About a year ago I was browsing through the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One—The Authors, and I read the entry on a writer named E. Merrill Root. I had never heard of him before. E. Merrill Root was a poet and professor who spent much of his career at Earlham College in Richmond,Indiana. Edward Merrill Root was born on January 1, 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from Amherst College and did civilian war-related work as a conscientious objector with Quakers in France before returning to the U.S. and attending Andover Theological Seminary for a year. In 1920 he became an English professor at Earlham, a Quaker institution, and remained there until retiring in 1960. Root was a traditional poet who usually worked in rhyme and standard metrical patterns. He demonstrated particular skill with the sonnet form. Root was a student of Robert Frost’s, and Frost was an admirer of his work.
In addition to poetry, Root wrote a biography of the English writer Frank Harris as well as essays and polemical works on American education. Root was a strongly anti-Communist conservative. I can’t speak to the quality or nature of his political writings. There’s a stereotype in the culture that poets and artists are generally liberal, and while this is often true, it is also a stereotype. Twentieth century poets and writers who are generally identified as political conservatives include Allen Tate, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Peter Viereck, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Louis Bromfield, Walker Percy, and Wallace Stevens. Some prominent authors, such as American novelist John Dos Passos, moved rightwards after the Second World War after holding leftist positions during the Twenties and Thirties.
I have been impressed by Root’s poems. In keeping with this spooky time of year, I wanted to share a poem of Root’s about the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692-93. It’s a kind of ballad, and I find it wonderfully evokes the weirdness and hysteria of that time, ending with a particularly haunting image. This is from his collection entitled The Seeds of Time, published in 1950. In the original version the first and third lines are indented, but this is problematic in wordpress, so all lines are flush against the margin here. Now let’s travel back to Salem…..
‘Tis Salem, 1696—
Beware the evil glance!
The woods are deserts dim and full
Of dismal circumstance.
New England is the Devil’s realm,
Good Cotton Mather knows—
There copper demons throng the dark
Amid a waste of snows.
Children, infected with the night,
Gibber and shriek and twitch:
God save them—and God save us all!—
From demon and from witch.
Like beasts upon all fours they crawl;
Their flesh turns blue and black;
The foam is froth upon their lips;
Their limbs grow numb and slack.
(That hag, old Tituba, is there—
The creature of the night:
She hears the rustle and crepen bustle
Of witches in their flight.)
“ ‘Tis Goody Nurse!” the children cry,
“ ‘Tis Reverend Burroughs, too!”
(Upon their foreheads and their hands
The sweat is ghastly dew.)
Ann Putnam cries,–she is but twelve,–
“His two dead brides!—they say
He slew them both, he stabbed them both;
And see, their cheeks are gray.”
And Goodwife Putnam, like a bow
Too tightly strung, is there;
She sees the specters of the dark
Flutter across the air.
“How oft,” cries she, “how oft hath he
Plagued the poor godly child!—
See, yellow birds flit round his head.”
Her rolling eyes are wild.
“The red calf’s head,” one child doth shriek,
“Its ears are stiff and pert—
See, See!” She points at vacant air;
Then swoons and falls inert.
“ ‘Hoccanum come!’ ” (Ann Putnam saith)
“Old Goody Nurse did cry;
And just that night—that very night—
My father’s cow went dry.”
The others pant, “The black dog runs—
Yet see, it hath her head!”
“She rides the water like a cork,
Who should be drowned and dead.”
“The white sow roots the earth in dreams…
I may not sleep by night.”
Haggard and hollow are their cheeks;
Their eyes are thronged with fright.
Why wonder then that juries pale
And swoon in sympathy?
Why marvel witches hang like fruit
Upon the gallows tree?
———-E. Merrill Root
The Seeds of Time by E. Merrill Root. Falmouth Publishing House, Portland, Maine. 1950.
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One–The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.