Fire and Ice: Puritan and Reformed Writings
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About Michael Wigglesworth and his Poetry

Contributed by Stephen Lawson

Michael Wigglesworth [1631-1705] was born in England and came to America at the age of seven. He lived in New Haven until he went to Harvard; he was graduated in 1651 and remained as a tutor for three years. He lived out the rest of his essentially uneventful life in Malden, Massachusetts, the place of the ministry to which he was appointed in 1656. A small man, he was extremely frail and weak until 1686 when, apparently, he attained an Indian summer of health. Because of his physical condition he went to Bermuda for seven months in 1663; there he began to study medicine, which had always interested him. Eventually he became a physician of the body as well as of the soul. Although his household occupied some of his leisure (he was married three times and had eight children), he took to writing in order to spread the doctrine that his frailty frequently kept him from preaching in the pulpit. The most famous result of his efforts was The Day of Doom.

Although it is not the best of his verse-and although even the best is something less than true poetry-The Day of Doom deservedly remains the most famous of his works. It must be considered in a purely historical light, for it reveals the Puritan notions of poetry much better than do the poems of Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Cast in familiar, jingling ballad meter, it helped New Englanders to remember the doctrines of righteousness, and children memorized Wigglesworth's doggerel along with the catechism. The ideas seem so harsh today that some commentators have supposed erroneously that Wigglesworth was a morbid fanatic. In reality the poem merely dramatizes the abstractions that all orthodox Puritans agreed upon, and it is interesting for its disclosure of Puritan psychology as well as doctrine. Published in 1662, The Day of Doom became America's first best seller, circulating 1800 copies during the first year. It has been estimated that at one time one copy was owned for every thirty-five people in all of New England; every other family must have had The Day of Doom on its parlor table. The poem went through ten editions in the next fourteen decades, four in the seventeenth century and six in the eighteenth. In spite of its literary shortcomings, it is still the best "official" statement of the Puritan's attempt to use poetry for a plain exposition of the beliefs by which he tried to live.

Biographical sketch from:
American Literature Survey Colonial and Federal to 1800
Edited by Milton R. Stern and Seymour L. Gross
Copyright © 1962 by The Viking Press, Inc., New York, NY 10022

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