"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday Wonder Question VII: Bishop and Mather?

The past week or so I have been reading The Oxford Handbook of THE ELEGY, a substantial collection of survey articles edited by Karen Weisman. In it, in his essay "The American Puritan Elegy" Jeffrey Hammond quotes from Cotton Mather's "Memoirs of the Life and Worth: Lamentations for the Death, and Loss of the every way admirable Mr. URIAN OAKES," who writes:

Well! Reader! Wipe thine Eyes! & see the Man
( Almost too small a word!) which Cambridge can
Say, I have lost!

This has brought to mind the following passage from Bishop's "Poem":

Our visions coincided - "visions" is
too serious a word - our looks, two looks:
art "copying from life" and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they've turned into each other. Which is which?

Bishop's poem, too, is a kind of elegy -- but an elegy in anticipation: Mather's Oakes has been felled; Bishop's elms are yet to be dismantled. Both Bishop and Mather place themselves within double lines of succession as elegists. And perhaps it is not a mistake to hear in EB's self-exhortation (Write it!) in another elegiac poem, "One Art", a distant echo of Mather's plea to Harvard (Own it!) in his praise of Oakes.

Bishop's acquaintance with Mather went back as early as her senior year at the Walnut Hill School, when she wrote an essay about him entitled "Assisted by the Holy Author." The occasional undoing of Mather (if not phrase by phrase, then by the occasional polemic rewriting of a significant phrase: "too small" ==> "too serious"; "Own it" ==> "Write it") might seem an amusing pastime to the poet who as a saucy student had written of one of his more exhaustive projects "So the Church History was conceived, written, and published with God assisting (sometimes reluctantly) at every step of the way. And indeed, why should He not? He was figured as a character, as the most important character playing the largest role, on every page of the book; as Mather pointed out to Him discreetly, it was to His advantage to see the Book through the press. If the Lord is going to motivate the events of History, He must somehow lighten the burdens of the Historian. And by recording the latter we can get perhaps as much insight into the ideas of Mather and his God as by studying the CHURCH HISTORY itself."

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