The Worldly Poetry of the Puritans
July 1st, 2016 | 21 min read
By Guest Writer
I'm pleased to have Stephen Wolfe back with us again today for this piece on Puritan poetry.
The common understanding of the Puritans, in both popular and academic circles, is that they were hostile to all art, despisers of human desire, and saw nothing redeemable or good in creation. According to this view, their religious fervor was more than world-denying; it was earth-denying; it was desire-denying; it was sense-denying; and it was beauty-denying.
One recent commentator, Gregory Wolfe, in his book Beauty Will Save the World, writes that the "gnosticism of the Puritans...posited nature as an evil, hostile force." He criticizes the Puritans for “putting evil in the natural sphere [and] miss the evil in themselves.” Wolfe follows others, notably Michael Walzer (a major influence on Charles Taylor’s account of Reformed Protestantism), who presented Calvinism as a precursor to Hobbes, calling the Calvinist man “solitary and powerless,” a “terrified animal” amidst nature, even one who called “into question the naturalness of nature.” Nature was not a realm of eternal order “anciently established,” but a meaningless world of brute fact and subject to change by the radical politics of the elect. The Puritans, who are exalted as the exemplars of Calvinism, are hostile to nature, since nature (not simply wilderness) is nothing but red in tooth and claw.
The perpetuation of this interpretation, despite its serious problems, continues. Taylor reaffirmed this view in his recent book The Secular Age, first presented in Sources of the Self, and both books have influenced many commentators in various fields. Wolfe’s book, no doubt relying on the Walzerian view of Calvinism, derides the Puritan poets for their alleged nature-denying Gnosticism and, as with others, blames the Puritans and their natura deleta for our exploitive, consumerist modern world.
Those who study the nuances of Calvinist thought find this quite frustrating, for the Puritans (as with Calvinists generally) affirmed the goodness and beauty of creation, believed in natural theology and natural law, recognized their evil as the problem in creation, and saw earthly desire as a foretaste of the ultimate good that Christ will one day fully satisfy. The English colonial Puritan poets and Puritans generally, contrary to Wolfe, were suspicious of creation only because it was so ravishing and good, not because it was evil. Knowing that all fallen men’s hearts are factories for idols, they sought to remain fixed on the eternal joys of the world to come while and through enjoying rightly the goodness and joys of the present world. In their work we find the following themes: creation as a source for knowledge of God’s character, creation as a source of delight, and a weaning from the world that does not deny the goodness of creation.
Creation as a source for knowledge of God’s Character
Creation as a source for knowledge of God’s character was an important part of early Reformed thought. The Belgic Confession states, the “universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: God’s eternal power and divinity.” Calvin argued that “the world was founded for this purpose, that it should be the sphere of the divine glory” and that “the very beautiful fabric of the world [is the place] in which he wishes to be seen by us.”
The knowledge of God innate and acquired through experiencing God’s world was sufficient for pre-fallen man to have a complete creaturely knowledge of God. And this knowledge is not knowledge via negativa, but via analogia. Our knowledge of God is not univocal knowledge. As Francis Turretin said, “Thus there is not granted a similitude between God and his creatures because those things which are said concerning God and concerning creatures are not said univocally, but analogically” God is analogized to man via creation, communicating sufficient knowledge of God. Due to the Fall, however, creation is no longer sufficient, necessitating the addition of the Word of God. Scripture provides the “spectacles,” says, Calvin, through or with which one sees the glory of God in creation. Scripture does not replace nature; it reveals what was lost and points us back to creation—to the complete revelation of God as Creator.
To the Puritan, the world is packed with symbols and meaning to experience and contemplate. It was a world, writes Robert Daly, “imbued with divine meaning…not only appreciated but understood. Man was to make sense of his earthly experience in the service of his religion.” The Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) writes her poem “Contemplations” (lines 10-15, 48-50):
I wist not what to wish, yet sure, thought I,
If so much excellence abide below,
How excellent is He that dwells on high!
Whose power and beauty by his works we know;
Sure he is goodness, wisdom, glory, light,
That hath this underworld so richly dight;
More heaven than earth was here, no winter and no night.
. . . . . .
How full of glory then must thy Creator be,
Who gave this bright light luster unto thee!
Admir’d, ador’d forever, be that Majesty.
“By his works we know” that God is good, wise and glorious. Bradstreet reasons that since creation is glorious and God is infinitely greater than his creation, God must be infinitely more glorious. If creation is so glorious, how “full of glory” God must be! She cannot see or grasp God’s glory, goodness, and wisdom directly, but she knows God by his works. In his works, he reveals his character. Calvin wrote that “the elegant structure of the world serv[es] us as a kind of mirror, which we may behold God, though otherwise invisible.”
Creation is packed with symbols of divine glory. These symbols are not, nor could they be, means to behold God’s essence, but the knowledge of God communicated by them is nonetheless true and accurate. Creation and the knowledge contained therein is God-as-analogy to his creatures. God cannot be reduced to creation (pantheism), nor can he be wholly separate (deism). Nature itself is God-as-analogy or God-as-condescended and is sufficient to reveal himself to his creatures. This is why John Calvin can write, with strict qualifications, that “nature is God.” He adds:
Since the perfection of blessedness consists in the knowledge of God, he has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity, not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken, but so to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him.
Bradstreet was so taken by the beauty of creation that she penned the following:
Then higher on the glistering Sun I gaz’d,
Whose beams was shade by the leafy tree;
The more I look’d, the more I grew amaz’d,
And softly said, What glory’s like to thee?
Soul of this world, this Universe’s eye,
No wonder, some made thee a Deity;
Had I not better known (alas) the same had I.
Bradstreet understood why the pagans would come to worship nature as divine: to human perception it is glorious, beautiful, mysterious, and powerful. All have, says Calvin, “by natural instinct, some sense of Deity,” but man’s fallen nature directs them to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Bradstreet, being redeemed by God, knows better than to worship creation, so she sought to destroy this tendency without destroying her amazement of God’s creation.
Man’s evil is the problem; creation remains true, good, and beautiful. Contrary to the claim that Puritans rejected creation as bad or beneath them, the dilemma for the Puritan was how to rightly relate to a good creation without worshiping it. Quoting Perry Miller, Daly writes, “The real danger besetting the Puritans in their relation to the world was not Gnosticism but pantheism: ‘always they verge so close to pantheism that it takes all their ingenuity to restrain themselves from identifying God with the creation.’” Using this“ingenuity” to make distinctions, Puritan poet Richard Steere (1643-1721) writes (lines 450-457):
How frequent may we find in Sacred Writ,
Metaphors, Similes, Comparison,
Drawn from those Temp’ral Things that are in sight,
To signify to us Heav’ns unseen Glory,
As Riches, Honours, Pleasures, Kingdoms, Crowns,
Speaks to our sense the Highest State of Glory,
By such known Language Heav’n conveys to us,
High Apprehensions of Eternal Bliss.
The temporal things of creation “signify” and “speak” the “Highest State of Glory” using a “known language.” Creation is God’s condescension to man. This “language” is inferior, since it uses inferior things as metaphors, but approvingly God condescends to our level. Creation is a sign of the divine by virtue of being an analogy of the divine.
But more than an analogy, creation is an eschatological foretaste. Steere continues (lines 458-461):
Faith Exercis’d on these is of such force,
As to present our minds with future things,
Faith Soars aloft, and thence (preventing time)
Descends with Samples of those Joys to come.
Experiencing this world is comparable by degree to the world-to-come, not merely an analogy. We encounter God in creation by analogy, but we encounter the world to come by degree. We often wrongly think of the eschaton (i.e., the future state of creation) as a state of contemplation in the clouds, not something similar to creation in its current state. Creation will be significantly different, but it remains creation, a place fit for humans. Creation is our home. Though Adam failed to bring creation to maturity, “In the cross,” writes Calvin, “the whole world has been renewed and all things restored to good order.”
Similarly, Al Wolters writes, “Just as the fall of man (Adam) was the ruin of the whole earthly realm, so the atoning death of a man (Jesus Christ, the second Adam) is the salvation of the whole world.” Though creation is not yet visually restored, our experiences in it are foretastes of the future state. In a real sense, Christians can live eschatologically.
Steere’s lines capture this well. Since we live by faith and not by sight, our experience in creation requires faith in the promises of God to taste the future glory. When tasting in faith, our “minds” are able to glimpse the future. Our mind are transported via a type of eschatological perception to taste the joys of the New Jerusalem already built but not yet descended in history. The already breaks into the realm of the not yet by descending with “Samples of those Joys to come.”
Creation as a source of delight
Puritan poetry is full of references to the delight of creation. They cite music, the activities of animals, the sounds of insects, birdsongs, landscapes, food, drink and more. The poets recognized these as means of delight. No doubt such encounters inspired Calvin to write,
We see, indeed, the world with our eyes, we tread this earth with our feet, we touch innumerable kinds of God’s works with our hands, we inhale a sweet and pleasant fragrance from herbs and flowers, we enjoy boundless benefits, but in those very things of which we attain some knowledge, there dwells such an immensity of divine power, goodness, and wisdom, as absorbs all our senses.
Echoing Calvin’s thoughts Steere writes (lines 184-191),
And let the Earths felicities Excite,
To move with Cheerfulness in worthy Acts,
Raising our Thankful minds up to the fountain,
And with Divine and hearty Love Rejoyce,
That lo by Looking up to heav’n above,
From whence these Lower joys to us descend,
We may a Heav’nly Paradise possess,
Of sweet and Comforting delights on Earth.
He continues by applying that Puritan “ingenuity” to make distinctions (lines 245-253):
…in Comparison of Heav’nly joys,
Earth’s best of Blessings scarce deserve a name:
Yet in themselves, and in Respect to us,
And our necessities, to disesteem ‘em
Would make us guilty of a heinous Crime.
They are in worth and time to be Regarded,
As they’re free gifts to us giv’n by the hand
Of God himself as Tokens sent from Heav’n
Not only for our needs, But to delight us,
The crucial phrase is “in Respect to us.” Creation provides delight because, though creation is inferior in relation to God, creation is not inferior in relation to humans. In “respect to us” the delights of creation are worthy delights given by God. While nature’s delights are inferior to both the delight of God and the delights of the world to come, they are indispensable to our encounter with God’s delight and the delights of the world to come. They are our principal means, apart from those encountered in worship, to experience divine and heavenly delight.
Man as the divine image-bearer is above the rest of creation, but it is not below their dignity. Humans are so creaturely that they, with the rest of creation, are inferior to God, and creation accompanies them in their elevation into heavenly life. Human life and creation will always be linked. With respect to us, creation is a necessary and legitimate source of delight.
Steere directly addresses those who would reject the delights of creation (lines 199-202, 206-208, 211-216):
However Superstitious Stoicks, may
Refuse those blessings which are freely giv’n:
As if not making us of Earthly good,
Were to obtain Heav’ns Glory in Exchange
. . . . . .
And seeming fearful of their sweets to taste,
As if within their good were Lodg’d infection:
And so deny themselves their harmless use;
. . . . . .
Whereas without abuse we may, nay ought,
Freely Enjoy Earths good in its good use.
Nature Invites, and Reason bids us taste;
Temp’rance, as well Condemns Stupidity,
As Glut’ny and Excess it disallows,
Since both prohibit and deny us Comfort.
One does not “obtain Heav’ns Glory” by rejecting earthly good. One ought to enjoy it by its good use. For, as Steere says (lines 437-442)
...through Earthly comforts, our dull Eyes
By Reason’s Light, as through a Tellescope
May look to Heav’n, to God himself, and see
Some Glimpses of his Goodness, and his Pow’r,
And in some measure may already Taste,
Of those Reserved Sweets of Heav’nly Pleasures.
Earthly comforts aid us in seeing God in heaven and they are foretastes of the future state. So one ought to delight in creation because in such delighting one experiences God’s goodness and a sampling of the future state.
There are hints in Calvin and the Puritans suggesting that creation is like a choir singing to God. All of creation—man being the conductor—was to sing in harmony to God. Part of delighting in creation is to ‘sing’ with creation, or better put, ‘join’ the choir of creation. But according to our “imbecility” we fail to join in. Bradstreet writes (lines 51-57, 58-64),
Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I lead my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.
My great Creator I would magnify,
That nature had thus decked liberally;
But Ah, and Ah, again, my imbecility!
I heard the merry grasshopper then sing.
The black-clad cricket bear a second part;
They kept one tune and played on the same string,
Seeming to glory in their little art.
Shall creatures abject thus their voices raise?
And in their kind resound their Maker’s praise,
Whilst I, as mute, can warble forth no higher lays.
It is true that the Puritans were dull: they stood mute as creation sang all around them. But this is not a Puritan trait; it’s a human trait. Bradstreet saw dullness not as the means to obtain heaven, but as the very thing that prevented the natural man from obtaining heaven. Christ redeemed us from our dullness. This clearly contradicts the assertion that the Puritans put “evil in the natural sphere [and] miss the evil in themselves.” Bradstreet stated the exact opposite.
Weaning from the world
The Puritan dilemma is, as Daly puts it, to “wean one’s affection from the real and good things of this world, without ceasing to love them, be grateful for them, and understand them as transient earnests of eternal joys to come.” Bradstreet attempts to solve this puzzle in her poem “The Vanity of All Worldly Things.” She begins with rejecting earthly vanities (lines 13-18):
…Content in pleasures canst thou find?
More vain than all, that’s but to grasp the wind.
The sensual senses for a time they please
Meanwhile the conscience rage, who shall appease?
What is’t in beauty? No that’s but a snare,
They’re foul enough today, that once were fair.
In these lines, we do not see a rejection of worldly pleasures for their evil or because they demean man. Bradstreet simply refuses to assign ultimate worth to fleeting pleasures. They are temporary pleasures. The solution suggested by Bradstreet is not to reject desire as the stoics do.
She writes (lines 27-30),
What is it then? to do as stoics tell,
Nor laugh, nor weep, let things to ill or well?
Such stoics are but stock, such teaching vain,
While man is man he shall have ease or pain.
The solution is not to suppress desire, but to desire rightly. Man will and should always seek lasting happiness, “that summum bonum which may stay my mind” (line 34). But lasting happiness is not found in this world. One cannot truly rest on these temporary, momentary pleasures. One should rightly enjoy them but only as a foretaste of the eschatological delight promised in Christ.
Bradstreet’s rejection of stoicism is a turning point of the poem. She continues by describing the heavenly joys as without end (lines 45-56).
It brings to honour which shall ne’er decay,
It stores with wealth which time can’t wear away.
It yieldeth pleasures far beyond conceit,
And truly beautifies without deceit.
Nor strength, nor wisdom, nor fresh youth shall fade,
Nor death shall see, but are immortal made.
This pearl of price, this tree of life, this spring,
Who is possessed of shall reign a king.
Nor change of state nor cares shall ever see,
But wear his crown unto eternity.
This satiates the soul, this stays the mind,
And all the rest, but vanity we find.
Daly describes the Puritan resolution to the tension between the world-denying and world-loving in Puritan poetry: “The distinction [is] between the ultimate value of earthly things (they are worthless compared to the joys of heaven) and their immediate value (they are made by God to delight men and to whet men’s hunger for heaven.)”
The value of earthly things are worthless only by comparison to the things of heaven, not for something inherently defective, bad, or evil in them. Nothing created by God, even those things subsequently fallen, can be in themselves polluted. Though worthless in comparison, earthly delights have temporary value pointing to the ultimate and eternal value. Far from despising desire, Puritans saw the satisfaction of desire as one of the chief ends of life—to enjoy God forever. And the earthly goods, though temporary, were foretastes of that eternal joy and delight. One ought only to rest on the eternal. No true rest is possible with earthly, temporal goods alone.
Bradstreet, in one of her prose meditations, resolves the tension:
All the Comforts of this life may be compared to the gourd of Jonah, that notwithstanding we take great delight for a season in them, and find their Shadow very comfortable, yet there is some worm or other of discontent, of fear, or grief that lies at root, which in great part withers the pleasure which else we should take in them; and well it is that we perceive a decay in their greenness, for were earthly comforts permanent, who would look for heavenly?
To label the Puritans gnostic world-deniers or desire-despising stoics betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Puritan (and Calvinist) thought. By denying and weaning from the world and affirming desire and the enjoyment in earthly goods, Puritan thought contradicts both the licentiousness and gluttony as well as the gnostic-like tendencies of our modern age. They followed Calvin in affirming that the Reformed mind “must necessarily be ravished by wonder” and must not reject human desire but enjoy the boundless benefits of creation.
Though the Puritans sought God in experiencing His world, they knew that such experiences would never satisfy until things are set right and the redeemed with creation are elevated to perfection. As Robert Daly writes, “If the created world was a source of beauty and delight for the Puritan poet, it was also an a fortiori argument for the beauty and generosity of its Creator and the delights He had prepared for His people….Only when compared to God and heaven do the joys of the sensible world sink to nothingness.”
Every experience is eschatological as a ‘breaking in’ of the future into the present. Every earthly good is a foretaste of the glories of the world-set-right. But these, though good, are temporal. They are fleeting glimpses and as such are inferior. We should desire the ultimate satisfaction to which all temporal goods point. When Christ returns he will eternally satisfy all the desires of his people.
Stephen Wolfe is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University. His research interests include the American founding, modernity, aesthetics, and politics, and meaningful work. He is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. You can read his blog here.