Puritan poetry forges conversation and community

November 22, 2013 at 11:30 am

Abstaining from art, theater, dance, and most other forms of entertainment, the Puritans took solace “in the word.” Sermons and elegies by local ministers became a kind of glue that held towns together, especially during the hardscrabble days of an emerging nation.

On November 14, in far more comfortable conditions at the Harvard Allston Education Portal, around 60 local community members and 350 online students from around the world joined scholar Elisa New in an exploration of how these words---considered to be some of the first printed poems in America---informed the lives and deaths of the first wave of settlers from England.

New, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard, based the evening’s program on her recently launched HarvardX online course “Poetry in America: The Poetry of Early New England.” The modular course is free and open to anyone through the edX learning platform, a joint effort of Harvard and MIT.

Her aim was to introduce the live audience to her “new adventure” of teaching literature using the latest technologies and to allow her virtual students, via a simultaneous webcast, a chance to interact with her in a more intimate and traditional setting.

The event was also a prototype of what is being called AllstonX, a collaboration between HarvardX, the strategic University initiative to support innovative teaching, and the Ed Portal.

“One of the critical features of HarvardX and AllstonX is the opportunity that technology has to bring people together,” said Robert Lue, the faculty director of HarvardX who introduced New. “That there is the chance to not only partake and share of content thousands of miles away, but there’s an opportunity for you, wherever you are, to come together and share with others your engagement with exciting ideas, with thrilling content, and with what instructors, faculty, and students want to share with you.”

Lue, who also serves as the faculty director of the Ed Portal, further explained that AllstonX intends to build upon the principle that technology should not take away from human interaction, but can transform in-person interactions and supplement learning experiences. 

New’s HarvardX course is a case in point. Broken into topic-based chunks that combine text, interactive assessments, on location videos, and even guest “celebrity” readers such as Woody Allen and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, the poetry remains the same, but how it is conveyed is radically different. 

In addition, from the conceptual stages of the course, New has been working with local high school teachers and librarians to test how these new formats might augment learning and make poetry more accessible to more people. In fact, to help her delve into Puritan poetry, she invited both high school teachers and students to engage in a dialogue with her.

“What we’re seeing here tonight, is not just Elisa reaching out to Allston, reaching out to the world—bringing Harvard, Allston, and the world together,” said Lue, “but what we will also experience is an interactive panel that brings together instructors from the high school level and students from the high school level, in a community built around a mutual engagement with poetry and how exciting poetry can be.”

Recognizing that not everyone is an expert on poetry or even a poetry enthusiast, New guided participants from the basics of how to contextualize and read a poem to the more sophisticated activity of breaking down a text and teasing out the meaning and implications behind the words and stanzas. 

Specifically, she explained how Puritan funeral elegies written in the 1670s and 1680s, admittedly not the most obvious source of literary or historic insight, provided a window into community life---and in fact, helped to strengthen the community itself.

“In New England in the 1670s, communities were built around a church—if there was a minister, there was a town,” she said.

The Puritan poets were primarily ministers who used the written word, and specifically the funeral elegies, to draw the community together. Though Puritan funeral elegies were an expression of sadness and fear, they were also a sort of celebration and “send-off” for the ministers who had passed, with the belief that the minister had gone to Heaven---to a better place.  

Ian Munnelly, a student panelist from Swampscott High School, echoed such dual intentions in his discussion of the Elegie for Thomas Shepard by Urian Oakes.  Stanza 17 of the poem reads:

When such a Pillar’s slain (Oh such an one!)
When such a glorious, shining Light’s put out,
When Chariot and Horsemen thus are gone ;
Well may we fear some Downfal Darkness, Rout,
When such a Bank’s broke down, there’s sad occasion
To wail, and dread some grievous Inundation. 

Munnelly suggested that the community saw their minister as the center (“pillar”) of their lives. With his death, the entire town had lost their guiding light for life on earth, and beyond---to the afterlife.

“They have no idea how they are going to make this transition period to the next minister—to the next leader of the town,” said Munnelly, “ Your chariot and your horsemen are both gone. It’s complete and utter chaos. The elegy is decrying to the whole town, ‘where are we going next?’” 

In that sense, the text served as more than simply a eulogy, but as a public call to action. For the Puritans, New reminded the audience, poems were not a way to “express feelings” or to reveal a sense of beauty, but a very practical guide for how to live and survive.

Moreover, the goals of civic life were far beyond our own modern conceptions, she added. Community member were less concerned with what they might see as trivial matters such as whether a bond issue passed or not. The stakes, in fact, were quite literally about the choice between heaven or hell. The ministers used the power of language to remind fellow parishioners that their behaviors would decide their eternal fate.

While heady topics for a blustery Thursday evening, the panel and participants continued their discussion well into the evening. Taking advantage of the live broadcast, New also opened the floor to questions and comments from the live audience as well as those participating online, with questions being Tweeted in from locations ranging from the east coast of the United States to Mexico.

The grand finale included a special appearance by Mark Ciommo, City Councilor for the City of Boston representing the Allston-Brighton neighborhood. He closed the evening by kicking off a reading from the 1780 ballad Volunteer Boys, a work that New will discuss in the forthcoming weeks of her online course. Considered a rousing drinking song, the work celebrates those citizens who eschew idle, personal hobbies (ironically, such as reading poetry), and instead dedicate themselves to serving their community as soldiers or protectors. 

Ciommo expressed his enthusiasm to be part of this first AllstonX preview event, as he has long been a strong advocate of lifelong learning. Fittingly, the recording of him and other volunteers reading Volunteer Boys will be used as part of the online course content that covers the poetry of the American Revolution. 

While the event was just a prototype for AllstonX, the expectation is for it to become an ongoing opportunity for members of the Allston-Brighton, Harvard, and global communities to learn together.  Programming is under development and further details will be announced in 2014.

A video recording of the event is available here.