decree shall call thee hence;
Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,
I here, thou there, yet both but one.
There are many things to say about Puritan poetry, but one thing is for sure: they did have some of the best poets in literature. Despite, or perhaps because of their strict religious beliefs and literature rules, the creativity of Puritan poets flourished. I hope this article has provided you with a good overview of Puritan poetry. Let me know what you think down the comment section and check out other similar articles if you’re interested.
Thomas Dao is the guy who created Poem Home, a website where people can read about all things poetry related. When he’s not busy working on his next project, you can find him reading a good book or spending time with family and friends.