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THE early settlers of New England were no less distinguished for their attachment to letters than for their strong religious character; and although their taste and partialities lay rather toward the substantial than the ornamental parts of literature, yet the commune vinculum, the natural and intimate connexion of all liberal pursuits, unavoidably turned their studies in some degree in the latter direction. A great number of the earliest emigrants were men of the first attainments in the principal sciences held in repute at that period, and their writings reflect no small honor on their character for learning and ability. Their earliest attempts in the department of polite literature, must certainly be considered rude and feeble, when compared with the contemporaneous productions of Europe, but they deserve attention from the influence which they undoubtedly exercised upon the writers who succeeded them, no less than from the light they throw upon the character of the writers and the state of society. They also possess an interest arising from the curiosity we naturally feel to view the most ancient memorials of literary effort on record among us.
We shall proceed therefore to enumerate such of the first settlers of the country as were known for any productions in verse which have remained to the present day, and give a brief historical sketch of the early poetical literature of the English Colonies.
It was hardly three years from the arrival of the pilgrims that the first essay of this kind was made by William Morell, an episcopal clergyman, who wrote a description of New England in Latin hexameter verse. Morell came to this country in 1623 and remained about a year. Except therefore, as being the earliest attempt at versification within the present limits of the country, his performance can hardly claim any remark here. It was published in England with a translation by the author. Both have been reprinted in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
The next poetical production which offers itself to our notice is the version of the Psalms published at Cambridge in 1640, and which was the first book printed in the United States.* About the year 1639 the clergymen of New England considering that in their new residence they had been enabled to enjoy most of the ordinances of christian worship in all desirable purity, were induced to extend the reform they had thus effected, to the ordinance of the singing of psalms. The common metrical translation of the psalms was considered to deviate so far from the original as to be an unsatisfactory help to their devotions. A new version was therefore resolved upon, and the several portions of the work were assigned to the most eminent divines of the country. The principal of these whom we find mentioned were John Eliot of Roxbury, the celebrated Indian Apostle, Thomas Welde of Roxbury, and Richard Mather of Dorchester. The work thus produced was such as might have been expected from the plan. The main object of the translators was of course to make the version as literal as possible. An extract from their preface may serve to give the reader the views which they entertained of the nature of their task.
*Although this was the first book, it was not the first specimen of printing in the country. The year previous there was published an Almanack and The Freeman's Oath.