Michael Wigglesworth’s Bestselling Book, "The Day of Doom"
Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom is probably America’s first bestseller. First published in 1662, this long poem went through about eight printings from its first edition in 1662 to the eighth edition in 1751; it saw publication in both America and England. The first printing sold over 1800 copies. And subsequent printings soon sold out. The book became widely noted; school children were required to memorize its stanzas. The poem was a companion to Puritan teachings, serving to make specific the ideas that were preached from the pulpit.
The poem plays out in 224 stanzas. It dramatizes events such as the Second Coming, the Last Judgment, and arrival of the saved souls into Heaven and the damned into Hell.
The poem opens and closes with colorful imagery. The bulk of the internal composition features sermons, including the topic of Christ's judgment with conversations between Jesus Christ and damned sinners who are protesting agains their state but then Christ responds with explanations for their state.
The poetry of The Day of Doom has been panned by poetry critics, some brazenly labeling it “doggerel,” and today's poets of all stripes find it utterly impossible to enjoy. But the purpose of this book was not primarily literary but theological.
Critic Edmond Morgan wrote harshly about the Puritan and his poem:
When we begin to think of the Puritans this way, we sooner or later have to reckon with a man like Michael Wigglesworth. The grim pages of his Day of Doom have long been familiar to students of American literature. His diary is even more challenging than his verse to any liberal view of the Puritans. For the man that emerges here calls to mind those stern figures in steeple-crowned hats who represent Puritanism in poplar cartoons. So closely does Michael Wigglesworth approximate the unhappy popular conception of our seventeenth-century forbears that he seems more plausible as a satirical reconstruction than he does as a human being.
The complete title of Wigglesworth’s most famous work is The Day of Doom: Or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment. The purpose of this work was to encourage or promote strict adherence to the Puritan theology of the day.
American poet, Donald Hall, included several verses from Wigglesworth's long poem in Hall's The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America. Although The Day of Doom was not written particularly for children, ministers in early America directed children to certain passages in order to highlight and emphasize the need for good behavior.
Wigglesworth was born in England in 1631, and his family emigrated to America in 1638. He entered Harvard College at age sixteen after preparing for three years. After graduation in 1651 he became a tutor at the college. Many of his pupils became notable in the ministry including Increase Mather. Although Wigglesworth prepared for the ministry, was ordained, and invited to serve at Malden, his health prevented him from serving. He, therefore, set to work on his literary efforts and produced his bestseller.
Wigglesworth took a trip to Bermuda in 1663 hoping the climate would improve his health, but the voyage was so arduous that he felt no benefit for his health. After only seven months he returned to New England. Michael was warmly welcomed, and after the death of the Rev. Benjamin Dunker, who had served in Wigglesworth’s place, the Day of Doom author finally filled the role as minister of the church at Malden.
Until 1687, Wigglesworth served along with a number of other ministers; only after 1687 was Wigglesworth well enough to serve alone as minister. He had been too weak to officiate at services. But from 1687 until his death in 1705 his health had improved enough to allow him to fulfill his ministry, including the ability to preach at services.
Sampling from The Day of Doom
The Day of Doom is a book-length poem, 1792 lines, written in 224 octets (octastiches) — eight-line verses. The following is the opening octet (octastich):
Still was the night, Serene and Bright,
when all Men sleeping lay;
Calm was the season, and carnal reason
thought so 'twould last for ay.
Soul, take thine ease, let sorrow cease,
much good thou hast in store:
This was their Song, their Cups among,
the Evening before.
Along with each octet is a corresponding notation to the King James Version of the Bible. Accompanying the above octet is the notation, “The security of the World before Christ's coming to judgement. Luke 12:19.” The book includes other poems, but Wigglesworth’s fame and reputation rests solely on The Day of Doom.
© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes