The term imagery is commonly used in literary critiques to indicate the manner in which an author creates mental images to aid the reader’s sense of perception. Imagery might include tactile, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, or other references to the senses. It encompasses figurative language that enhances the meaning of poetry or prose. In modern literature, imagery is somewhat elaborate and entertaining. This is not the way it is applied in Puritan writings.
Puritans were strictly religious and adhered to their interpretations of the Bible in the formation of their cultural communities. They believed in the simplicity of lifestyles as a reflection of God’s will for humankind. As such, writers of the era fashioned their poems and prose works in the manner dictated by their views of Christian doctrine. In keeping with this perspective, Puritan literature was direct, plain, simple in scope and language, and never self-laudatory.
With the limitations imposed by their cultural and religious beliefs, the skill necessary to infuse imagery into prose and poetry without elaboration was exceptional. Two of the most influential authors of the Puritan era in America were Anne Bradstreet and William Bradford.
In her poem “The Author to Her Book,” Bradstreet presents an excellent example of imagery applied to poetry using simple and direct language. She uses personification to paint a literal picture of a child with a secondary meaning, almost like an allegory. In the poem, she compares a book she wrote with a child, possibly illegitimate, that a mother wishes to hide away. However, friends introduce the child to the public. The author believes her book is an unauthorized publication. The image of the child “exposed to public view” like her book is simple, clear, and direct:
At thy return my blushing was not small
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call;
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy visage was so irksome in my sight....
William Bradford believed that simple truths required simple prose. Thus, his language was plain in keeping with Puritan traditions. In his work Of Plymouth Plantation, the author demonstrates the importance of the spiritual meaning in the lives of the people in the community and the relationship they seek with their spiritual God. Bradford’s journal-like work may be read almost like a sermon, and the imagery used to express his ideas are simple and religious in nature:
Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.
The author recounts the Puritan journey to the New World by showing the reader through imagery how the spiritual God plays a direct role in the events of humanity.
The Puritan style of writing consists of uncomplicated sentences and plain words used to make simple, direct statements. The Puritans employed basic clear images to express themselves in accordance with their religious and cultural beliefs.