American puritan elegy by Jeffrey A. Hammond

By Jeffrey A. Hammond

Jeffrey Hammond's research of the funeral elegies of early New England reassesses a physique of poems whose significance of their personal time has been obscured via nearly overall forget in ours. Hammond reconstructs the historic, theological and cultural contexts of those poems to illustrate how they spoke back to Puritan perspectives on a particular strategy of mourning. The elegies emerge, he argues, as performative scripts that consoled readers by way of shaping their adventure. They shed new gentle at the emotional measurement of Puritanism and the real function of formality in Puritan tradition.

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The need for frameworks more sympathetic than Franklin’s for reading these distant poems would be suggested, if for no other reason, by the fact that early America’s finest poet wrote at least ten elegies and, as we have seen, allowed one of them to stand as his only published poem. Modern readers might expect that whenever a poet with Taylor’s gifts works within a conventional genre, the outcome will deviate sufficiently from the norm to reveal the stamp of original genius on worn-out clay. But Taylor did not dispense with the elegy’s most rigid conventions, however trite they seemed to Franklin and others who have approached these poems as “literary” texts – in the then-new mode of Dryden and Cowley – rather than as ritual texts firmly wedded to cultural practice.

If he thought that it had not performed its sad task competently, even well, it is unlikely that he would have allowed it to appear in a permanent commemoration of so beloved a citizen as David Dewey, least of all a commemoration that the minister probably guided into publication. Not everyone, even at the time, would have been pleased with Taylor’s efforts. Just ten years later, the young Benjamin Franklin would reduce this kind of elegy to a mock recipe in his brother’s NewEngland Courant. Writing as Silence Dogood, a perversely Matherian busybody, Franklin purported to answer “the Complaint of many Ingenious Foreigners.

In early New England, Otis conceded, “the death of a good man is not only not depressing, but is often even a source of poetic exaltation” (). To a degree, critics could accept such a statement as historical fact. They could not imagine, however, that the fact had any but the most devastating artistic consequences. After the Great War shook the easy positivism that had marked Victorian historical writing, a few critics took a more relativist view of the Puritan elegy. Conceding that early New Englanders held very different assumptions about art than those held by modern readers, Kenneth Murdock remarked in  that the elegies preserved in Joseph Tompson’s diary “were written not for us but for him” (Handkerchiefs xviii).

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