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Eternal Gloom First?–Wigglesworth’s “Short Discourse on Eternity”

Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705)No one, I think, ever accused Puritan preacher Michael Wigglesworth of accentuating the positive in his poetry. By all accounts of the man’s life, he was a pleasant, loving person, but when he set to casting lines of verse, the gloom came down. Wigglesworth’s “A Short Discourse on Eternity” provides a good sample of this quality, and, weighing in at only about one-tenth the length of Day of Doom, the Discourse stands as a manageable piece to read at one go.

Wigglesworth begins his Discourse by focusing on the eternal aspect of eternity. Surely the infinite was no less difficult a concept in 1675 than it is today. The first eight stanzas of the poem attempt to emphasize the incredible vastness of eternity. The poet uses images of vast ocean expanses, sprawling forests, and endless sandy beaches to emphasize that eternity is unimaginably bigger. He then indicates that eternity’s years outnumber even the drops of water in that ocean, the leaves on those forest trees, and the grains of sand along the beaches. This move, more the fare of a teacher or preacher than of a metaphysical poet, represents the height of Wigglesworth’s cleverness.

The next three stanzas (9-11) apply the vastness of eternity to the elect. If you’re one of the redeemed Saints, then your bliss will last unimaginably long. This is certainly good news.

But of course, that good news comes with an accompanying bad news for the those selected in a Calvinist view of being predestined for damnation. It is this bad news and its shocking permanence that occupies Wigglesworth for the remaining eleven stanzas, fully half of the poem. This drumbeat of gloom features cheery lines like these:

Lament and mourn you that must burn
amidst those flaming Seas:
If once you come to such a doom,
for ever farewel ease.
O sad estate and desparate,
that never can be mended,
Until Gods Will shall change, or till
Eternity be ended!

Why does the poet spend so much time accentuating the negative? A true Calvinist, which he presumably was, would believe that God had selected some for redemption and some for damnation. What, then, would be the point of lamenting? Obviously the damned soul would have something to mourn, but since he had no real choice in the matter, what can he truly lament? And if he has no choice, why spend so much time focusing on his inevitable fate. Wigglesworth might be thought to present a “turn or burn” style evangelical message, but again this isn’t the Calvinist belief. On first glance, the poem’s obsession with the unending torment of the damned would seem akin to describing the suffering in store for someone diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer. If there’s nothing to be done, the focus seems cruel. Was Wigglesworth cruel?

Actually, an answer might be found lurking in stanza thirteen. Let’s consider its message:

If any one this Question
shall unto me propound:
What, have the years of sinners tears
no limits, or no bound?
It kills our heart to think of smart,
and pains that last for ever;
And hear of fire that shall expire,
or be extinguish’d never.

Rather than morbidly fastening on the torments in store for the damned, Wigglesworth invests his stanzas on their fate in order to properly teach the redeemed. In stanza thirteen, he presents a question that must have seemed compelling to those of his day just as it would seem compelling to people today. By emphasizing the gravity of eternal torment for the lost, Wigglesworth throws the eternal bliss of the saved into even greater light.

Much like his contemporary John Bunyan, Wigglesworth seems to have seen himself as a teacher much more than as an artist. His main concerns were matters of edification rather than aesthetic accomplishment. His form he deployed to carry his subject matter along. His choice of gloom, rather than indicating a morbid turn of mind, may well have seemed the most powerful way to teach the necessary points.


Posted in American Literature, Puritan.

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