Stories and Poetry
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Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, four years before the first English settlement had established itself successfully in the New World. Elizabeth would be honored there by the first arriving group of immigrants, who named the landing place Virginia, after "The Virgin Queen." It was the beginning of what almost two centuries later would become The United States of America, homeland of extraordinary poets like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and many others.

The first town was named Jamestown, and was situated north of the original Virginia. It was named for James I, king of England and Scotland. At the same time, the Spaniards who had conquered and subdued what is now Mexico and South America almost 100 years before, weren't thriving, despite the excellent soil and well-organized people they had found there. But, in just a few decades, the English settlements had created the foundation for their own future, based on hard work and a firm sense of righteousness.

Hard work is what marked the difference between the English settler in the north and the Spanish "encomendero" in the south. The former, a stubborn man used to overcoming difficulties, knew he had to work hard on the land to make a living, while the latter came only to conquer and rob and get rich as quickly and effortlessly as possible, then go back home. Another important difference between these two European colonizers was the indigenous occupants they encountered on their arrival. Spaniards found, to certain extent, a more pacific and civilized people like Aztecs, Mayas and Incas. These three peoples lived in well-organized societal communities. They worked the land and made it produce native foods like potatoes, maize and tomatoes, as well as many of the beans and fruit trees we know now. South American people had also an artistic class that worked fine ceramics, mined and worked silver and gold, and even developed bronze and other alloys. On the other hand, historians say that although Incas and Aztecs knew about the wheel, they didn't know how to use it, as they had no animals like the horse, the ox or even the donkey, for hauling. Europeans contributed with their language, the Holy Cross and firearms.

Englishmen in the north found good soil to farm, but the natives lived in tribal communities and were fighters, due to their way of life. Thus, the first colonizers failed because there was not enough food to sustain them, and the natives were not disposed to accept intruders. Thus, the invaders of both North and South America resorted to genocide, each in their own style. And when Europeans flooded as waves onto the shores of the recently discovered continent, Indians had to be pushed off their lands. The North American native was not willing to abandon his land and as a consequence, the Indian Wars were fought, resulting in the annihilation of most of them. In South America, though, the natives were not as brave as those northern ones, and so were worked to death as slaves, in the conquerors’ gold and silver mines.


What has all this history to do with poetry? What have Aztecs and Incas and the colonizing of the New World to do with rhyme and meter? It is relevant that the world in which the New World [later, North and South Americans] poets lived, formed much of their poetry, contributed a whole to add more emotion to the new poetry.

By the 17th Century, there appeared in England, three great poets: John Donne, Andrew Marvell and John Milton. They inaugurated the real beginning of modern poetry--each one making a valuable contribution to the world of letters. About Donne, professor Ian Lancashire says, “Labelled a ‘metaphysical’ poet for his strange, extended comparisons, Donne's poetry spanned his entire life and passions.” Professor Lancashire dissects one of Donne's poems, "Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward". Here are the first couplets of 21:

Let mans Soule be a Sphere, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devoting is,
And as the other Spheres, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:

Click here to read the complete, annotated poem.

As can be seen, Donne is sometimes difficult to understand. In this case, the puzzle starts from the title, Good Friday,1613, Riding Westward. Donne, of catholic background and afterwards, an Anglican priest, was supposed to observe that important day of the year, when God's Son died on the cross. However, he headed westward, instead of going eastward, where the church was. This is an apologetic poem for his unfaithful act not in accord with his devotion. The poem starts by making a comparison between man's soul and a planet (Sphere) that goes westward. He tries to interpret the movement of planets created by God which didn't move in a perfect circle but elliptically. Then a parallel is shown in the irregular movement of planets and man's irregular way of life. Marvell gave imagination to his work. To better appreciate his work, the reader should tune his/her mind to the poets's time. Let's take a look at the first stanza of Marvell's poem, "Song of the Emigrants in the Bermudas":

Where the remote Bermudas ride
In the ocean's bosom unespied,
From a small boat that rowed along
The listening winds received this song:

Click here to read the complete poem.

Marvell, a Puritan, wrote this poem just after the first news about his Puritan friends’ adventures arrived in England--that is by 1616, or thereabouts. Although most colonizers did go to Virginia and New England, some chose the Bermudas isles, and this poem re-creates what those people felt at their arrival on those isolated isles. Canadian professor Bert Case Diltz, author of an important anthology, commenting about this poet says that "...his favourite verse-form, the eight-syllabled couplet, moves with the rhythm of rowing. The 'song' is like a chant."

Marvell is considered one of the most modern poets of his epoch, perhaps even surpassing his predecessor, Donne, in use of imagery. See the fourth line above, The listening winds received this song. Here we can "see" and "feel" what those old pioneers did and the lines transmit Loneliness and fear, yes... but also with faith as they were singing a song in praise of God, whom they considered their guide.

But the real, brightest star of all, that shed more light on the world, was John Milton, celebrated as the champion of liberty. Milton was also a follower of Puritan beliefs, though not so rabid about it as Marvell. By 1649, Milton had been appointed Latin Secretary to Cromwell (also a Puritan), and also acted as his assistant. The chef d’oeuvre of Melton’s poetic work was "Paradise Lost", written when he was retired due to his blindness. Here, we present only two of his Petrarchan sonnets. Although both are considered minor works, they are important because of the insight they convey. The first, "I Did But Prompt", was written in rage, when, in 1643, Parliament placed restrictions on the freedom of the press. The other, "On His Blindness", was written by 1655, when he was already completely blind.


Marvell and Milton continued Donne's mind to renovate poetry: Marvell added imagination and esthetics and Milton uplifted simple verse lines to high peaks of human emotion by adding theme to his writing. Again, we refer to Professor Diltz's opinion. He says, "In the poetry of Milton are joined high purpose, grandeur of theme, dignity of word and manner, loftiness of imagination, and great scholarship." And, it can be added that Milton, in this poem, tries to transmit a message to his audience, by putting Parliament members at the same level as the clowns who railed at Latona, for which the latter were chastised and converted to frogs. The sonnet, "On His Blindness", is a lamentation of his loss, though it is stated in his lines that it is not much lament for himself, as for his being useless, unable to better serve God and humanity. Tenaciously, he says, " soul more bent/To serve therewith My Maker,.." The poem was dictated to one of his daughters, so it is supposed that he felt it by ear only, better perceiving where a pause was necessary and called for a caesura.

These minor works would be followed by his three major poems. The narrative poem, "Lost Paradise", would be considered one of the most appreciated jewels of universal literature. Here is some of its first lines:

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse,that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime

Go to to read the complete, annotated poem.

Milton died in 1674, fifteen years before William III, King of England and Scotland, would approve the English Bill of Rights. Some of the great poets who passed away during that century were Pedro Calderon de la Barca of Spain and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican. And an important poet of the English world would be born by that time: Alexander Pope. He would contribute some of the finest poems ever written before. He coined many popular sayings such as:

"To err is human; to forgive divine".

"All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
whose body Nature is, and God the soul."

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