Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 5 · no. 3 · April 2005
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Robert Strong
Puritan Spectacle
Three poems

Introduction | The 88 Hearts of Wm. Adams | Visible | A Bold Plea for the Easement of Suffering of these Confessed and Reading Red Saints

In God’s Altar: The Word and Flesh in Puritan Poetry (Berkeley, 1978), the literary critic Richard Daly writes that, for the earliest New England colonists, "symbolic correspondences occur . . . at the level of perception." I am interested in the way language, perception, and existence are central to the difficult lives of these American Puritans. My poems explore this phenomenon as the source of distinctly American expression.

They work specifically with the requirement for publicly delivered conversion narratives, sometimes called professions of saving grace, that were a prerequisite for full church membership in the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay Colony. [Examples of these narratives can be seen in God’s Plot: Puritan Spirituality in Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge (Amherst, 1994), edited by the historian Michael McGiffert.]

My poem "The 88 Hearts of Wm. Adams" is written around an early conversion narrative I transcribed from the Massachusetts Historical Society archives. The title of the poem is derived from the overwhelming number of times Adams mentions a motion of his heart in the course of his twelve-page narrative.

"Visible" takes its title from Edmund S. Morgan’s classic study Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (Ithaca, 1965) and the saints’ central dilemma of making oneself an outward, visible sign of an inner, unknowable, and unconditional election to grace. The tortuous tautology of "I must show what cannot be shown" yields much difficult beauty in Puritan expression and, I believe, continues to resonate in American poetry. "Visible" suggests that this beauty exists only where those inner truths and outer impossibilities collide: on the skin, in the eyes, in breath.

Brought into the Puritan fold by the missionary work of John Eliot and joined to their own congregations by full professions of saving grace, the "Praying Indians" of the Massachusetts Bay Colony faced the deep contradictions of visibility during King Philip’s War. They found themselves exiled to Deer Isle in Boston Harbor for the duration of the war where many starved to death. "A Bold Plea for the Easement of Suffering of these Professed and Reading Red Saints" is a voicing of the pleas, not only by the minister Eliot on behalf of fellow Christians, but also by a literary man for the protection of his best linguists and translators—the Christianized Indians.

The poems presented here explore an array of formal structures and expressive modes; I choose this strategy in allegiance with those colonists—be they antinomians, shy public performers, or native Algonquian speakers—who struggled against the predetermined and mediated structure of a required profession to communicate their experience of God’s saving grace. These poems pay tribute to those who faced the impossible task the Puritans required of themselves above and beyond mere physical survival: describing in words what they insisted was beyond language, what they insisted was the nigh-perceivable evidence of their relationship to God.

 
 

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