Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Lowell is a twentieth century writer whose preoccupation with the dark side of human nature and of modern culture led him to a study of the American colonial mind. No more an apologist for Puritanism than was Nathaniel Hawthorne in the nineteenth century, he could not on the other hand accept the optimistic tradition in American letters that, beginning with Edwards’s contemporary Benjamin Franklin and proceeding through the transcendentalists of Lowell’s New England and Walt Whitman, discounted or minimized the effects of what Puritans had generally identified as original sin.

Edwards, born only three years before Franklin, exemplifies a religious commitment about to yield to a rationalist, humanist, and increasingly secular outlook. Edwards was a brilliant conservative fighting a rearguard action against irresistible change. Although destined to fail, Edwards unflinchingly faced the reality of powers that defy and belie purely rationalist accounts of human nature. In doing away with an angry God, the generations after Edwards were banishing the most plausible available explanation for many of the afflictions that have since become likely to be summed up in an expression such as “the human condition.”

Beginning in his second stanza, Lowell has Edwards address a “you” who remains unspecified until the fifth stanza, when the addressee becomes Hawley, for Edwards as well as for his readers a disturbing example of deviant human...

(The entire section is 478 words.)