17th Century Theological Poets

The seventeenth century was a kind of golden age for theological poets. Fascinating that we had a number of very significant poets and they all seem clustered in this century. Of course, this century was kicked off for us by none other than Shakespeare. But that’s just the beginning of the great literature that was produced in Britain and New England in this century.

First, we could talk about Anne Bradstreet. She was born in Northampton, England, in 1612. In 1630 she was on the Arbella with Gov. John Winthrop and company as they landed in New England. She was practically New England royalty. Her father was a governor, and her husband, Simon Bradstreet, was also a governor, and she was a poet. She was, in fact, the first American Colonial poet. She was also the first American woman Colonial poet to be published in Britain. She died in Andover, Mass., in 1672 and left behind a wonderful legacy of poetry.

Our second poet is Edward Taylor. He was born in 1642 in England. He also emigrated to New England. He studied at Cambridge and Harvard, and he ended up at Westfield, Mass., as a minister. He produced two significant bodies of poetry. One is called Preparatory Meditations, which he wrote on Saturday nights in anticipation of the Lord’s Supper. He also wrote a 2,102-line poem called “God’s Determinations.” It’s quite a thing to read, let alone write.

We also have, of course, John Milton. He wrote Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. He was born in 1608 and died in 1674. We’ve talked about Milton before and I suspect we will talk about him again.

Next, we should mention Ben Johnson. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare. We don’t usually think of him as a theological poet, but he was theologically engaged. If you ever get to Westminster Abbey, look for the grave slab of Ben Johnson. He is buried in Poets’ Corner, and I love the inscription on his grave. It simply says: “Ben Johnson, O Rare. 1572–1637.”

Our last poet is George Herbert. He was born in Wales in 1593 and he died in 1633 of what they used to call consumption (we know it today as tuberculosis). He was trained at Trinity College, Cambridge, and he left behind a wonderful legacy of poems. Most people are just coming into their own in their forties and fifties, but Herbert never even made it to his fortieth birthday. One of his poems is titled “Sonnet 2.” It reads in part, “Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry Oceans of Ink; for, as the Deluge did Cover the Earth, so doth thy Majesty: Each Cloud distills thy praise, and doth forbid Poets to turn it to another use.”

And so, these theological poets of the seventeenth century turned their use to displaying God’s majesty in words.

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