Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.
America’s First Book: The Bay Psalm Book
This first book published in America was a book of poems/songs, which became known as The Bay Psalm Book and later was recognized as the first hymnal.
Introduction: America's First Book Was a Hymnal
The first book to be published in the United States of America appeared while the country was still in its original Thirteen Colonies stage of development; that book's full title was The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, which became widely shortened to simply The Bay Psalm Book.
Interestingly, the first printing press was specifically purchased and imported from England for the purpose of printing this book in the Colonies. That makes this publication a very important part of American poetic history.
Another astounding fact is that it was published a mere twenty years after the first colonists arrived on the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Since its publication in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, The Bay Psalm Book has been utilized widely, not only in the Colonies but also in England and Scotland.
The Bay Psalm Book: America's First Printed Book
A Committee of Clergymen
A committee of approximately thirty clergymen, including Richard Mather, John Eliot, and Thomas Weld, refashioned the psalms into crude verse forms, and the Preface was written possibly by Richard Mather; although some history scholars attribute it to John Cotton.
The first edition did not contain musical annotations; those were later added in the ninth edition in 1968. Only 1700 copies of the first edition were printed, and only 10 copies from that first printing are extant. Remarkably, the book has never been out of print.
As previously mentioned, The Bay Psalm Book has gone through several editions and has continued to be used since its publication in 1640. The second edition appeared in 1647, and the third edition put out in 1651 was revised heavily by Henry Dunster and Richard Lyon.
Ninth Edition First to Feature Musical Notation
The ninth edition appearing in 1698 was the first to contain music, featuring the musical notation from John Playford's A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musik, which had been first brought out in London in 1654.
Here is a brief sample of the verse that the clergymen made of Psalm 23, taken from Three Centuries of American Poetry by Allen Mandelbaum and Robert D. Richardson, Jr.:
The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
want therefore shall not I.
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,
doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads
Restore my soule doth hee:
he doth in paths of righteousnes:
for his names sake leade mee.
Useful Song, Not Elegant Poetry
As Richard Mather has reportedly stated in the Preface to the hymnal, the purpose for refashioning the biblical verse was not to bring about graceful poetry but to render the psalms in song.
The awkwardness of these renderings and the supply of rimes demonstrate that the writers were clearly more interested in utility than style.
Read More From Owlcation
Some of the language may seem odd to the modern reader’s ear and eye, but readers must remember that the spelling used in early America differs somewhat from our spelling today: for example, the addition of an extra “–e” at the end of some words, such as “hee,” “grasse,” “leade,” and mee.”
And quite obviously the word order chosen by the clergymen served to assist in creating the rime schemes. No doubt, they believed that the rime would facilitate their parishioners in remembering the psalms.
Musical rendering Psalm 98
Music, Poetry, and Worship
Music and poetry have long been associated with worship, and the founding fathers intuited early on that the addition of worshipful singing was a necessary part of church service.
They despaired of writing original pieces, worrying that the phrasing and sentiment might be tainted when left to the creative minds of mere mortals.
Thus it was that they decided that all they needed was to convert the psalms of David into verse to maintain the elevated sacred stature of the poetry. So that is what they did, and in doing thus, they created the first hymnal.
- Editors. The Bay Psalm Book. World Digital Library: Library of Congress. Accessed June 6, 2021.
- Editors. "The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre." The Public Domain Review. Accessed June 6, 2021.
- Jessica A. Kent. "Bay Psalm Book, and America's First Printing Press." Boston Book bag. Oct. 18, 2018.
Michael Wigglesworth’s Bestselling Book, The Day of Doom
Michael Wigglesworth's long poem was a companion to Puritan teachings and served to make specific the ideas that were preached from the pulpit. Students were required to memorize its passages.
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 and the Ministry
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.
Brief Bio of Michael Wigglesworth - Excerpts from Day of Doom
The Literary Significance of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The mission of The Library of America is to rescue out-of-print American literature from oblivion. The rescue missions began in 1979 when some scholars and critics observed that many fine literary works were out of print, and few copies could be found.
Concerned that the loss of important literary texts would deprive Americans of a vital part of their heritage, the founders of The Library determined to rectify the situation. With seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, The Library was formed, and the first volumes appeared in 1982.
The Library publishes volumes twice each year, and for the year 2000, one of their publications was Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings, edited by poet J. D. McClatchy.
The black dust-cover volume is a handsome book with a ribbon bookmark and a whopping 854 pages, including a chronology of the poet's life, notes on the texts, notes, and an index of titles and first lines.
McClatchy has selected a wide variety of the poet's works, such as poems from The Voices of the Night, Ballads and Other Poems, and Poems on Slavery. The long poems, Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha, are offered in their entirety. According to editor J. D. McClatchy,
Here are the poems that created an American mythology: Evangeline in the forest primeval, Hiawatha by the shores of Gitche Gumee, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, the wreck of the Hesperus, the village blacksmith under the spreading chestnut tree, the strange courtship of Miles Standish, the maiden Priscilla and the hesitant John Alden; verses like "A Psalm of Life" and "The Children’s Hour," whose phrases and characters have become part of the culture.
Here as well, along with the public antislavery poems, are the sparer, darker lyrics—"The Fire of Drift-Wood," "Mezzo Cammin," "Snow-Flakes," and many others—that show a more austere aspect of Longfellow’s poetic gift.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetry earned him a wide readership in the USA and abroad. His works were 19th century bestsellers.
No other American writer of that time period garnered more admiration than Longfellow. McClatchy and The Library of America in this volume are publishing a comprehensive, literary collection of this poet’s magnificent works.
Interpretive Reading of "A Psalm of Life"
Very Popular and Influential
As the dust cover description informs readers, Longfellow's poetry was enormously popular and influential in his own lifetime. Today, most readers have heard his quotations so often that they have become "part of the culture." A favorite Longfellow poems is "A Psalm of Life," which contains the following stanza:
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal:
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Readers, of course, recognize the line, "Into each life some rain must fall." They will find that line in his poem called "The Rainy Day." No doubt it is this Longfellow poem that helped spread the use of "rain" as a metaphor for the melancholy times in our lives.
In Emily Dickinson’s poem, "If those I loved were lost," she alludes to the Longfellow lines—"Till the bell of Ghent responded o'er lagoon and dike of sand, I am Roland! I am Roland! there is victory in the land!"—with the lines, "If those I loved were found / The bells of Ghent would ring."
Dickinson’s speaker is alluding to the widely-known "Ghent Belfry," constructed in 1313 and featuring the ringing of bells, which announced religious events. The bells were later rung to declaim other significant events.
An inscription on the bell tower reveals the historic importance of it construction: "My name is Roland. When I toll there is fire. / When I ring there is victory in the land."
Reading of "The Slave's Dream"
Longfellow was a careful scholar, and his poems reflect an intuition that allowed him to see into the heart and soul of his subject. His "The Slave's Dream" reveals his knowledge of Africa, as well as the aspirations of a dying slave.
After illuminating the slave's dream of being king in his Native Land, the speaker of the poem reveals the slave's soul has departed its body:
He did not feel the driver's whip,
Nor the burning heat of day;
For Death had illumined the Land of Sleep,
And his lifeless body lay
A worn-out fetter, that the soul
Had broken and thrown away!
This volume includes some samples of Longfellow's translations. He translated Dante's The Divine Comedy, and this volume offers "The Celestial Pilot," "Terrestrial Paradise," and "Beatrice" from the Purgatorio.
Other translations include "The Good Shepherd" by Lope de Vega, "Santa Teresa's Book-Mark" by Saint Teresa of Ávila, "The Sea Hath Its Pearls" by Heinrich Heine, and several selections by Michelangelo. McClatchy says that Longfellow was "fluent in many languages," and these selections attest to that fact.
Not only poems and other verse forms are selected, but also the novel, Kavanaugh: A Tale, has been rescued for future generations.
This novel was recommended by Ralph Waldo Emerson for its contribution to the development of the American novel. The opening paragraph of this important novel is worth quotation in its entirety:
Great men stand like solitary towers in the city of God, and secret passages running deep beneath external nature give their thoughts intercourse with higher intelligences, which strengthens and consoles them and of which the laborers on the surface do not even dream!
Longfellow, like Emerson, was concerned with the creation of a distinctly American literary tradition, and McClatchy has included three essays that reflect that concern: "The Literary Spirit of Our Country," "Table Talk," and "Address on the Death of Washington Irving."
Continuing the Rescue Effort
The Library of America continues to rescue great literary works, preserving them in handsome volumes that are just the right size for easy reading. Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings is a useful and welcome addition to literature lovers' bookshelves.
Questions & Answers
Question: What is the Library of America?
Answer: The mission of The Library of America is to rescue out-of-print American literature from oblivion. The rescue missions began in 1979 when some scholars and critics observed that many fine literary works were out of print, and few copies could be found. Concerned that the loss of important literary texts would deprive Americans of a vital part of their heritage, the founders of The Library determined to rectify the situation. With seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, The Library was formed, and the first volumes appeared in 1982.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes