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About Michael Wigglesworth and his Poetry


Michael Wigglesworth [1631-1705] was born in England and came to America at the age of seven. He lived in New Haven until he went to Harvard; he was graduated
in 1651 and remained as a tutor for three years. He lived out the rest of his
essentially uneventful life in Malden, Massachusetts, the place of the ministry
to which he was appointed in 1656. A small man, he was extremely frail and weak
until 1686 when, apparently, he attained an Indian summer of health. Because of
his physical condition he went to Bermuda for seven months in 1663; there he
began to study medicine, which had always interested him. Eventually he became a
physician of the body as well as of the soul. Although his household occupied
some of his leisure (he was married three times and had eight children), he took
to writing in order to spread the doctrine that his frailty frequently kept him
from preaching in the pulpit. The most famous result of his efforts was The Day
of Doom.

Although it is not the best of his verse-and although even the best is something
less than true poetry-The Day of Doom deservedly remains the most famous of his
works. It must be considered in a purely historical light, for it reveals the
Puritan notions of poetry much better than do the poems of Anne Bradstreet and
Edward Taylor. Cast in familiar, jingling ballad meter, it helped New Englanders
to remember the doctrines of righteousness, and children memorized
Wigglesworth's doggerel along with the catechism. The ideas seem so harsh today
that some commentators have supposed erroneously that Wigglesworth was a morbid
fanatic. In reality the poem merely dramatizes the abstractions that all
orthodox Puritans agreed upon, and it is interesting for its disclosure of
Puritan psychology as well as doctrine. Published in 1662, The Day of Doom
became America's first best seller, circulating 1800 copies during the first
year. It has been estimated that at one time one copy was owned for every
thirty-five people in all of New England; every other family must have had The
Day of Doom on its parlor table. The poem went through ten editions in the next
fourteen decades, four in the seventeenth century and six in the eighteenth. In
spite of its literary shortcomings, it is still the best "official" statement of
the Puritan's attempt to use poetry for a plain exposition of the beliefs by
which he tried to live.


Biographical sketch from:
American Literature Survey Colonial and Federal to 1800
Edited by Milton R. Stern and Seymour L. Gross
1962 by The Viking Press, Inc., New York, NY 10022
 

 

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