Biography Benjamin Tompson

Benjamin Tompson

photo of Benjamin Tompson
  • Time Period1642 - 1714
  • Place
  • CountryUnited States

Poet Biography

Born at Braintree in 1640, graduated at Harvard in 1662.

Among the first native-born Anglo-American poets, Tompson was born into a family of zealous Puritans. He became a schoolmaster for several towns around Boston, his most famous pupil being Cotton Mather. Tompson’s fame as a poet arose from his volume New Englands Crisis (1676) and its revision New Englands Tears (London, 1676), a verse epic treating the war with the Algonkian Confederation during the 1670s as a test of the faith of the elect in New England.

This poet’s best vein is satiric,—his favorite organ being the rhymed pentameter couplet, with a flow, a vigor, and an edge obviously caught from the contemporaneous verse of John Dryden. He has the partisanship, the exaggeration, the choleric injustice, that are common in satire; and like other satirists, failing to note the moral perspectives of history, he utters over again the stale and easy lie, wherein the past is held up as wiser and holier than the present. Though New England has had a life but little more than fifty years long, the poet sees within it the tokens of a hurrying degeneracy, in customs, in morals, in valor, in piety.

Tompson's tombstone at Roxbury informs us, was a "learned schoolmaster and physician and the renowned poet of New England," and is "mortuus sed immortalis." His chief production, New England’s Crises, is a formal attempt at an epic on King Philip’s War. The prologue pictures early society in New England and recounts the decadence in manners and morals that has brought about the crisis,—the war as God’s punishment. The six hundred and fifty lines of pentameter couplets are somewhat more polished than those of the poet’s contemporaries, and might suggest the influence of Dryden if there were any external reason for supposing that the Restoration poets gained admission to early New England. Tompson’s classical allusions, part of his epic attempt, are in amusing contrast to his rugged and homely diction, but his poem as a whole has at least the virtue of simplicity, and is interesting as the first of a long line of narratives in verse which recount the events of the wars fought on American soil.