Robert Lowell Rethinks Jonathan Edwards

Robert Lowell Rethinks Jonathan Edwards July 17, 2020

I have been posting about using poetry as a resource for studying and teaching American history. Up to now, I have been writing about using poems as first hand primary sources for the periods in which they are living. But several major writers have been fascinated by history, and their well informed comments help us approach some historical (and religious) celebrities.

I think of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), with his utter saturation in New England history and culture. See his  For the Union Dead, or At the Indian Killer’s Grave, with its references to King Philip’s War of the 1670s. But how could you delve into New England history without the religious foundations? I’ll talk about the poems that Lowell wrote about his ancestor, Jonathan Edwards, whose biography he contemplated writing. There are four obvious contributions to this list, namely:

After the Surprising Conversions

Mr. Edwards and the Spider

Mr. Edwards in Western Massachusetts

The Worst Sinner, Jonathan Edwards’ God

Each of them represents a deep interest in Edwards and a thorough acquaintance with his works. In his Mr. Edwards in Western Massachusetts, Lowell reports his “pilgrimage” to Northampton to find remains of the great cleric’s lifetime, but finds little. Lowell regularly borrowed and adapted segments of Edwards’s prose, so that we can often tell where he was drawing from at any given moment. When invited to become president of Princeton in 1757, Edwards had replied, bizarrely, that “I have a constitution, in many respects peculiarly unhappy, attended with flaccid solids, vapid, sizzy and scarce fluids, and a low tide of spirits.” Adapting only a couple of words, that passage appears dutifully in Mr. Edwards in Western Massachusetts, to almost shocking effect.

While Lowell never doubted Edwards’ greatness, he was far from uncritical. However saturated he was in that New England Puritan heritage, Lowell was a Catholic convert of individualistic bent, although he ultimately left that church too. He saw Edwards’s God as a hybrid of Jehovah and Satan, a harsh and judgmental Old Testament construct.

After the Surprising Conversions tells of Edwards observing the local effects of revival, but in one case, a man in spiritual agony cut his own throat, which threatened to set off a suicide wave in the community. (Historically, the victim was Edwards’ own uncle Joseph Hawley). For Edwards, this case proved beyond doubt that God had withdrawn his support and love, for whatever reason.

We were undone.
The breath of God had carried out a planned
And sensible withdrawal from this land.

Lowell, and many modern readers, would rather ask why Edwards cannot comprehend the psychological effects that his extreme and terrifying preaching is having on local people, driving some to insanity. Lowell himself was no stranger to religious mania.

Mr Edwards and the Spider (1946) is a brilliant interweaving (and I choose that word carefully) of an early essay by Edwards on insects, together with his famous Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, with its image of a spider destined for the flames.

On Windsor Marsh, I saw the spider die
When thrown into the bowels of fierce fire:
There’s no long struggle, no desire
To get up on its feet and fly
It stretches out its feet
And dies. This is the sinner’s last retreat;
Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
And full of burning, it will whistle on a brick.

All four poems repay reading in detail, and each represents a powerful insight into Edwards himself. To the best of my knowledge, the poems are not commonly cited in modern books on the Great Awakening era, although they appear in the customary range of Edwards-related bibliographies. They should be better known.

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