The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“After the Surprising Conversions” is a forty-six-line poem on a historical event in colonial New England, a common subject for Robert Lowell. The title indicates that the poem takes places after the conversions and destructive religious enthusiasm that swept southern New England in the wake of the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards is explaining and, in a sense, justifying the origins and development of the event to an unknown correspondent.

The speaker of the poem is Edwards himself; the poem is based upon his letter of 1736, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northhampton and the Neighboring Towns and Villages.” The tone of Lowell’s re-creation of the letter is very different from the fervor that occasioned it. Edwards comments matter-of-factly on the suicides and on how “it began to be more sensible”—it can now be sorted out and understood more fully.

The origins of the religious awakening began with one man, who “came of melancholy parents.” There were, however, signs of hope in his life. He would watch the wind touch a tree and think of God’s beneficent creation. He was predisposed to “loving,” but “he durst/ Not entertain much hope of his estate/ In heaven.” Edwards preached one Sunday on Kings, a historical book of the Bible that is an unlikely source for such momentous events. Immediately after, the melancholy gentleman, Josiah Hawley, who was...

(The entire section is 482 words.)