BLTC Press Titles

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The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Hugh Lofting

The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Carlyle, Rudolf Steiner

The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian

Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment

Rudolf Steiner

A short history of America's literature

by Eva March Tappan


1. Literary work in England. In the early part of the seventeenth century England was all aglow with literary inspiration. Shakespeare was writing his noblest tragedies. Ben Jonson was writing plays, adoring his friend Shakespeare, and growling at him because he would not observe the rules of the classical drama. Francis Bacon was rising swiftly to the height of his glory as Chancellor of England and incidentally composing essays so keen and strong and brilliant that he seems to have said the last word on whatever subject he touches. There were many lesser lights, several of whom would have been counted great in any other age.

2. Early American histories. In all the blaze of this literary glory colonists began to sail away from the shores of England for the New World. They had to meet famine, cold, pestilence, hard work, and danger from the Indians. Nevertheless, our old friend, John Smith, wrote a book on Virginia, and George Sandys completed on Virginian soil his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. These men, however, were only visitors to America; and, important as their writings may be historically or poetically, they have small connection with American literature. It was on the rockbound coast of Massachusetts that our literature made its real beginning. The earnest, serious Pilgrims and Puritans disapproved of the plays and masques that were flourishing in England; pastoral verse was to them a silly affectation; the delicate accuracy of the sonnet showed a sinful waste of time and thought. They were striving to make an abode for righteousness, and whatever did not manifestly conduce to that single aim, they counted as of evil. Writing their own history, however, was reckoned a most godly work. "We are the Lord's chosen people," they said to themselves with humble pride. "His hand is ever guiding us. Whatever happens to us then must be of importance, and for the glory of God it should be recorded." With this thought in mind, Governor wiuiam William Bradford of Plymouth, the "Father of Bradford, American History," wrote his History of Plymouth Plantation, "in a plaine stile," as he says, and "with singuler regard unto ye simple trueth in all things." He tells about the struggles and sufferings of his people in the Old World, about that famous scene in Holland when "their Revef pastor falling downe on his knees, (and they all with him,) with watri cheeks comended them with most fervent praiers to the Lord and his blessing. And then with mutuall imbrases and many tears, they tooke their leaves one of an other; which proved to be ye last leave to many of them." Governor Bradford could picture well such a scene as this, and he could also write spicily of the lordly saltmaker who came among them. "He could not doe anything but boil salt in pans," says the Governor, "and yet would make them y' were joynd with him beleeve there was so great misterie in it as was not easie to be attained, and made them doe many unnecessary things to blind their eys, till they discerned his sutltie."

A second history, that of New England, was also written by a governor, John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Among his accounts of weightier JoJm wta_ matters he does not forget to tell of the little tmop, everyday occurrences, — of the chimney that 1588"1849took fire, of the calf that wandered away and was lost, of the two young men on shipboard who were punished for fighting by having their hands tied behind them and being ordered to walk up and down the deck all day, of the strange visions and lights that were seen and the strange voices that were heard. It is such details as these that carry us back to the lives of our ancestors, their fears and their troubles.

3. The Bay Psalm Book, 1640. While these two histories were being written, three learned men in Massachusetts set to work to prepare a version of the Psalms to use in church. A momentous question arose: Would it be right to use a trivial and unnecessary ornament like rhyme ?" There is sometimes rhyme in the original Hebrew," said one, "and therefore it must be right to use it." Thus established, they took their pens in hand, and in 1640 the famous Bay Psalm Book was published in America, the first book printed on American soil. This was the version of Psalm xxxv, 5 :—

As chaffe before the winde, let them
be, & Gods Angell them driving.
Let their way dark and slippery bee,
and the Lords Angell them chasing.

The "Admonition to the Reader" at the end of the book declares that many of these psalms may be sung to "neere fourty common tunes," and indeed there seems no reason why a hymn like this should not be sung to one tune as well as another. Now these struggling poets were scholars; two of them were university graduates. They had lived in England during the noblest age of English poetry. Why, then, did they make the Psalms into such doggerel? The reason was that they were in agonies of conscience lest they should allow the charm of some poetical expression to lure them away from the seriousness of truth; and they declared with artless complacency and somewhat unnecessary frankness that they had "attended Conscience rather than Elegance, fidelity rather than poetry."

A generous amount of verse was written in the colonies even in the early days. Many of the settlers were educated men, fully accustomed to putting their thoughts on paper, and they seemed to feel that it dignified a thought to make it into verse. Religion was the allabsorbing subject, and therefore they have left us many thousand lines of religious hopes and fears. Unfortunately, it takes more than study to make a man a poet, and hardly a line of all the accumulation can be called poetry.

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