As we enjoy this Thanksgiving holiday and the peace and respite it brings, let’s also take this opportunity to reflect on who we are and where we came from. I’ve been thinking not only about the history of our country but about the history of our literature as well. So I’d like to present some of my favorite pieces of early American poetry. Poetry is in no way my area of expertise, but there’s something about the early American poets that I just can’t get enough of. There’s a rawness of emotion and a fire in their words that I believe gives us a small insight into the spirit of our country’s earliest writers.
The first to come to my mind is Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784), the first female African-American poet to be published. Her “Hymn to the Evening” comes to my mind every time I see a sunset.
Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main
The pealing thunder shook the heav’nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.
Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with ev’ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
Fill’d with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d;
So shall the labours of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
Night’s leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.
Fast forward about a century, and we have another incredible female early American writer. Willa Cather was born in 1873 and her works, which often focus on the prairie, paint vivid pictures of the landscape before it was changed by the influx of settlers.
Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk
And finally, Anne Bradstreet. Born in the colonial days of 1612, Anne was a remarkably educated woman. She lived in the Massachusetts Bay area and is lauded as “The Tenth Muse.” Read two of her most famous poems below.
“To My Dear and Loving Husband”
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
“By Night when Others Soundly Slept”
By night when others soundly slept
And hath at once both ease and Rest,
My waking eyes were open kept
And so to lie I found it best.
I sought him whom my Soul did Love,
With tears I sought him earnestly.
He bow’d his ear down from Above.
In vain I did not seek or cry.
My hungry Soul he fill’d with Good;
He in his Bottle put my tears,
My smarting wounds washt in his blood,
And banisht thence my Doubts and fears.
What to my Saviour shall I give
Who freely hath done this for me?
I’ll serve him here whilst I shall live
And Loue him to Eternity
I realize that these selections aren’t comprehensive. I didn’t include any writings from Native American poets or any from early American male poets. This is not to say anything about their writings. The pieces I selected are merely those that have stuck with me through the years.
So after you’ve stuffed yourself with some delicious food, maybe instead of flipping on the TV or planning your Black Friday shopping trip, you could spend a few moments reflecting on the people in this country who came long before you and what they had to say about themselves and the new land in which they lived. Happy Thanksgiving.