A Poem by Linda Gregerson
The Day-Breaking If Not the Full Sun
Shining on the Progresse of the Gospel
in New England
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Oake, ashe, elme, beech, walnut, chestnut,
Plummes, cherries, sassafrass, hempe. Widggins,
partridges (bigger in body as those of England), sanderlings,
pheisants, quailes, bigger in body also, cranes,
fawcons, larks (the larks sing not), goshawkes, marlins
great and small,
a hummingbird small as a beetle,
owles, and all these are as nothing to the harvest
Moose, porpentines. Lyons there are none. The
beares afraid of any man. Pilchers, lobsters, ironstones,
(silver and gold by report), and yet
they see we covet them not theirs.
two bundles of spades. We have not found
a journeyman printer willing to make the crossing.
of sawes. Chisels, axes, augers, hoes,
drawing knives, gimlets. A book on physick,
half measure of London treakell, one
and one-half books of pins for Mr. Eliots wife.
exhort their flocks to a cheerful and liberal
contribution. 1 oz. of safferon. Six dozen of
or spindells to spin on the knee. Three bookes
against drunckennes, 3 dossen primers, a halfe
of them new,
a basket of pipin kernills for the Indians
to sett. Three bookes of Englands unthanckfulness.
If but one parent
beleeve, what state are the children in? How
doth much sinne make grace abound?
If so old
a man as I repent, may I be saved?
When we come to beleeve, how many children
take with us? All? Only young ones? Or at
what age? What meaneth that, Let the Trees
of the Wood
rejoyce? What meaneth that, we cannot
serve two Masters? Can they in Heaven see us
Do they see and know each other? Shall I
know you? If a wicked man prayeth doth God accept,
saies God? And how if a wicked man teacheth?
If God made hell in one of the six dayes, why
made he hell
before Adam had sinned? Doe not
the Englishmen spoile their soules, to say a thing
cost them more
then it did? Is it not all one as to steale?
What meaneth that, that the Master thanks not
for serving him? What meaneth that, that
we are not to covet our neighbor's house?
the world shall be burnt up,
what will be then in the roome of it? What meaneth,
shall be my Jewells?
From Linda Gregerson's latest volume of poetry, Waterborne (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 2002).
Poet and English Prof. Linda Gregerson's “The Day-Breaking If Not the Full Sun Shining on the Progresse of the Gospel in New England” is about the encounter between the mercantilist, Gospel-spreading Protestant settlers of New England in the 1600s and the Algonquian Indians whom they converted to Christianity.
An acclaimed poet and scholar (she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000 and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award last year) Gregerson made the poem out of the language of promotional pamphlets published in London around 1650 as part of the English settlers' effort to obtain more support for their North American mission.
“There's an over-the-top quality to the language in these pamphlets that caught my attention right away,” she says. “Their very titles are highly metaphoric, the one I used for this poem, for instance. The authors and publishers of these pamphlets were out to show that progress was being made. But conversion was a daunting proposition, both spiritually and politically problematic, and the pamphlets inevitably reveal this.
“They propagated their faith ‘by the book' among people who had no written language. So men like John Eliot had to teach the Bible while learning Algonquian, developing an alphabet, and translating and publishing the scriptures on newly imported presses.”
Eliot (whose wife is mentioned in the poem) and other proselytizers were at once otherworldly and pragmatic. “Eliot imported agricultural implements,” Gregerson says. “He knew that farming was the only way the Algonquians could establish and protect a right to their lands under English law. Hunter-gatherers have for millennia been displaced by those who cultivate the land: It's the oldest demographic story in the world.”
But once the Indians were in settlements and had native clergy trained to “explicate the thorny moments” in the Gospels, Gregerson says, they addressed questions to the English that “constitute a critique of Western civilization.” Henry Whitfield transcribed some of those questions in his 1651 pamphlet “The Light Appearing More and More Towards the Perfect Day.” The questions, as the third section of Gregerson's poem attests, showed the Algonquians capable of subtle, penetrating analysis and questioning of the community of belief they had joined. The Algonquians judged the Protestants by the words of the settlers' professed faith, and through their questions they indicted the settlers' hypocrisy, imperiousness and greed.
“Of course a terrible history of brutality is attached to the way that a certain population of English worked out their own place in geopolitical history,” Gregerson says. “And I'm not an apologist for that. But neither do I think a blanket condemnation of the settlers and missionaries much advances our historical understanding.”
Gregerson received her BA from Oberlin College and her PhD from Stanford University. For more on Gregerson see the Michigan Today Summer 2002 article about her at:
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