The Cambridge History of American Literature

By William Peterfield Trent; John Erskine et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
The Beginnings of Verse, 1610-1808

THE two centuries that cover the beginnings of American poetry may be divided into three periods. The first period is that of the early colonial verse which begins in 1610 with the publication of Rich's ballad on the settlement of Jamestown and ends with the seventeenth century. With 1700 begins the second period, which is one of transition in purpose, subject, and style. The third period, which is marked by the beginnings of nationalism, opens with the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and closes with the publication of Bryant's Embargo in 1808.

Even in the light of the unliterary conditions that prevailed in the Southern and Middle colonies it is surprising to find how little verse was produced south of New England before the middle of the eighteenth century. The Southern colonists were not of a literary class, and probably would have written little or nothing under any conditions; in the Southern colonies and, to a less degree, in the Middle colonies, conditions were distinctly unfavourable to literature; and in Virginia, especially, there were no schools, no printing presses, no literary centres, and few people who cared to write books or, apparently, to read them. Yet, though the New England of the seventeenth century left us many thousands of lines of verse of various kinds, as against the less than one thousand lines left by all the colonies to the south of that region, it was Virginia that produced what is perhaps the one real American poem of the seventeenth century. This is the epitaph on the insurrectionary leader Nathaniel Bacon, written "by his Man." The "Man" clearly was no menial but a reader and a poet. His brief elegy of forty-four lines is worthy of Ben

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