Reading New England: Poetry and Drama


800px-The_Tenth_Muse_by_Anne_BradstreetThis April is the twentieth anniversary of National Poetry Month, an appropriate time to explore the poetry and drama of New England. The orally transmitted songs and rituals of the Native Americans came first, of course, but are largely lost to us. The first English-speaking American poet, Anne Bradstreet, was one of the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Her book The Tenth Muse was published in London in 1650, a significant landmark for American literature. Among her descendants are several other distinguished writers, including Sarah Orne Jewett, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Richard Henry Dana.

The works of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets who followed Bradstreet are pretty obscure now, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some of the greatest American poets and poetry came out of New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton…an incomplete list can be found at the end of the New England Book List, and further suggestions are most welcome.

November 1954: The Bristol Old Vic Company in a scene from Arthur Miller's play 'The Crucible', which told the story of the Salem witch trials. Original Publication: Picture Post - 7840 - Crucible - unpub. (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Getty Images)
The Crucible performed by The Bristol Old Vic Company, 1954. (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Getty Images)

When it comes to drama, it’s not so easy to track down plays set in New England. We do have the Big Three that are consistently ranked among the greatest American plays ever: Our Town by Thornton Wilder (New Hampshire), Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill (Connecticut), and The Crucible by Arthur Miller (Massachusetts). But beyond these, my investigations turned up very little, and almost nothing I had ever heard of. The Pulitzer-prize winning Painting Churches by Tina Howe is one exception. If you have read or seen any others, please let me know!

As for my own plans, I have to revisit Our Town, since I now live 15 minutes away from Peterborough, New Hampshire, the basis for the Grover’s Corners of the play. I’d also like to read Long Day’s Journey into Night and check out the film with Katharine Hepburn, and maybe The Crucible as well. I wish I could see some live productions, but those are few and far between in my area.

In the realm of poetry, I’m curious to look into Anne Bradstreet and maybe some other early poets, and I’d definitely like to revisit some of my favorites from Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. I might even get around to the Dickinson biography I have sitting on my shelf, My Wars Are All Laid Up in Books. There’s also a new book by David Orr that looks interesting, The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. I’ll look for some more modern and contemporary poets to explore too. And as always, I’m looking forward to seeing what you discover!

Thornton Wilder pantomiming scenery while playing the Stage Manager in Our Town. Wellesley, MA, 1950. Source


8 thoughts on “Reading New England: Poetry and Drama

  1. I love this series emphasizing the literature of New England.

    Thanks for reminding us of all the great literature that has come out of the region. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickerson and Robert Frost are among my favorites. I want to also read the other poets that you mention.


  2. I am still in this challenge though I am way behind! I was interested in The Tenth Muse, originally, but in the end I chose Our Town for this month, because even though I have seen the play both live and on film, I never read it. Looking forward to it!


  3. Like Laurie, I’m behind, too! I studied Anne Bradstreet in grad school and enjoyed her poetry very much. It surprised me. I’d like to re-read some of her poems this month. Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867) is a poet who was born in Guilford, CT, where I live. He was part of the Knickerbocker Group and I’d never heard of him until I moved here. Will attempt to read some of his poems and will probably write a post about him. As for drama…I love to see plays but I’ve never been big on reading them. Although, come to think of it, I did enjoy the Shakespeare class I took in college. Eugene O’Neil lived in New London, CT and two of his plays are set here: “A Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “Ah, Wilderness.” If I do attempt to read a play it will probably be one of these.


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