A Model of Christian Charity by John Winthrop (1630). One of the major arguments of Winthrop is to create a new society in America. Based on religious ethical concerns and rules, he lays down the foundation of the society that acts as an example of good Christianity. The use of the word “charity” in the script is taken as it is used in the King James Bible; meaning “love” or “Christian love”. Therefore, the idea of Christian love is based on following the example of Jesus. Helping people who are unable to help themselves is one of the main traits of Jesus, and Winthrop believes that by implementing this view and putting it into action in the New England society, emphasizing the ethical views if the puritan society in America. By stating that
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” (Winthrop) he also confirms that change would be hard to achieve and the building of the Massachusetts Bay Colony should be equal to the creation of a new world with new ethical norms, even if it is opposed by other colonies and settlements. He also states that for the new colony to survive, there is a need to express and practice Christian charity and follow the example of Jesus. He was also the leader of a group of Puritan immigrants, and by delivering the speech, he created a shared Christian mission that highlighted the obligations of people settling in the “city upon the hill”. The bond that holds the new community together is love and passion, and as the immigrants are homeless until they settle and found a new colony, the text is extremely important to set the foundations of building a new world. Still, he builds his arguments on religious ethics, instead of political views. He does state that independence from England does not mean that the new residents should be independent from the rules of Christianity and love. In this form, the speech is one of the first American national concepts that led to the development of the American Dream in later centuries.
The settlers of the “New World” were puritan in a way that there were three main values they built the new society on: God’s grace, purified religion and a divine mission. (what Winthrop calls “City Upon a Hill”) The quote is taken from Jesus’ s speech: (Matthew 5:14) that says: “ You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” That way, people reflect on the responsibility Jesus gave them to become role models of Christianity for other people.
For the Union Dead by Lowell (1960). Lowell’s poem reflects on the achievements and disappointing features of the American history. Looking at the Capitol area in Boston downtown, where there was an aquarium before, long gone. Leading the black troops, the statue of Colonel Shaw is described, stating that after the failure to achieve triumph, he got buried with his soldiers. The imagery of black people and fight for rights is intentionally used in the poem; it is written in the midst of the civil rights movement in America. He refers to his involvement in the march, and there is an open expression of “racial progressivism” in to be found throughout the poem. The quote reflects on the difference between people and colors, the exclusion and the civil rights movement alike:
“On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic”
as well as:
“the drained faces of Negro school children rise like balloons.”
The vision of New England that is expressed by the poem is of a changing and value-less society, which forgets the heroes and does not make enough improvement regarding civil rights. Mentioning the Civil War and his choice (and father’s) to be buried with the black soldiers and contrasting it with the current situation: “The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year”, highlighting that the ethics and values represented by the Colonel are weakened in the 1960-s society, while the visions of the new world are represented: “savage servility slides by on grease”.
According to Feeney (web), the airlessness and compact structure of the poem highlights the fact that the society is unwilling to change. They are locked up in the “aquarium”. Feeney also concludes that Lowell “speaks to a present marked by racial turmoil”. The Common, “like the aquarium, is being sacrificed on the altar of a harsher, uglier future.”
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost (1922). The frosty New England scenes are clearly depicted in the poem of Robert Frost: “Between the woods and frozen lake“. The typical New England pessimism is highlighted by the remark that it is “the darkest evening of the year”. The poem does not only state that it is dark outside, but also the disappointment of the writer in the world around him: he has the choice to move on or to give up to the call of the woods. He decides that he has promises to keep, therefore, he goes on. In the closing stanza, it is evident that morality, so relevant to the New England literature. He has a responsibility for other people, “promises to keep”, therefore, putting up with the difficulties and the darkness, he takes on his role in the society.
One of the main messages of the poem is that while it is more convenient to stay in the world, which is the woods; calm, quiet and motionless, one needs to fulfill their social obligations. Going back to the main themes of New England literature, it is evident that morality and social responsibility is present in the poem, just like other examined writings.
The romantic traditions of New England literature (Monteiro 94) influenced Frost, while many of the motifs in his poetry are still undiscovered. Still, the imagery and the scenes of the poem are certainly relevant to New England: he recognizes the power of nature to create boundaries for people. Snow makes it difficult to move forward, while it is difficult for a man to navigate through society as well. Still, while there are only two colors noted in the poem related to nature: white and black, indicating that it is easy to see through, the deep forest is described “lovely”. While the “miles to go” is not depicted the same way, it is a part of a human being’s responsibility to go on for miles. This way, the puritan traditions are clearly visible in the poem of Robert Frost.
Bloom (270) confirms that one of the main subjects of Frost’s poetry in is to escape from the self to the nature. This would help the poet regain integrity and maintain boundaries. Being surrounded by darkness is also the theme that appears in “Acquainted with the Night”. The contrast between the dreamlike darkness and consciousness is a theme that appears throughout the writing of Frost while he is in New England. He finally presses back towards reality and takes on his role in the society.
According to Warren (4), the first stanza is a clear contrast between the person going out on the horse in the “darkest night of the year” and the practical owner of the house who stays home in the warm village home he has. As the owner is practical, he does not mind the cold. This also suggests that the contrast drawn in the poem is between the “sensitive and insensitive man” (4). Still, the horseman (the poet) is also practical; knows that there is no point stopping by the house, still, it delivers a final paradox in the last stanza: between contemplating on the world (individualism) and obligations (puritanism).
Puritanism is something that is present in Frost’s poetry all the way: he creates images, sounds and rhythms that clearly depict the nature, instead of directly talking about his own feelings. He tries to focus on how the poem tells us something rather than the meaning of the poem directly; this way it is far from the original puritan traditions; trying to teach moral rules and ethics; he does it in a way that is pleasant, still the ideas of responsibility are recognizable in the “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
What Became of New England by Robert Frost (1937). Puritanism in New England is one of the main literary themes. Many authors have reflected on the traditions and culture, including Robert Frost. The statement that appears in Frost’s writing assumes that not only traditions and religion in New England is based on the 16th Century puritanism, but the whole society, as well. He also confirms in his writing that the purifying of the language provides an extraordinary clarity of thoughts and moral guidance that makes New England so different from other areas in the United States. In the speech, delivered at the Oberlin College, Frost defends New England’s puritanism and relates the traditions, customs, moral views to the scope of the language. Stating that “the whole function of poetry is the renewal of words”, (Frost 6) and that also means that by creating the words to best express the meaning of the object, puritanism and values can be delivered better.
The traditional values: God, nationalism and faith are present in many characteristic New England writers’ poetry and prose, and in the quoted speech Frost defends these traditional values.
The theme of puritanism in New England also appears in the writing of Emily Dickinson. She writes: “Nature is what we see.” This would indicate that New England poets use the description of scenes and natural themes as a tool of delivering objective, pure truth and meaning. That is why often the writing of New England poets is referred to as “the plain style”. The style originates from the sermons delivered by early puritan Colonels and church leaders, who refused to – going against the Catholic Church’s tradition – stuff their speeches with metaphors, allegories and other rhetoric tools. Both the meaning and the structure of the writing in New England has the puritan foundation; practical and clear objectives and meanings. The fact that puritans usually preferred the Geneva version of the Bible instead of the King James one says that delivering the meaning was their main goal, just like the writers who followed them.
Reflecting on morals and society from the ethical view is also present in the writings of John Updike and Louisa May Alcott, the writer of Little Women. Updike says that “The New England spirit does not seek solutions in a crowd; raw light and solitariness are less dreaded than welcomed as enhancers of our essential selves.”. (Updike xii) It is clearly visible from the works of Updike that they are reflecting on the society and nature in a way that describes the events and motifs the best. This said, it is important to note that the use of clear language is the main characteristic of New England literature. The descriptive language is present in his writing; no matter if he creates a book or a collection of poems. The rich description of the language and the prose style also highlights the traditional puritan views of the author. Like Robert Frost, he writes about the sorrows of the society while criticizing the new way of American life.
Romanticizing the puritan dimension of theology is one of the main themes of Emily Dickinson’s poems, too. Using the language uses phrases like “love” in the New England way, meaning absolute and Godly Christian charity. Reflecting on relationship with God and nature, she writes in “Heaven” has different Signs—to me”:
“The Rapture of a finished Day—
Returning to the West—
All these—remind us of the place
That Men call “paradise”— (Dickinson)
She uses the imagery of the 17th Century preachers; simple phrases. She also reflects on reality from the perspective where the value of a simple life is high, while she connects nature with the supernatural being: God. The sense of belonging and the use of biblical motifs shows that the words are created to provide the reader with true meaning.
Just like Frost, Emily Dickinson has also created simple poems that are easy to read and can be interpreted on different levels.
Reflecting on New England language, Johnson (15) confirms that the puritan influence in the modern literature is present through the idea that words are the “language of God” and as the divine is present in nature, the best way to provide meaning for poetry is to use the clear descriptions and logic. This is what Johnson calls “puritan objectivity”. It is present in the descriptions of scenes in Frost’s New England themed poems, Emily Dickinson’s poetry describing divine love, as well as the more moralizing prose of Updike. The language was – according to Johnson (78) influenced by Kant’s “Critique on Pure Reason”, as well as Locke’s new ideas. New England was encouraged to study natural science, and the imagery of romantic poetry in puritan literature started to include scenes realistically described. However, there is one thing that is never taken away from the New England puritan language of prose and poetry: the original intention to give words a clear and well defined meaning, just like the first sermons did.
Bloom, H. Modern American Poetry. Infobase Publishing, 2005 Print.
Feeney, M. Union Dead’ reckoning. Web. <http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/ 2010/06/05/mark_feeney_reflects_on_lowells_for_the_union_dead_on_the_poems_golden_anniversary/>
Mingiuc, A. Key Concepts of Puritanism and the Shaping of the American Cultural Identity. Philologica Jassyensia”, An VI, Nr. 2 (12), 2010, p. 211–217 Print.
Monterio, G. Robert Frost & the New England Renaissance University Press of Kentucky, 1988
Updike, J. “Foreword,” in Great New England Churches: 65 Houses of Worship that Changed Our Lives by Robert H. Mutrux. Chester, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 1982), xii-xiii. Print.
Warren, R. The Themes of Robert Frost. Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review. December 1947. Vol. LIV No 10. Print.