The tradition of meditative poetry in America

Date of Completion

January 1994


Literature, American




Meditative poetry began as a tradition in America during the colonial period. It was an outgrowth of Puritan meditative practices which emphasized individual self-examination, interpretation of scripture, and contemplation of the world and events to discover a spiritual message therein.^ The purpose of meditative poetry is to open a conversation with God, and its traditional goal is a greater sense of unity with God. The meditative poem exists as an artistic form representing an inner conflict or process that may or may not reach resolution. Whether or not this spiritual goal is attained depends largely on the poet's concept of self and of God. When God is perceived as alienating or threatening the poet, resolution is less likely to be achieved than when God is seen as loving and supporting the poet.^ This dissertation focuses primarily upon the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, and Emily Dickinson, with particular emphasis on Dickinson. Descriptions derived from the Calvinist tradition of a powerful Father-King figure tend to alienate these poets, while imagery from the New Testament tradition of the lover-bridegroom tends to encourage their faith. Anne Bradstreet's writings are dominated by the Father-King figure. Taylor's poems, on the other hand, acknowledge the Father but focus on the Son. Because of these differences, Bradstreet's poems usually do not achieve the emotional resolution or sense of unity with God that is the goal of traditional meditative poetry. Taylor's poems, in contrast, consistently achieve this goal.^ Both of these images of God are present throughout Dickinson's poetry, though we can trace a gradual progression away from reaction to a Calvinist Old Testament figure and toward an image of God as lover and friend. As do Bradstreet and Taylor, Dickinson turns to God in her meditative poetry to heal the rift caused by suffering and loss and to celebrate God's love and creative power.^ The epilogue examines briefly other nineteenth and twentieth century meditative poetry to show how changing concepts of God influenced the development of the form. ^