Michael Wigglesworth Essay - Critical Essays

Wigglesworth, Michael

Introduction

Michael Wigglesworth 1631-1705

American poet, diarist, and sermon writer.

Michael Wigglesworth was a significant figure in the religious and political leadership of colonial Massachusetts, and was eulogized by Cotton Mather. A pastor and physician, he was plagued by bad health, an angry congregation, and personal scandal throughout his life. However, both his poetry collections, The Day of Doom (1662) and Meat Out of the Eater (1670) were popular successes, and enjoyed several reprintings and revised editions. In fact, his works were memorized by generations of New England Puritans. While his work presents substantial challenges to modern readers unfamiliar with Puritan aesthetics and uncomfortable with strict Calvinism, the significance of Wigglesworth's achievements is reflected in his powerful influence on the development of Puritan thought.

Biographical Information

Michael Wigglesworth was born October 18, 1631, to Edward and Esther Wigglesworth. The family made the voyage to Charlestown in 1638 seeking religious freedom in the colonies, and later settled in New Haven, Connecticut. Wigglesworth studied for two years with Ezekiel Cheever, until the poor health of his father required his presence at home, returning to his studies five years later. He entered Harvard in 1647, where he received an A.B. and M.A. While at Harvard, Wigglesworth had a profound religious experience which led him to leave the field of medicine and pursue the study of divinity. After graduating in 1651, Wigglesworth tutored at Harvard, counting among his students John Eliot and Increase Mather. In 1654 he moved to Malden, Massachusetts and began preaching. In 1655, Wigglesworth married his cousin, Mary Reyner; he fathered a child in 1656, and in the same year opted to join the Malden church in order to become its pastor. He was formally ordained in 1657, but also contracted a painful and lingering disease. Wigglesworth's poor health and conservative religious beliefs caused significant tension, and by 1658 the Malden church had become dissatisfied with the relationship. His illness worsened and, in 1659, his wife died, making Wigglesworth less and less able to fulfill his responsibilities. Consequently, his parish declined to pay him, though he continued to live in the parsonage and retained his title. This period inspired his work on the poems collected in The Day of Doom and the long poem God's Controversy with New-England, which remained unpublished until 1873. Still plagued by illness, Wigglesworth embarked on a trip to Bermuda, hoping to find a cure; the trip was in vain, and during his absence the Malden church hired an additional pastor. This freed him from some of his responsibilities, and allowed him to Wigglesworth return to his medical practice and tutor students. He continued writing, working on the poems to be collected in Meat Out of the Eater. The death of his associate pastor Benjamin Bunker in early 1670 exacerbated Wigglesworth's poor relations with the Malden congregation, leaving them without a working pastor for nearly four years. Tensions peaked in 1679, when Wigglesworth married his housekeeper, Martha Mudge. His congregation and fellow pastors, including Increase Mather, objected to Mudge's low status and her apparent lack of religion, and they openly criticized the union. Wigglesworth offered to resign over the issue, but though the church cut his pay they refused his resignation. Instead, they hired another assistant for him, Thomas Cheever, the son of his former teacher. As Wigglesworth's health slowly began to improve, his social standing did as well, and he was elected one of the colony's four freemen. This elevation in standing also allowed Wigglesworth's views on religious and social issues to find increasing acceptance. In 1684, Wigglesworth was invited to assume the presidency of Harvard College, an offer he declined. When in 1686 Cheever was discharged from his position as assistant pastor, having been accused of improper public conduct, Wigglesworth's illness had improved enough for him to take on all the pastoral duties of the Malden church. Apart from revisions to Meat Out of the Eater, which reached its fourth edition in 1689, he did little writing but much preaching, and became increasingly concerned with colonial, political, and ecclesiastical affairs. In 1690 his second wife died; he remarried in 1691 to Sybil Avery. He was appointed a Fellow of Harvard College in 1697, and his congregation, finally reconciled to their long-time pastor, voted to increase his pay. As he worked on revisions to The Day of Doom for the 1701 edition, he continued to preach and to practice medicine. As his death approached, Wigglesworth began two new compositions reflecting on the end of life. He died June 10, 1705, and his poems “Death Expected and Welcomed” and “A Farewel to the world” appeared that year in Cotton Mather's biography of Wigglesworth, A Faithful Man, Described and Rewarded. Wigglesworth was buried at Malden, with a gravestone memorializing him as “Malden's physician for soul and body.”

Major Works

Wigglesworth's first work, The Day of Doom, is also his best known and most widely read. A collection of poems on the theme of salvation and damnation, the work centers on the title poem, “The Day of Doom,” and includes numerous poetic addresses to the reader, prayers, and short digressions on related themes. Throughout the volume, Wigglesworth expounds on Puritan doctrine, using fairly simple verses to make his points memorable—in fact many of his readers memorized The Day of Doom. By modern standards the poem is quite harsh in its depiction of God's justice and the horrors awaiting unrepentant sinners, but it was largely in keeping with the developing theology of Puritan Americans. Wigglesworth's vivid representation of damned children and infants typifies the unrelenting doctrine of Calvinism, brought to life with a singular attention to detail in The Day of Doom. His next major publication, Meat Out of the Eater, is less familiar to most readers, but its variety of tone and style show Wigglesworth to be a poet of greater breadth and skill than could an evaluation based solely on his first work. Meat Out of the Eater contains poems more personal in focus, highlighting Wigglesworth's experiences with sin and suffering. Much of Meat Out of the Eater addresses the theme of grace through affliction; such poems as “Strength in Weakness” and Tolle Crucem proclaim that both individual and communal suffering are not only pathways to salvation but also tangible signs of God's attention. Modern critics have also shown interest in Wigglesworth's Diary, written between 1653 and 1657, but unpublished until 1951. The diary reveals the inner struggles of Wigglesworth as he considered ministry and marriage, and generally substantiates Wigglesworth's poetic claims that he suffered much anguish for his physical and spiritual weaknesses.

Critical Reception

The Day of Doom earned the title of the first American best-seller, and remained popular throughout the eighteenth century. While other works by Wigglesworth were not as widely read, they still enhanced his reputation as one of colonial America's foremost religious authors. By the nineteenth century, however, Wigglesworth's plain style and harsh theology had gone out of favor—scholars found his poetry clumsy and excessively blunt, and some considered his interpretation of Calvinist doctrine repulsive. The critic Moses Coit Tyler famously charged Wigglesworth with giving God “a character the most execrable and loathsome to be met with, perhaps in any literature.” As late as 1946, the editor of Wigglesworth's Diary, Edmund S. Morgan, called Wigglesworth “a morbid humorless selfish busy-body.” In the second half of the twentieth century, however, critics have begun to focus on examining Wigglesworth in the context of Puritan New England. Critics have sought to understand the appeal Wigglesworth's poetry held among his contemporaries. The turning point studies of Wigglesworth came in 1962, with Richard Crowder's No Feather Bed to Heaven: A Biography of Michael Wigglesworth, 1631-1705. Crowder's analysis of Wigglesworth emphasized the close links between Wigglesworth's life experience and the doctrines he propounded: Crowder's Wigglesworth is not the stereotypical dour Puritan, but a man committed to educating his readers about God's mercy, which he had witnessed as a result of his suffering. Later critics have similarly observed that Wigglesworth's understanding of theology, if conveyed in harsh and vivid language, was nonetheless appropriate to his audience. Harsharan Singh Ahluwalia has highlighted the connection between the familiar school of Covenant Theology and Wigglesworth's presentation of God's relationship to humanity; Ronald A. Bosco, who edited the first complete collection of Wigglesworth's poetry, has observed that the rough and immediate imagery of the poem would have resonated closely with New Englanders to whom the dangers of colonial life would be intimately known. Alan H. Pope has included in his study of Wigglesworth the author's educational background: Pope argues that the Ramist logic Wigglesworth had studied provided an important structure for the form of Wigglesworth's poetry. In a later study John C. Adams has attempted to refine Pope's argument, suggesting that where Pope focused primarily on Wigglesworth's use of logic, the contemporary success of The Day of Doom also depended on its application of Ramist rhetoric. While his works are not as widely read today as they were among his contemporaries, Wigglesworth is a figure of significant import to critics and scholars interested in the nature of early American Colonial life.

Principal Works

The Day of Doom: or, a Description of the Great and Last Judgment. With a Short Discourse about Eternity (poetry) 1662

Meat Out of the Eater: or Meditations concerning the necessity, end, and usefulness of Afflictions unto God's children (poetry) 1670

The Diary of Michael Wigglesworth (diary) 1951

The Poems of Michael Wigglesworth (poetry) 1989

Criticism

Harshapan Singh Ahluwalia (essay date June and December 1974)

SOURCE: Ahluwalia, Harshapan Singh. “Salvation New England Style: A Study of Covenant Theology in Michael Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom.Indian Journal of American Studies 4, no. 1-2 (June and December 1974): 1-12.

[In this essay, Ahluwalia compares Wigglesworth's theology as expressed in the Day of Doom to the school of Covenant Theology articulated first by William Perkins.]

Perhaps no poem in American literature has been so much ridiculed as Michael Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom (1662). Whereas the modern reader finds the doomsday verses “smoking with hell-fire and brimstone theology,”1 Wigglesworth's contemporaries...

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Jeffrey A. Hammond (essay date spring, 1984)

SOURCE: Hammond, Jeffrey A. “‘Ladders of Your Own’: The Day of Doom and the Repudiation of ‘Carnal Reason’.” Early American Literature 19, no. 1 (spring 1984): 42-67.

[In this essay, Hammond explores the spiritual logic of Wigglesworth's broad and apparently harsh judgment of the damned and unregenerate of humanity.]

1

Modern opinion has generally not been kind to Michael Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom. Most assessments echo that of Moses Coit Tyler, who maintained that in the poet's “intense pursuit of what he believed to be the good and the true, he forgot the very existence of the beautiful” (277). Even such a...

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Alan H. Pope (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Pope, Alan H. “Petrus Ramus and Michael Wigglesworth: The Logic of Poetic Structure.” In Puritan Poets and Poetics: Seventeenth-Century American Poetry in Theory and Practice, edited by Peter White, pp. 210-26. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985.

[In this essay, Pope introduces the idea of applying the logic of Petrus Ramus to Wigglesworth's poetry, a method of explication that would be accepted and adopted by Wigglesworth's later critics as well.]

No other Puritan poet has suffered more negative criticism and disrespect than Michael Wigglesworth, author of America's first best-seller, The Day of Doom. To many,...

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Eva Cherniavsky (essay date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Cherniavsky, Eva. “Night Pollution and the Floods of Confession in Michael Wigglesworth's Diary.” Arizona Quarterly 45, no. 2 (summer 1989): 15-33.

[In this essay, Cherniavsky applies a psychoanalytic method to interpreting Wigglesworth's autobiographical writings and poetry.]

And if a man once go beyond those bounds of Gods speciall appointment, & what nature alloweth or calls for, I know now where he will stay.

—Michael Wigglesworth, untitled sermon

Extravagance! it depends on how you are yarded.

—Thoreau, Walden...

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Ronald A. Bosco (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Bosco, Ronald A. “Reading the Poems of Michael Wigglesworth.” In The Poems of Michael Wigglesworth, edited by Ronald A. Bosco, pp. xviii-xxxiv. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1989.

[In this excerpt, Bosco urges a re-evaluation of Wigglesworth's merits as a poet, observing that his contemporaries found his religious writings to be worth repeated readings.]

As artist and as devout Puritan, Wigglesworth, to be sure, is a figure not without qualities that tax the critical sensibility as well as the good will of the modern reader. It may be, as Donald Barlow Stauffer has said, that Wigglesworth deserves to be ranked “several rungs down the ladder”...

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John C. Adams (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Adams, John C. “Alexander Richardson and the Ramist Poetics of Michael Wigglesworth.” Early American Literature 25, no. 3 (1990): 271-88.

[In this essay, a response to Alan H. Pope's 1985 essay, Adams contends that proper understanding of Wigglesworth's Day of Doom depends on an understanding of both logic and the rhetorical theory that influenced the author.]

I

In a recent essay, Alan H. Pope has written that “no other Puritan poet has suffered more negative criticism and disrespect than Michael Wigglesworth, author of America's first best-seller, The Day of Doom” (210). He provides an apt summary of the...

(The entire section is 7753 words.)

Alan Bray (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Bray, Alan. “The Curious Case of Michael Wigglesworth.” In A Queer World: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Martin Duberman, pp. 205-15. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

[In this essay, Bray places Wigglesworth's memories of homosexual desires expressed in his autobiographical writings into the context of cultural ideas about manliness, both to clarify the import of Wigglesworth's comments and to illuminate the definition of manly social roles.]

In this essay I propose to look at the reactions of certain individuals in early modern society to the fact of their male homosexual desires. The compass of my material is therefore...

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Jean S. Filetti (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Filetti, Jean S. “Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom.Explicator 58, no. 3 (spring 2000): 127-30.

[In this essay, Filetti interprets the poem The Day of Doom by attempting to infer Wigglesworth's methods of teaching his readers, focusing on Wigglesworth's use and arrangement of biblical parables.]

Michael Wigglesworth acknowledged that he was willing to “play the fool this once for Christ” if that ornamentation—poetry—helped instruct and bring others to the path of righteousness (qtd. Nye 38). With the goal to instruct, why does Wigglesworth, a pastor-poet knowledgeable about the entire range of biblical stories, use Gospel parables...

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