[ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

The writings of our colonial era have a much greater importance as history than as literature. It would be unfair to judge of the intellectual vigor of the English colonists in America by the books that they wrote; those “stern men with empires in their brains” had more pressing work to do than the making of books. The first settlers, indeed, were brought face to face with strange and exciting conditionsthe sea, the wilderness, the Indians, the flora and fauna of a new world-things which seem stimulating to the imagination, and incidents and experiences which might have lent themselves easily to poetry or romance.

Of all these they wrote back to England reports which were faithful and sometimes vivid, but which, upon the whole, hardly rise into the region of literature. “New England,” said Hawthorne, “was then in a state incomparably more picturesque than at present.” But to a contemporary that old New England of the seventeenth century doubtless seemed any thing but picturesque, filled with grim, hard, work-day realities. The planters both of Virginia and Massachusetts were decimated by sickness and starvation, constantly threatened by Indian wars, and troubled by quarrels among themselves and fears

of disturbance from England. The wrangles between the royal governors and the House of Burgesses in the Old Dominion, and the theological squabbles in New England, which fill our colonial records, are petty and wearisome to read of. At least, they would be so did we not bear in mind to what imperial destinies these conflicts were slowly educating the little communities which had hardly yet secured a foothold on the edge of the raw continent.

Even a century and a half after the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, when the American plantations had grown strong and flourishing, and commerce was building up large towns, and there were wealth and generous living and fine society, the "good old colony days when we lived under the king," had yielded little in the way of literature that is of any permanent interest. There would seem to be something in the relation of a colony to the mother-country which dooms the thought and art of the former to a helpless provincialism. Canada and Australia are great provinces, wealthier and more populous than the thirteen colonies at the time of their separation from England. They have cities whose inhabitants' number hundreds of thousands, wellequipped universities, libraries, cathedrals, costly public buildings, all the outward appliances of an advanced civilization; and yet what have Canada and Australia contributed to British literature ?

American literature had no infancy. That engaging naöveté and that heroic rudeness which give a charm to the early popular tales and songs of Europe find, of course, no counterpart on our soil. Instead of emerging from the twilight of the past the first American writings were produced under the garish noon of a modern and learned age. Decrepitude rather than youthfulness is the mark of a colonial liter

The poets, in particular, instead of finding a challenge to their imagination in the new life about them, are apt to go on imitating the cast-off literary fashions of the mother


country. America was settled by Englishmen who were contemporary with the greatest names in English literature. Jamestown was planted in 1607, nine years before Shakespeare's death, and the hero of that enterprise, Captain John Smith, may not improbably have been a personal acquaintance of the great dramatist. “They have acted my fatal tragedies on the stage,” wrote Smith. Many circumstances in The Tempest were doubtless suggested by the wreck of the Sea Venture on the still vext Bermoothes,” as described by William Strachey in his True Reportory of the Wrack and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, written at Jamestown, and published at London in 1610. Shakespeare's contemporary, Michael Drayton, the poet of the Polyolbion, addressed a spirited valedictory ode to the three shiploads of “brave, heroic minds” who sailed from London in 1606 to colonize Virginia, an ode which ended with the prophecy of a future American literature:

" And as there plenty grows
Of laurel every-where-
Apollo's sacred tree-
You it may see
A poet's brows
To crown, that may sing there."

Another English poet, Samuel Daniel, the author of the Civil Wars, had also prophesied in a similar strain:

“And who in time knows whither we may vent

The treasure of our tongue, to what strange shores . .
What worlds in the yet unformed Occident

May come refined with accents that are ours ? "

It needed but a slight movement in the balances of fate, and Walter Raleigh might have been reckoned among the poets of America. He was one of the original promoters of the Virginia colony, and he made voyages in person to Newfoundland and Giana. And more unlikely things have

« ElőzőTovább »