One of Bradstreet’s most charming poems, “In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659” distinguishes and describes each of the “eight birds” from her “nest.” Several times she indicates precise dates for her poems or the events they describe; this one suggests a time of relative leisure after five of the eight have left home.
She maintains the bird metaphor throughout the poem’s ninety-six lines, describing the various “flights” of five of her children and her concerns about those remaining in the nest. Four are “cocks,” four “hens.” The oldest having flown “to regions far,” she longs for his return. The next two, both girls, have been married, while the second son is at “the academy,” where he will learn to sing better than nightingales. Number five is “mongst the shrubs and bushes,” which may mean that he has taken up farming. She hopes that the youngest three will not fall victim to birdcatchers, stone-throwers, or hawks.
Recalling the pains and cares of their early childhood, she notes that their growing up has not ended her constant concern for their welfare. Going on to remind the children that her own days are numbered, she tells them that she expects to be singing among the angels soon. The closing lines beg her brood to emulate in their own families the loving attention and moral instruction she has bestowed on them, thus keeping her alive in a way. She ends by bidding her offspring farewell and assuring them that she will be happy if all goes well with them.
Forty-eight tetrameter couplets might seem rather a long time to keep the bird metaphor going, but Bradstreet’s light touch sustains the reader’s interest. Because she evokes her children as individuals and conveys her tender feeling for each of them, this poem written on a particular day for a particular family expresses the universality of mother love.