Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3562
SOURCE: "Anne Bradstreet's 'Contemplations': Patterns of Form and Meaning," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, March 1970, pp. 79–96.
[In the following excerpt, Rosenfeld discusses Bradsteet's "Contemplations" in terms of its similarities with the works of later Romantic poets.]
On first reading, the thirty-three stanzas of "Contemplations" seem to be held together very loosely, if at all, but a closer reading begins to reveal certain patterns of imagery and ideas within the poem. The seasonal metaphor is one of these and contributes significantly to both form and meaning. A second pattern, the daily cycle of morning and night, with its attendant periods of light and dark, obviously ties in closely with the yearly cycle of the seasons. The progression of natural images—directing the poet's vision from tree to sun to river to bird to stone—is a third and needs to be examined carefully. A fourth element of structural and thematic importance involves the elaborate switches in narrative and dramatic time. A fifth concerns the noticeable contrasts between Classical and Biblical allusions. A sixth has to do with tone and mood and the varied uses of the lyrical and elegiac modes together with the larger form of the narrative. All of these factors help to make the poem the rich and complex work that it is. They also lend the poem unity, although it is a unity that is not easily apparent and only becomes so when one isolates some of the patterns of form and meaning and examines them, at first, somewhat apart.
Anne Bradstreet's use of the seasonal metaphor—which moves the poem from autumn through winter to a temporarily realized season of eternal spring and summer—is an anticipation of the English Romantic poets and inevitably provokes parallels with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. As with those poets, her seasons are both physical and spiritual and participate in the same cycle of the waning and revival of life. As more than one critic has already pointed out, several of her lines on the seasons resemble some of the most memorable lines in the poems of Shelley and Keats, a factor that may permit us to read her poetry in the light of what we have learned from theirs.
Particularly appropriate—and helpful—in this connection is the place of the poet as the central figure in the drama of seasonal change. For it is the threat to the poet in his vocation as poet and not just as mortal man that is always crucial in the Romantic's evocation of the seasons. That is true for the Wordsworth of the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," for the Coleridge of "Dejection: An Ode," for the Shelley of "Ode to the West Wind," for the Keats of the great odes—and for the Anne Bradstreet of "Contemplations." A significant part of her poem's theme (and one finds it also in the poems just cited) has to do with the challenge to the imagination of the poet's heavy and constant sense of time, flux, and a final oblivion. A major portion of this theme in "Contemplations" is carried by the seasonal metaphor.
The poem actually begins with it—"Some time now past in the autumnal tide" (1)—and from this point on it is pervasive, appearing explicitly in at least a third of the stanzas and implicitly in many of the others. The poet invokes it immediately when, walking alone in the woods of an autumn day, she quietly gives herself up to the splendid scene and is moved to remark: "More heaven than earth was here, no winter and no night" (2). She is moved by the majesty of the trees and particularly by one "stately oak" which, with its height and strength, seems to defy and transcend a "hundred winters … or [a] thousand." But the lines that most fully express the poet's attachment to the metaphor of the seasons appear later, in stanzas 18 and 28:
When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
And then the earth (though old) still clad in green,
The stones and trees, insensible of time,
Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen;
If winter come and greenness then do fade,
A spring returns, and they more youthful made;
But man grows old, lies down, remains where once he's laid. (18)
The dawning morn with songs thou dost prevent,
Sets hundred notes unto thy feathered crew,
So each one tunes his pretty instrument,
And warbling out the old, begin anew,
And thus they pass their youth in summer season,
Then follow thee into a better region,
Where winter's never felt by that sweet airy legion. (28)
The Shelleyan note is inescapable in the first of these stanzas, the Keatsian in the second. Anne Bradstreet seems to share with these poets a consciousness of the rejuvenescence of life, of the chance to recover from the old to make always new beginnings, which comes with the cycle of the "Quaternal seasons," as she refers to them in an earlier stanza (6). Stanza 18 ends, however, on a pessimistic note about man's ability to participate in the seasonal cycle, and at this point we have a departure from the later Romantic poet's affirmation of seasonal death and rebirth. Anne Bradstreet was of another age, after all, and she is nowhere closer to that age than here, where she qualifies a strong personal impulse towards Romantic beliefs with the traditional Christian assertion of man's mortality:
By birth more noble than those creatures all,
Yet seems by nature and by custom cursed,
No sooner born, but grief and care makes fall
That state obliterate he had at first;
Nor youth, nor strength, nor wisdom spring again,
Nor habitations long their names retain,
But in oblivion to the final day remain. (19)
Theseus' famous speech in A Midsummer-Night's Dream about the imagination giving to airy nothing "a local habitation and a name" is echoed here, and its implications are that the poet has suffered not only a reversal of her commitment to the seasonal metaphor but of the very quality of her imagination. For although the poem goes on to affirm that "man was made for endless immortality" (20), the kind of immortality referred to and pursued is that of orthodox Christianity and not Romantic renewal on earth. Christianity's idea of resurrection after death is based, in part, upon the symbolism of the seasonal cycle, but its final goal is transcendence of all natural forms to eternal life beyond. A prose passage in Anne Bradstreet's "Meditations Divine and Moral" helps to make this point emphatic:
The spring is a lively emblem of the resurrection: after a long winter we see the leafless trees and dry stocks (at the approach of the sun) to resume their former vigor and beauty in a more ample manner than what they lost in the autumn; so shall it be at that great day after a long vacation, when the Sun of righteousness shall appear; those dry bones shall arise in far more glory than that which they lost at their creation, and in this transcends the spring that their leaf shall never fail nor their sap decline.
This is a graceful description of familiar Christian doctrine and represents, one imagines, what Anne Bradstreet would have claimed to be her final religious position on the questions of life, death, and immortality.
Does it also represent her deepest responses as a poet, one wonders? The question must be asked, and not just for "Contemplations" but for other of her poems as well. For if one closely reads "The Flesh and the Spirit," "Verses upon the Burning of Our House," the elegies on Sidney, Du Bartas, and Elizabeth, the poems to her husband, and "Contemplations," it soon becomes clear that the currents within the poetry itself seem too often to run counter to a position of religious orthodoxy. And if it is finally unfair to throw Anne Bradstreet fully into the camp of the Romantics, so too is it unfair to cast her completely as a traditionally believing "Puritan" poet.
Several critics have called attention to "the clash of feeling and dogma" in her poetry, to the struggle between "how she really feels instead of how she should feel," and that is precisely what we are faced with here. This struggle adds character and strength to her poetry, and one should not attempt to dismiss it, as is sometimes done, by seeing it as merely an incidental flaw in an otherwise clearly defined position of either staunch Puritanism or rebellious Romanticism. The poetry itself does not fully resolve these tensions in either direction, after all, but instead gains much of its vitality and interest from the existence of what Blake called the warring contraries.
In "Contemplations" one finds the war of the contraries everywhere: in the early assertion but later retreat from the seasonal metaphor; in the dualities of morning and night; light and dark; the present earth and a future heaven; rapt speech and an imposed silence. Phoebus and the God of the Puritan's Bible are opposed here, as are their related values, which may be designated, in the poem's own terms, as "this world of pleasure" (32) as against the promised joys "of an eternal morrow" (30). In the end, the will towards "divine translation" (30) appears to triumph, but one suspects a large share of its victory is doctrinaire, imposed from without, rather than earned naturally from within, the poem.
So much of "Contemplations" seems, in fact, to issue from what Anne Bradstreet calls "the feeling knowledge" (6) of the world that one begins to doubt the legitimacy for her poetry of some of the less inspired religious assertions that appear within it. One cannot ignore their presence, of course, but too often the merely traditionally rendered religious passages pale before some of the more deeply felt lyrical passages in praise of Phoebus and the things of the earth. It is hard to be moved, for instance, by a triplet such as this:
But sad affliction comes and makes him see
Here's neither honour, wealth, nor safety;
Only above is found all with security. (32)
whereas one is moved by this:
Thy presence makes it day, thy absence night,
Quaternal seasons caused by thy might:
Hail creature, full of sweetness, beauty, and delight. (6)
Anne Bradstreet's apostrophe to the sun is worthy of Shelley and expresses some of the same elegance of line and imaginative strength that one finds in Shelley at his best. In contrast, her verses on man's earthly afflictions and promise of security beyond are flat and awkward. The second triplet is graceful, the feeling, inspired; in the first, the language is clumsy, the sentiment, unconvincing and seemingly untrue.
If one weighs the merit of these two sets of verses by Anne Bradstreet's affection for "the feeling knowledge," it is obvious that, no matter what her position as a prominent member of the Puritan faith community, as a poet she was more a worshipper of Phoebus than of Christ. Her loveliest lines in "Contemplations" are written in praise of the sun god, whom she addresses as "a strong man" and "a bridegroom," and who moved her to a position of near adoration:
Then higher on the glistering Sun I gazed,
Whose beams was shaded by the leavie tree;
The more I looked, the more I grew amazed,
And softly said, "What glory's like to thee?"
Soul of this world, this universe's eye,
No wonder some made thee a deity;
Had I not better known, alas, the same had I. (4)
This is poetry written from a high level of inspired awe and strong feeling, but the concluding line tends to deflate these qualities of spirit considerably and represents a retreat from them. This initial surge and subsequent reversal of voice and vision is typical not only of this passage but of the poem as a whole, and in observing it one becomes aware of a fundamental pattern in "Contemplations" that largely defines both the poem's form and meaning.
The poet's imagination belonged to the earth and the sun who reigned over it, reviving "from death and dullness" (5) not only the earth's heart but hers as well. The demands of a Puritan religious consciousness, however, apparently did not permit so free and exuberant an indulgence of the imagination and dictated instead its own terms of worship. The poet is consequently turned away from her initial sources of inspiration in the natural world to thoughts of what instead she should be praising. The results for the poetry are, as expected, not good:
My great Creator I would magnify,
That nature had thus decked liberally;
But Ah, and Ah, again, my imbecility! (8)
Stuttering—and—ultimately—silence come instead of praise. The displacement of elevated feeling by an overpowering sense of religious duty issues in a collapse of the imagination. The same poet whose senses are earlier described as "rapt" by the "delectable view" of an autumn day and who sees and can sing the sun "so full of glory" (7) is brought to silence when forced to praise her Maker: "I, as mute, can warble forth no higher lays" (9).
In a letter to her children accompanying her book of poems, Anne Bradstreet wrote that the aim of her poetry was "to declare the truth, not to set forth myself, but the glory of God." There is no reason to doubt that that was her conscious intention, but she could no more apply it consistently and programmatically in her poetry than could Milton. Her song is a song of praise, but she could only sing well what her imagination, and not her moral consciousness, responded to faithfully. When the latter intruded from without, the poetry collapsed from within. When this happens in "Contemplations" her resources as a lyric poet are stunned, and, rendered "mute," she literally has no voice left to sing her hymn of glory.
Brought to the point of silence, then, the poem can either end here in a defeat of the imagination or try to find new direction. It attempts the latter, and with stanza 10 a major turn occurs that complicates the poem exceedingly in terms of both form and meaning.
In its first nine stanzas the poem is essentially a dramatic lyric, but stanzas 10 through 17 are purely narrative. There is also a significant time change, from present to past. The seasonal metaphor is dropped altogether, and the times of day which earlier prevailed, morning and afternoon, now become "perpetual night" (17). Phoebus and all other references to a radiant earth disappear and are replaced by the Biblical stories of Adam and Eve (11–12), Cain and Abel (13–15), and somber reflections of "the virgin earth … cloyed" with the draught of too much blood (14). Man's fallen state and the general vanity of all human endeavor are described in a mood that has shifted radically from one of a reflective and rapt lyricism to that of a heavy brooding that approaches the dirge. The former themes of vitality, immediacy, buoyancy, and pleasure have gone out of the poem, and instead one has references to sin, death, vanity, and despair.
The poem has obviously undergone an extreme change in all respects, a change that one can account for and understand only in terms of what happens in the poem to the imagination. The poet alert and fully alive when her imagination is indulged is brought first to a stammering silence and then carried in a drift towards death when her imagination is forced to turn away from the natural sources of its inspiration. The outward pressures of dogma separate her from her chosen bridegroom Phoebus and the delights of the earth and instead bring her to recall guiltily the fates of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Like Eve, she "sighs to think of Paradise. And how she lost her bliss" (12). Like Cain, she is "branded with guilt and crushed with treble woes" (15). She defines Cain's struggle as one between "deep despair" and a "wish of life" (15), and that is exactly her own situation at this point in the poem; and, within the frame of the long narrative section, it is the death wish and not the "wish of life" that prevails….
"Contemplations" does not collapse entirely with the collapse of its initial Romanticism, though, and Anne Bradstreet was resourceful enough to seek out new figures to continue the poem. The tree was her first important image, valued for its majesty, strength, and longevity. It was conceived chiefly as a symbol of stasis and an intimation of eternity (3). But the tree functions only as a secondary symbol in the poem, for in gazing upward at it (4), the poet first glimpsed above the leaves the splendid sun which, apotheosized as Phoebus, in turn became the poem's dominant figure. The several lyrical stanzas then devoted to Phoebus are a celebration of life's potency, beauty, glory, and light, but these are not the values that the poet's imagination is allowed to indulge. Phoebus is defeated, and with his removal from the poem, the poet returns to the tree momentarily, only to discover that, "I once that loved the shady woods so well, Now thought the rivers did the trees excell" (21). The river, different in symbolic value altogether from either the tree or the sun, is adopted as the poem's new figure, and with its steady flow and flux represents the poem's redirection: the race towards death. It is, accordingly, highly prized by the poet:
Thou emblem true of what I count the best,
O could I lead my rivulets to rest,
So may we press to that vast mansion, ever blest. (23)
A peaceful yet determined death is the new goal, and the river, which is able to press on, despite hindrances, to that "beloved place," is an appropriate symbol. It also contains that oldest of traditional Christian symbols of immortality, the fish, and two rather mediocre stanzas (24–25) are devoted to describing different fishes, all of whom know instinctively how to glide to "unknown coasts." The passages on the fish are not a high point of lyrical description, but they do serve to bring the poet back to her fondness for Classical allusions, this time to Thetis, Neptune, and, most importantly, Philomel (26)….
The central image in the final stanza—the engraved white stone—is, as has often been pointed out, based on a verse from Revelation, and appears to end the poem with a lesson on holy dying. No doubt that is how Anne Brad-street intended it, and the Scriptural reference implies such a reading. At the same time this final stanza is replete with echoes of Shakespeare, and consequently additional interpretations also suggest themselves:
O Time the fatal wrack of mortal things,
That draws oblivion's curtains over kings;
Their sumptuous monuments, men know them not,
Their names without a record are forgot,
Their parts, their ports, their pomp's all laid in th' dust
Nor wit nor gold, nor buildings scape times rust;
But he whose name is graved in the white stone
Shall last and shine when all of these are gone. (33)
Two centuries later Shelley was to write lines similar to these in his famous sonnet on Ozymandias. The Romantic poet and the Puritan poet shared a common sense of mortal decay and the futility of monuments against the tyranny of time.
The greatest poet to give voice to these themes, though, saw poetry itself as an imperishable monument against time, and his own magnificent achievement has proved him correct. Shakespeare, who was one of Anne Bradstreet's favorite authors, frequently exerted a noticeable influence on her work, and that is surely the case here in the final stanza of "Contemplations." It is so not only in reference to her lines on time and oblivion, which recall several of Shakespeare's sonnets, but also in reference to the form and meaning of her concluding couplet.
An exceptional formal consideration must be noted first, and that is that only here in the thirty-three stanzas of "Contemplations" does Anne Bradstreet end with a couplet and not a triplet. This is a highly suggestive factor and tends to reinforce our suspicions that she was ending her poem with Shakespeare as well as the Bible very much in mind. If indeed that is the case, then Anne Bradstreet's imagination is engaged once again in this poem in a battle of contraries, this time between two notions of immortality. The Christian hope for a "divine translation" to "an eternal morrow" (30) is unquestionably strong, but so too is the Shakespearian will towards fame. In a sense Anne Bradstreet is composing her epitaph in these final lines, and she is doing so both as a devoted Christian and a dedicated poet. The two come more closely together here than elsewhere in the poem, and one cannot easily assign them priorities. Nor is it necessary to do so, but only to hold them both in mind.
For while Anne Bradstreet found her image of the white stone in Revelation, she engraved it after the manner of Shakespeare. It ends her poem on both a religious and an aesthetic note, each of which is able to transcend "time the fatal wrack of mortal things" in a sublime way. If we still remember Anne Bradstreet and recall her wish to have her dry bones arise in glory, it is because she was finally poet enough to live in her verse and secure the fame that good poetry provides.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763
Anne Bradstreet 1612(?)–1672
(Full name Anne Dudley Bradstreet) English-born American poet and prose writer.
Bradstreet was America's first published poet and the first woman to produce a lasting volume of poetry in the English language. Her work is considered particularly significant for its expression of passion, anger, and uncertainty within the rigid social and religious atmosphere of Puritan New England, and for the insight it provides into the lives of women from that period.
Bradstreet was born in England to a Puritan family. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was steward to the Earl of Lincoln, a leading nonconformist in the religious strife of England. Because of her father's high position and the availability of the Earl's extensive library, Bradstreet's education was unusually comprehensive for a woman of her time. In 1630 she moved with her husband and her parents to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where her husband and her father served as governors of the settlement. As a New England colonist, Bradstreet encountered a life of hardship to which she was unaccustomed. In 1647 her brother-in-law returned to England, taking with him the manuscript of Bradstreet's poems. He published them without her knowledge, entitling the collection The Tenth Muse (1650). The volume met with immediate success in London. Surprised by the work's reception, but unhappy with its unpolished state, Bradstreet undertook to revise the poems, some of which were lost in the fire that destroyed the Bradstreet home in 1666. Six years after her death the revisions and some new poems were published under the title Several Poems. Bradstreet's prose meditations and later poems did not appear in print until 1867.
Most of Bradstreet's works may be placed into one of two distinct periods. The "public" poems that appeared in The Tenth Muse are structurally and thematically formal, written in the style of Renaissance poetry. The Quaternions, which consist of four poems, each of which are divided into four parts, treat the humours, elements, seasons,
and ages of man, and are imitative of Guillaume Du Bartas's Divine Weeks and Works. "The Four Monarchies" is a long unfinished poem, patterned after Sir Walter Raleigh's The History of the World, describing what were considered the four great monarchies of civilization. The elegies contained in The Tenth Muse are dedications to public figures such as Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Philip Sidney. Bradstreet's later poems—described by most scholars as her "private" poems—are less stylized and more personal. In these works, Bradstreet expressed anxiety about her health and the safety of her family, as well as passionate love for her husband, and uncertainty concerning her religious devotion. The elegies "In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet" and "To the Memory of My Dear Daughter in Law, Mrs. Mercy Brad-street" are poignant meditations on death in which Brad-street questions her faith. In "Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666," she mourns the loss of her possessions, eschewing the Puritan ideal of the primacy of spiritual rewards over worldly pleasures, but concludes the poem with a sense of resignation and faith. As Wendy Martin has noted: "Much of [Bradstreet's] work indicates that she had a difficult time resolving the conflict she experienced between the pleasures of sensory and familial experience and the promises of heaven. As a Puritan she struggled to subdue her attachment to the world, but as a woman she sometimes felt more strongly connected to her husband, children, and community than to God." Bradstreet's poems to her husband Simon contain erotic symbolism noted by many critics, and her most critically acclaimed poem, "Contemplations," evidences an appreciation of nature and solitude similar to that found in the work of the later Romantic poets.
Bradstreet received praise for the formal poetry of The Tenth Muse, which adhered to courtly standards and thus marked her as highly talented. Afterwards, however, she was largely ignored by critics until the late nineteenth century, when a volume of her later poems was published for the first time. Commentators then offered little praise, viewing her poetry as only a slight exception to what nineteenth-century readers perceived as the austere, repressive nature of Puritanism. In the mid-twentieth century, feminist critics became interested in Bradstreet's work, recognizing her exploration of the paradoxes between religious doctrine and individual belief, and the often blatant sexual imagery of poems addressing her husband or her God. While Bradstreet's public poetry is considered by many contemporary critics to be stilted and imitative, her private poetry is acclaimed for its deft use of ballad and lyric forms, and for its insightful exploration of complex personal issues.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2963
SOURCE: '"No Rhet'ric We Expect': Argumentation in Bradstreet's 'The Prologue'," in Early American Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring 1981, pp. 19–26.
[Here, Eberwein reevaluates Bradstreet's "Prologue," concluding that, rather than a confession of humility, it is a subtle assertion of the poet's skill and power.]
For an acknowledgment of a poet's simple capacities and modest literary goals, Anne Bradstreet's "The Prologue" elicits strangely varied responses—especially in regard to voice and tone. Is the poet humbly submissive or bitterly angry? Is she self-deprecating and self-denigrating, as some readers find, or a prefeminist champion of her sex? Both extremes find textual justification, depending on the weight one accords her admittedly blemished muse or her anticipated parsley wreath. Perhaps, as Elizabeth Wade White [in Anne Bradstreet: "The Tenth Muse," 1971] and Robert Arner [in "The Structure of Anne Bradstreet's Tenth Muse," in Discoveries and Considerations, 1976] have suggested, the poem divides structurally and tonally at stanza five, with the first half lamenting the poet's inferiority to male writers and the second half asserting, nonetheless, her right as a woman to express herself in verse. The tension between Bradstreet's modest disclaimers and her spirited self-defense runs through the poem, however; it may be found implicitly in the first stanza and explicitly in the last, and it permeates the language and logic of all "The Prologue." Only by reading the poem as consistently ironic can we hope to appreciate Bradstreet's conscious artfulness in deploying both sides of the argument: inviting both male and female champions (and the vast majority of more tolerant readers) to approach her writing with respect.
As the name indicates, this is a prologue designed to introduce the author to her readers while whetting their interest in the more substantive poems to follow. She proceeds by negation, telling what she cannot hope to do: "To sing of wars, of captains, and of kings, / Of cities founded, commonwealths begun, / For my mean pen are too superior things." But, if we expect her to anticipate Barlow in turning from lofty historical themes to choose "a virgin theme, unconscious of the Muse," we will be unprepared for the succeeding poems. "The Prologue" was never meant to introduce Bradstreet's love poems or meditations; it was written directly for "The Four Monarchies" and was then prefixed to the four quaternions as well as the historical surveys in the opening section of The Tenth Muse. Despite her disclaimer, then, Bradstreet proceeded directly to write on the subjects she so pointedly reserved for poets and historians. The opening lines introduce an ironic counterpointing of claimed incapacity and demonstrated command which would enliven the whole poem.
The key to Bradstreet's strategy in preceding her lengthy, laborious, learned scholarly poems with this engaging prologue comes in the opening of stanza three: "From schoolboy's tongue no rhet'ric we expect." Like so many parts of the poem, this line has dual implications. We do not, in fact, count on hearing eloquent orations from schoolchildren, but we must recall that Bradstreet's contemporaries expected, in the sense of looked forward to, such skill as a probable outcome of the boy's education. From grammar, the student would proceed in course through the rest of the trivium: logic and rhetoric. In likening herself to the schoolboy, the poet suggests her own capacity to advance in the verbal arts—especially the art of persuasion. When we do not expect rhetoric, we may not even notice it; but we can be influenced by it, despite ourselves. As Henry Peacham wrote in the 1593 Garden of Eloquence, "By the benefit of this excellent gift, (I meane of apt speech given by nature, and guided by Art) wisedome appeareth in her beautie, sheweth her maiestie, and exerciseth her power, working in the minde of the hearer, partly by a pleasant proportion … and partly by the secret and mightie power of perswasion after a most wonderfull manner." Bradstreet praised apt speech given by nature and guided by Art in "The Prologue" and demonstrated it as well, keeping a pleasant proportion between instruction and delight to achieve a secret but significant power of persuasion. By recognizing her dexterity in manipulating logic and rhetoric, by remembering Rosamund Rosenmeier's caution [in "Divine Translation: A Contribution to the study of Anne Bradstreet's Method in the Marriage Poems," Early American Literature 12 (1977)] that we must read Bradstreet as "someone accustomed to thinking figurally," and by responding to her varied cultural allusions, we can appreciate the complexity and sophistication of her apparently simple argument.
Like most of Bradstreet's successful poems, "The Prologue" is an argument: an attempt to articulate and reconcile opposition by emphasizing discrepancies while hinting at unity. As Ann Stanford has noted [in Anne Bradstreet: The Worldly Puritan, 1974], the histories which "The Prologue" introduces fail as literature partly because they lack the tension the poet knew how to achieve when she engaged an I-narrator in vigorous argumentation. Unlike the quaternions, in each of which the four speakers demonstrate a different argumentative method, "The Four Monarchies" proceeds by discursive, impersonal narration. Bradstreet may have needed the chance to spar off against assumed sexist opponents in order to release the energy and excitement her familiar readers would anticipate in a new grouping of her poems.
With whom is Bradstreet actually arguing here? Certainly not with Thomas Dudley and the circle of admiring friends among whom she circulated her manuscripts. Textual analysis shows no direct personal address until stanza seven, when she says, "Preeminence in all and each is yours" to an inclusive audience of the whole male sex; but the apostrophe in stanza eight addresses a different you, limited to the great poets: " … ye high flown quills that soar the skies." Her debate, however, seems to be with other antagonists—each "carping tongue" who belittles "female wits." Who those carping tongues might be remains a question. Although Jeannine Hensley, Elizabeth Wade White, and Ann Stanford all assume the reality of such criticism, they offer no specific examples. Those who sympathize with the poet's presumed cultural isolation as a frontier woman artist speak of the pain she "must have" felt and the insults she "must have" endured—linking her with Anne Hutchinson and Anne Hopkins, two well-documented examples of Puritan women who suffered for their intellectual aspirations. Yet Hensley admits [in her introduction to The Works of Anne Bradstreet, 1967] that "we have no contemporary reference to her or her poetry which is not somewhere between admiration and adulation." There is simply no evidence of the attacks to which she retorts in "The Prologue."
The carping tongues, probably imagined, offered a useful opportunity for forceful, witty expression in this ironic battle of the sexes. Straw men, they were set up only to be knocked down. None of the deference Bradstreet shows in passages of the poem was meant for them. Her expressions of humility, presumably sincere acknowledgments of inferiority, were directed to recognized literary greats: Du Bartas, her poetic model; Demosthenes; perhaps Virgil; and all " … ye high flown quills that soar the skies, / And ever with your prey still catch your praise." Long before Franklin, Bradstreet discovered that one could achieve the appearance of humility (and its rhetorical effect in placating a suspicious audience) by emulating the loftiest models and confessing failure.
Unlike Bradstreet's formal debate poems in which the contenders successively advance their individual cases, "The Prologue" maintains argumentative tension by its deft ordering of assertions and its ambiguous juxtapositions of ideas. Bradstreet develops both cases together, often seeming to capitulate to her opposition. But any male supremacist who read happily along, imagining no threat to his smugness, would eventually find his case pressed to the point of absurdity, while a more alert or ironic reader would be delighted throughout by the poet's cleverness in charming while outwitting her antagonist. If "The Prologue" was intended to win readers for the histories while building affection and respect for the poet, it served its purpose.
Beginning boldly with her echo of Virgil, Bradstreet immediately disclaims her obvious purpose. She had, indeed, written of wars, captains, kings, cities, and commonwealths, though not in the epic strains a reader might expect from one who thought of poesy as "Calliope's own child." Reference to her "obscure lines" could hardly disguise her purpose, at least for any reader with enough foresight to glance ahead into the book. Like Chaucer's "I can namore," this statement deflects attention only slightly from the author's plan to develop the supposedly forsaken topic at great length.
Further developing the sense of authorial humility, Bradstreet moved into a sincere tribute to Du Bartas, still her poetic master. The admiration, however, was that which an aspiring writer of either sex might feel for an established poet. Such expressions of poetic inadequacy to a great theme and inferiority to a major writer were common among authors known to Bradstreet, and there is no reason to interpret her praise as specifically female submissiveness. In his dedicatory verse to The Tenth Muse, we should recall, John Woodbridge indited a parallel passage to acknowledge his inability to emulate Bradstreet herself.
What I (poor silly I) prefix therefore,
Can but do this, make yours admired the more;
And if but only this I do attain,
Content, that my disgrace may be your gain.
Praising Du Bartas's choice of subject matter, his "sugared lines," and even his "overfluent store" of verse, Bradstreet—"simple I"—called attention to qualities which she could reasonably hope to imitate according to her skill. And skill is a revealing word, placing emphasis on craftsmanship, which could be developed, rather than natural gifts, which might have been denied. "The Prologue" is itself a display of poetic skill, technically more artful than the histories or quaternions with their monotonous couplets. The stanzaic pattern, the sound effects, and the rhetorical devices of "The Prologue" consistently qualify its author's pretensions to simplicity.
The next stanza sounds more sincerely self-deprecating with its imagery of "broken strings" in a musical instrument and "a main defect" in an aesthetic structure. Bradstreet speaks of her "foolish, broken, blemished Muse" and acknowledges irreparable limitations. People have no right to expect music, she asserts, in cases where nature has denied some essential power.
Yet her next example, Demosthenes, reverses the conclusion drawn in stanza three. Surely a congenital speech impediment seems a natural defect precluding oratorical success. But art, in this case purposeful, concentrated, sustained self-discipline, led first to clarity and then to fluency and sweetness. With any natural endowment at all, then, Bradstreet shows that an ambitious artist can achieve excellence. Art corrects nature, except for the "weak or wounded brain" which "admits no cure." Readers who divide the poem structurally at this halfway point see the first four stanzas as submissive and self-abasing—especially the final line. Perhaps the statements are self-critical but only in the sense that she submits to the artistic claims of recognized literary masters and recognizes faults in herself which can be corrected through the stylistic apprenticeship on which she has already embarked, as anyone could discover by reading the poems introduced by "The Prologue." Only if she claims the weak and wounded brain as self-description need we interpret this part of the poem as an expression of defeat.
Note, however, that mention of weak and wounded brains leads Bradstreet directly to reflection on carping tongues, which may well articulate idiocy. At this point, she joins battle with her supposed critics and stops comparing herself with writers who deserve her respect. These scolds who would restrict a woman to domestic activities turn out to be contemptuous of thought and imagination in any form—not just when offered by a female wit. They refuse to look at evidence ("If what I do prove well …"), and they mistake skill for chance. Confronted with the analogy the Greeks drew between femininity and artistic inspiration as embodied in the Muses, they cut a Gordian knot with their brute disregard for cultural intricacies. Those who say that "The Greeks did nought, but play the fools and lie" demonstrate contempt for fiction and deadness to poetry. They can hardly be the readers she hoped to draw further into her manuscript, but in travestying their claims she might hope to entertain or even impress her proper audience.
In stanza seven Bradstreet spins out the clumsy assertions of her fancied enemies to the extreme limits of logical fallacy. "Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are," she begins as if to capitulate gracefully. But Greeks and women need not to be regarded as mutually exclusive categories. Attentive readers, like John Woodbridge, could think of Sappho. The carpers, of course, could drift rapidly along, caught in a tidal wave of ironic concessions. Although it would be "but vain" for women "unjustly to wage war," it might at times be appropriate to rally female energies in justified aggression. The poet who seems to be calming tensions here and promising peace is the same author who later in The Tenth Muse let gracious young New England challenge her despondent mother with a decidedly militant call to arms:
These are the days the Church's foes to crush,
To root out Popelings head, tail, branch, and rush;
Let's bring Baal's vestments forth to make a fire,
Their miters, surplices, and all their tire,
Copes, rochets, crosiers, and such empty trash,
And let their names consume, but let the flash
Light Christendom, and all the world to see
We hate Rome's whore with all her trumpery.
Bradstreet completes the logical undoing of her opponents by wheeling in a veritable Trojan Horse to confirm the tentative peace. "Men can do best, and women know it well," she proclaims—right in the prologue to a series of history poems which will parade before her readers an astounding chronicle of disasters, defeats, and depravities involving both men and women rulers but featuring the generally more powerful males. Although Bradstreet gave greater attention to women rulers in her poems than she found in Raleigh's history, she never attempted to show one sex as morally or even politically superior in the use of power; certainly "The Four Monarchies" rebuts her generalization in "The Prologue," however, and indicates its irony. The crowning joke comes next, when she admits "Preeminence in all and each is yours." By extending claims of male supremacy to all areas of human experience, she seems to dismiss hopes for female excellence in government, oratory, and poetry while acknowledging male dominion in everything: presumably even needlework and childbearing.
This apparent capitulation to the irrational claims of her imagined critics violates common sense, of course, and conflicts as well with the argumentative pattern of the quaternions in which each element, humor, age, and season admits weaknesses as well as strengths. The resolution of these conflicts comes from a recognition of complementary functions, from awareness of multiple contributions to a final desired unity. The same reasoning characterizes Bradstreet's marriage poems, where husband and wife appear as mutually dependent and supportive partners. To restrict women from literature, then, or even from historical narration would be folly. The battle of the sexes, like the debates of the elements and humors, should never be won.
After this deft lobotomy of weak or wounded brains, Bradstreet concludes "The Prologue" with a modest but confident declaration of her literary hopes. In the final stanza she invokes the world's great writers in lines which themselves fly and flash with the eloquence of her praise. The masters soaring in the heavens may see her lines as "lowly," but she gives no indication that earthbound readers need concur. In comparison to a poet like Du Bartas or a rhetorician like Demosthenes, she is limited but hardly worthless. Her "mean and unrefined ore" highlights their "glist'ring gold" and may, with time, be enhanced by careful polishing.
The most striking image in this paean, however, is surely that of the "thyme or parsley wreath" Bradstreet requests in recognition of her poetry, discounting the traditional bay laurel. It seems a humble request: substitution of a kitchen herb for richer foliage. Bay leaves are also herbs, however, and there are cooks who plunge all three in the same aromatic pot. As far as honor goes, there may be less distinction here than the phrasing suggests. Elizabeth Wade White points out that thyme symbolized vitality and courage for the Greeks and that they sometimes honored athletes or dead heroes with the "fadeless foilage" of parsley wreaths. Even more familiar was the mythical background of the laurel as a symbol of poetry. In his verses "Upon Mrs. Anne Bradstreet Her Poems, Etc." prefaced to The Tenth Muse, John Rogers commended the Puritan poet for her avoidance of the wantonly lascivious topics provided by classical literature, specifically mentioning "How sage Apollo, Daphne hot pursues." C.B., in his introductory quatrain, wrote: "I cannot wonder at Apollo now, / That he with female laurel crowned his brow." The laurel crown commemorated Daphne, who was protectively transformed in her flight from lusty Apollo; so the bay leaves provided a female crown for male poets. The modesty that kept Anne Bradstreet from claiming such an honor, then, may have been more nearly allied to chastity than to humility. She may have felt sensitive to the mythic presentation of woman as simultaneously the object and victim of the god of poetry and the sign of glory for his disciples. It is clear, at any rate, that the concluding stanza expresses personal self-assurance as a poet, and the reader who has followed the stylistic, rhetorical, and logical devices by which she guides "The Prologue" from acknowledgment of her defects to assertion of her triumph is likely to accept the claim. Like Emily Dickinson, who contrasted "Carbon in the Coal" with "Carbon in the Gem" as queenly ornaments, Anne Bradstreet contrived to sound meek and vulnerable, even in the act of choosing among crowns.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52
The Tenth Muse, Lately sprung up in America (poetry) 1650
Several Poems Compiled with great variety of Wit and Learning, full of Delight (poetry) 1678
The Works of Anne Bradstreet in Prose and Verse (poetry and meditations) 1867
The Works of Anne Bradstreet (poetry and meditations) 1967
The Complete Works· of Anne Bradstreet (poetry and meditations) 1981
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4715
SOURCE: '"Contemplations': Anne Bradstreet's Spiritual Authobiography," in Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, G. K. Hall & Co., 1983, pp. 226–37.
[In the following essay, Saltman examines Bradstreet's "Contemplations" in the context of Puritan theology and Biblical inspiration.]
Anne Bradstreet's poem "Contemplations," is no ordinary Puritan spiritual autobiography in which the convert emphasizes his human weakness, particularly pride, in his struggle for faith. Rather, it is an account in which the poet dwells on the theological concepts (masked in metaphor and Biblical allusion) that support the Puritan doctrine of rebirth and salvation. By dwelling on these concepts, the poet approaches the ideal conversion William Perkins outlines in A Golden Chain, or the Description of Theology. In this work Perkins explicates the "four degrees of God's love" (the steps toward salvation): "Effectual Calling, Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification." In similar stages, Mistress Bradstreet's "Contemplations" dramatizes her spiritual awakening and conversion.
As in other conversion experiences, "Contemplations" opens with the poet recalling a time when her sensual appreciation of nature brought her to an awareness of God's glory. Step by step she recounts how she became aware of God's attributes: "goodness, wisdom, glory, light" which grow out of the apparent "excellence" of this world. By beginning her poem, her meditation, just before nightfall, Bradstreet emulates the Psalmist, who not only "prevented the dawning of the morning" to "hope in the word," but who also sings "mine eyes prevent the night watches that I might meditate in thy word" (Psalm 119:147, 148). In Puritan theology, Psalm 119 "moves the faithful to a deeper consideration of God's glory" by setting "before their eyes the most exquisite workmanship of the heavens," the purpose of which is to lead God's "chosen people" to the "law, where in God hath reveiled himself more familiarly" and to "reproach man his ingratitude seeing the heavens, which are dumme creatures, set forth God's glorie" (Geneva Psalm 119).
Anne Bradstreet expresses poetically in "Contemplations" her belief that nature reveals God to mankind, a belief restated in her prose autobiography:
That there is a God my reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see, the vast frame of the heaven and the earth, the order of all things, night and day, summer and winter, spring and autumn …
The affirmation of reason as capable of discerning God through his works is finely detailed in "Contemplations" through the poet's rich description of nature and by her subsequent response of amazement. As she contemplates nature, her vision is brought higher; the "stately oak" causes her to think of "eternity." Her contemplation of the "sun" suggests a "deity." Amazed at the wonder of the sun, "this bright light luster" (l. 49), she desires to "sing some song" in admiration of her "great Creator" (1. 54). The opening celebration of nature is merely a feeble awakening to God's glory: "All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath" (1. 40). All individuals, even the depraved, are capable of perceiving the most obvious of God's attributes from his creation. "Of God's glory and blessedness," Perkins remarks, "the more obscure manifestation is the vision of God's majesty in this life by the eyes of the mind through the help of things perceived by the outward senses." Thus, "feeling knowledge" (knowledge perceived through the senses) is not the same as "saving knowledge"—the knowledge of the Fall, sin and death, and redemption from God's Grace as mediated by Christ. Bradstreet's desire to "magnify" her Creator is merely evidence of a false awakening. She is unaware of her errors; only her sinful, her sensous being apprehends the glory of God from the "bright light luster" of" a fallen world.
While it is possible for a Puritan to know God in nature through the faculty of his reason, that reason has been corrupted by the Fall. "Men's minds received from Adam: ignorance, namely a want, or rather a deprivation of knowledge in the things of God," [Perkins writes]. Since original sin has corrupted human "faculties," there is nothing of a saving nature in becoming aware of God's glory through the senses. Only by attendence on the word of God is one able to have "revealed" knowledge of Him. And only by "Saving Grace" does one attain true faith. Anne Bradstreet clearly distinguishes in her prose spiritual autobiography between knowledge of God through reason and revealed knowledge from scripture:
I have argued thus with myself. That there is a God, I see. If ever this God hath revealed himself, it must be in His word, and this must be it or none.
Bradstreet affirms the Puritan doctrine that knowledge of God through nature—in Perkins' words, the "more obscure manifestation"—cannot lead to salvation; salvation depends on revealed understanding of the deity. Bradstreet's sensual appreciation of nature in stanzas 1–8 has brought her to an awareness of God and the desire to glorify Him. But the poet is not yet aware of her "fallen" condition, or of her "sins."
The convert should feel "infinite despair" at his sins as he becomes increasingly aware of God's attributes. Since understanding of God and the "law" comes from the gospel, the convert must prepare himself to hear the "saving" word of God. First, he needs to sever himself from this world; and second, he needs to have "a sensible feeling of [his] own beggary"—he needs to be "truly humbled," [according to] Perkins. As part of her "Effectual Calling," the poet metaphorically sets herself apart from mankind: "silent alone, where none or saw, or heard, / In pathless paths I lead my wand'ring feet" (ll. 51–52). And the poet's subsequent lament, in addition to expressing her inability to praise God, dramatizes her "abject," humbled condition:
I heard the merry grasshopper then sing.
The black-clad cricket bear a second part;
They kept one tune and played on the same string,
Seeming to glory in their little art.
Shall creatures abject thus their voices raise
And in their kind resound their Maker's praise,
Whilst I, as mute, can warble forth no higher lays?
Without grace, the poet is like the "abject creatures" with whom she compares herself—unregenerate. She too is doomed by time and mortality. The unregenerate speaker is not yet aware of her sins, or indeed, that the world is fallen. In the first nine stanzas of "Contemplations," the poet has no knowledge of God's word, of the "law," or of redemption. She has no understanding of the covenant of grace; and without grace, she cannot, like the Psalmist, sing and "make a joyful noise unto the Lord, make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise" (Psalm 98:4). Without faith that results from saving grace, the poet cannot praise God as she desires.
The poet, humbled yet unaware of the possibility of redemption, describes her further growth in "Effectual Calling." By recounting the story of the Fall and Expulsion, she is brought to an awareness of the sins which in Puritan theology she shares with Adam and all mankind: "All Adam's posterity is equally partaker of this corruption," Perkins [writes]. The poet affirms the theological position that each individual partakes of the Fall by imaginatively reconstructing the scene. As Robert D. Richardson, Jr. pointed out [in "The Puritan Poetry of Anne Bradstreet," Texas Studies in Language and Literature 9 (1967)], "the poet lives in the present and the Biblical stories exist also in the present, alive in her imagination." While affirming mankind's fallen state, she emphasizes its fallen faculties, its predilection for error. Ironically, individuals conquer time by an act of imagination—"it makes a man more aged in conceit … / While of their persons and their acts his mind doth treat" (ll. 69–71). That is, the act of fancy and thought, and even meditation itself, has been a crucial factor in the history of mankind's downfall because of this reliance on "fallen" faculties. Perkins reminds us that "sin is … a corruption of man's faculties." The poet reconstructs the Biblical scene to meditate on human apostacy and to affirm that reason and fancy are fallen faculties. In each stanza, the participants of the Fall are engaged in the human "conceit" of thinking: "sometimes in Eden fair he seems to be, … Fancies the apple, dangle on the tree" (ll. 72–74). Holding "bloody Cain," Eve "sighs to think of Paradise, / And how she lost her bliss to be more wise" (ll. 83–84). Cain "Hath Thousand thoughts to end his brother's days" (l. 91); while Abel "keeps his sheep, no ill he thinks" (l. 93). Later, with a "dreadful mind," Cain "thinks each he sees will serve him in his kind" (l. 98). The poet relives the Fall: she "Fancies" Cain "now at the bar" (l. 100). [My italics.] She brings to the reader a sense of immediacy in the Biblical account of human apostacy along with an understanding that men and women have been betrayed by their own thoughts. The poet's understanding of this apostacy through her attendance on the word and her identification with the acts of thinking which lead to the Fall, her imaginative participation in the Fall, give her the knowledge of sin as "vain delight" and death as "perpetual night" (ll. 118–19).
The poet then considers the implications of Adam's Fall. In stanzas 17 and 18, she meditates on death and time—the consequences of the Fall, and on the paradox arising from the knowledge gained by the Fall: knowledge has brought mankind old age and death; the earth, "though old," is continually reborn, "still clad in green"; the sensual stones and trees are insensible of time (ll. 122–23). Each paradox comments on the uselessness of the "knowledge" gained by the Fall—mankind is sensible of time in a world of the senses, a fallen world. Finally, the poet expresses the ultimate despair, "man grows old, lies down, remains where once he's laid" (l. 127). The speaker's new knowledge of sin and death in conjunction with her awareness of God's glory and majesty correspond to a necessary development in her "Effectual Calling." But as long as the poet depends on the knowledge gained through nature and custom, her faith in salvation and in man's nobility remains limited: "By birth more noble than those creatures all, / Yet seems by nature and by custom cursed" (ll. 128–29). Thus, "Effectual Calling" is incomplete without faith which comes from grace.
The Puritan distinction concerning the knowledge gained from custom and nature without grace is crucial. Perry Miller explains [in The New England Mind, 1939]
Knowledge of the passing away of one generation after another shows us our mortality and misery, but gives us no relief; the heavens and earth are divine creations, but tell us nothing of divinity unless the spirit of God bears witness in them.
Mankind is unable to find salvation through his own understanding of nature or of the scriptures. Stanzas 1–19 of "Contemplations" articulate the limits of nature and custom. The poet has demonstrated her ability to seek God in nature—but nature can tell her, in Perry Miller's words, "nothing of divinity." The poet has experienced merely the preparatory stages in her "Effectual Calling": "a man not destined for salvation could go this far and never get any further," [according to Edmund S. Morgan in Visible Saints]. Predestination and the Puritan doctrine that human efforts are entirely ineffectual in attaining salvation in spite of knowledge and sincere effort are thus affirmed by stanza nineteen:
No sooner born, but grief and care makes fall
That state obliterate he had at first;
Nor youth, nor strength, nor wisdom spring again,
Nor habitations long their names retain,
But in oblivion to the final day remain
The poet affirms that mankind, viewed through the perspective of nature and custom, is doomed to "oblivion" and that through Adam's Fall mutability is the only law to which the unredeemed are subject. Even more significantly, the poet realizes that unregenerate thoughts (reason without grace) drive individuals to this position of despair. And yet, paradoxically, despair and the realization of hopelessness are themselves necessary steps within "Effectual Calling." Thus, the poet prepares the reader for the recognition of the change wrought by grace.
In contrast to the poet's announcement in stanzas 18 and 19 of mankind's hopeless fate resulting from the Fall, in stanza 20 Bradstreet reverses herself by announcing that "man was made for endless immortality." This positive statement of faith has no logical precedent in the poem. The poet's sudden affirmation of salvation corresponds to her receiving grace, resulting in "true faith," "which is a miraculous supernatural faculty of the heart," that is, "a serious desire to believe" [according to] Perkins.
The rebirth of the poet and her new faith is the subject of stanza 20. In the 19th stanza, mankind is "born" to "oblivion." In the 20th stanza, the poet answers her rhetorical question, "Shall I wish there, or never to had birth," with a rousing "Nay." This is her spiritual rebirth, her conversion, a different "birth" than that mentioned in stanza 19. Of course, "birth" is a common metaphor for spiritual regeneration. Daniel Shea [in Spiritual Autobiography in Early America, 1968] has called attention to the importance of the symbol of childbirth in the poet's prose spiritual autobiography: "scriptural as well as personal …, birth sums up much of what Anne Bradstreet wished to say." Beginning then, with stanza 20 of "Contemplations," the poet exhibits the new theologically correct vision which grace has given her: the heavens, the trees, and the earth are no longer seen in their "strength and beauty." Now they, not mankind, "shall darken, perish, fade and die, / And when unmade so ever shall they lie" (ll. 139–40). Anne Bradstreet even puns on the false, the "lying" beauty and youth of the earth.
From stanza 21 to the end of "Contemplations," Anne Bradstreet's vision of nature demonstrates the theological principles governing sanctification wherein "holiness is enlarged" and "those that are quickened … rise up to the newness of life" (Perkins). Bradstreet's desire for holiness is reflected in stanzas 21–23. Each of these three stanzas restates the regenerate soul's desire for union with God: "Thou emblem true of what I count the best, / O could I lead my rivulets to rest, / So may we press to that vast mansion, ever blest" (ll. 160–63). Further expressing her desire for redemption, the poet places herself in the scene, "under the cooling shadow of a stately elm … by a goodly river's side" (ll. 142–43). This symbolic scene alludes to the First Psalm of David, to "a tree planted by the rivers of water," wherein a person meditates with "delight" on God's "laws." The tree by a "goodly river's side" also suggests the river and tree of life of revelation:
And he showed me a pure river of the water of life.
In the midst of the street of it, and on either side
of the river, was there the tree of life….
And there shall be no night there
Echoing this symbolic desire for redemption, the poet expresses a preference for the river of life and for a place of perpetual light:
I once that loved the shady woods so well,
Now thought the rivers did the trees excel,
And if the sun would ever shine, there would I dwell
Grace endows "spiritual wisdom," by which the desire for holiness becomes part of the convert's vision. Through "an illumination of the mind," the convert acknowledges the "truth" of God's word and applies the truth to the "good ordering of … both things and actions" (Perkins). Through this "illumination of mind," nature loses its sensual quality in order to present theological truth.
In addition to the convert being "renewed in holiness," as part of his sanctification, he is expected to engage in spiritual battle ("Christian Warfare"). In stanzas 24 and 25, the poet's vision of nature presents a drama of the "spiritual battle." The combatants are personified as two kinds of "fish." The first, in stanza 24, are "nature taught." That is, like the poet in the first eight stanzas of "Contemplations," they have no knowledge of redemption; they "know not" of their "felicity." They lead an instinctual existence in which their actions are governed by the seasons. And so they leave their "numerous fry" landlocked in "lakes and ponds"; they are unable to reach the ocean. In contrast to this depiction of the unregenerate "fish" who are cut off from God (the Ocean), the "fish" in stanza 25, the "great ones," are the elect. The activity of "combat" in which they are engaged is "Christian Warfare"; they "take the trembling prey before it yield" (l. 175). They are engaged in a spiritual battle. These combatant "fish," "whose armour is their scales, their spreading fins their shield" (l. 176), have the "whole armour of God" and "the shield of faith" (Ephesians 6:13,16). Anne Bradstreet is theologically correct in alluding to Ephesians to dramatize an important part of sanctification. The marginal notes in the Geneva Bible specify this chapter as "an exhortation to the spiritual battel and what weapons the Christian should fight with all." In his discussion of Sanctification, Perkins renders the "complete armour of God" as six specific virtues with which the "Christian soldier" fights "the tempter" ("Satan, the flesh, and the world"). The poet, then, presents her spiritually renewed vision of nature in complete accordance with puritan doctrine.
When the poet's view of nature in the first nine stanzas of "Contemplations" is contrasted with that of stanza 21 and following, the change that takes place is clearly revealed. The poet's early view of nature is sensual ("rapt were my senses at this delectable view") (l. 7) while the latter view is spiritual ("thou emblem true of what I count the best") (l. 160). The former implies the speaker as being in a state of nature, the latter as being in a state of grace.
"Contemplations" thus reveals the poet's conversion experience in her changing vision of nature. It also suggests her sanctification by its success in affirming Puritan doctrine. In other words, the poet implies the sanctification of her poetic vocation. As in other accounts of conversion, a tension exists between the convert's view of the world before and after receiving grace. That is, Anne Bradstreet is describing an experience which has, by necessity, been changed by the experience itself. It is evident then that the first nine stanzas in which she states her feeble awakening to God's glory in nature, and her errors due to her fallen condition, are seen in retrospect from her new redeemed vision. Thus, her description of the sun in these early stanzas can also be seen as emblematic of the "son," signifying the glory of Christ and anticipating the redemption. Stanza 5, which personifies the sun as a "bridegroom" is the key to this reading:
Thou as a bridegroom from thy chamber rushes,
And as a strong man, joys to run a race;
The morn doth usher thee with smiles and blushes;
The Earth reflects her glances in thy face
Although this personification seems pagan, as critics have pointed out, Anne Bradstreet was keenly aware of the religious implications of the word, "bridegroom." In her last dated poem, "As Weary Pilgrim" (August 31, 1669), the poet expresses her redeemed soul's desire for the promise in revelation to the elect:
Lord make me ready for that day,
Then come, dear Bridegroom, come away.
To be sure, Mrs. Bradstreet's personification of the sun as a "bridegroom" would not have appeared as a pagan influence to her contemporaries. They probably would have thought instead that the "morn" in this passage symbolized the "New Jerusalem." The pious Puritan would have recognized Psalm 19 not only as the authority for finding God's attributes in nature ("the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork"); but he also would have recognized this Psalm as the source of the "bridegroom" in the fifth stanza:
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race
Anne Bradstreet's lines personifying the sun as a bridegroom in fact paraphrase this Biblical passage: "thou as a bridegroom from thy chamber rushes, / And as a strong man, joys to run a race." In addition to providing the metaphor of the sun as a bridegroom, Psalm 19 affirms God's attributes and laws in converting the soul. In the Geneva Bible, the marginal notes reveal that the "intent" of the Psalm is to "move the faithfull to a deeper consideration of God's glory." Thus, Bradstreet makes clear that it is the Psalm that has awakened her spiritually rather than the sensual beauty of nature. And in Psalm 19, David affirms God as his personal redeemer. David ends the Psalm with the prayer: "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord" (Psalm 19:14).
Psalm 19 is Anne Bradstreet's primary inspiration for "Contemplations." The Psalmist's desire for redemption is her desire; his prayer for his "meditation" and his "words" to be acceptable in God's eyes is her unspoken prayer. David is the type of Christ; throughout "Contemplations" the movement of the poem is to the Redemption. Though Christ and the passion are not explicitly considered, Christ's covenant of redemption is continually implied. Time and mortality enter human life through the Fall. Individuals overcome time and mortality through the covenant of grace made possible by Christ. And time and mortality are central issues in "Contemplations." Though David the Psalmist is Bradstreet's immediate inspiration (poetically as well as spiritually), he is also typologically important, prefiguring Christ and the redemption she seeks. Thus the last two lines of the poem directly paraphrase revelation, and the promise of salvation (glorification) made possible by Christ's covenant with God:
But he whose name is graved in the white stone
Shall last and shine when all of these are gone
Every line in "Contemplations" anticipates this evidence of redemption.
Anne Bradstreet's choice of the Psalmist for her inspiration is symbolically and emblematically explained in the poem. The poet is interrupted in her meditation on "Christian Warfare" by the chant of the "sweet-tongued Philomel." This Philomel represents David the Psalmist. The poet addresses the bird: "the dawning morn with songs thou dost prevent" (l. 198), paraphrasing David's prayer to God in Psalm 119:147: "I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried: I hoped in thy word." The spiritual significance of the Philomel appears as we consider closely the poet's description of her attributes. This bird is "merry" and "fears no snares" (l. 184), while the nightingale, that secular bird of poetic inspiration is melancholy. This Philomel is unconcerned with worldly things, "reminds not what is past, nor what's to come dost fear" (l. 190). It is a spiritual bird whose "meat" is "everywhere" (l. 188). The "meat" refers to the promise of grace and salvation in Revelation 2:17 with which "Contemplations" ends. We may also recall that in Bradstreet's poem "The Flesh and the Spirit," the spirit affirms her meditative habit, arguing against the flesh by exclaiming: "the hidden manna I do eat, / The word of life it is my meat." And that "hidden manna" is Bradstreet's metaphor for Grace in her prose spiritual autobiography, "To My Dear Children." The Psalmist, then, who eagerly meditates on the word of God, is characterized by the poet as a Philomel. To God he cries out for inspiration and life: "quicken me" (Psalm 119:149).
The melodious songs of David are thus Anne Bradstreet's inspiration. She, too, desires to be quickened, to have "wings" to "take flight" (l. 183) with the Philomel, to be inspired spiritually as well as poetically in order to sing God's praises. "The principal end of [man's] election is to praise and glorifie the grace of God," the Puritan theologians remind us (Geneva Ephesians 1:5). But the "merry" Philomel, whose song is God's "inspired word," is the means to the poet's salvation as well as her inspiration. Bradstreet's song of praise will be the poem "Contemplations." No wonder, then, her inability to sing her "great creator's" praises (ll. 55–57) at the time of her first "obscure" awakening, when she compared her "mute" attempt to the "merry" grasshopper and the cricket.
The last five stanzas of "Contemplations" testify further to the poet's sanctification, affirming her belief in Puritan theology and her ability to sing of its perfect wisdom. Dramatizing the necessity for affliction as part of God's plan for mankind, the poet describes the individual as either unregenerate, "a weatherbeaten vessel wracked with pain," with no hope of salvation (l. 207), or as one of the Elect who "sings merrily" until a "storm" makes "him long for a more quiet port" (l. 217). Affliction tests the soul, providing a life of misery to the unregenerate, but the impetus for the elect to turn from worldly things to spiritual matters in search of redemption. In her prose spiritual autobiography, Bradstreet makes a similar distinction concerning the uses of affliction:
If at any time you are chastened of God, take it as thankfully and joyfully as in greatest mercies; for if ye be His, ye shall reap the greatest benefit by it.
As a significant part of sanctification, affliction ("the patient bearing of the Cross") is God's instrument to spur the convert to holiness and virtue (Perkins). Affliction also enables the convert, the elect, to make the soul-saving distinction between this world and the next, a distinction the poet was unable to make at the outset of "Contemplations":
Fond fool, he takes this earth ev'n for heav'n's bower.
But sad affliction comes and makes him see
Here's neither honour, wealth, nor safety;
Only above is found all with security
The poet, then, in stanza 32 renounces her youthful error in mistaking the earth for "heav'n's bower." And, finally, in the last stanza of the poem, the worth and beauty of the natural world, "a bright light luster" is fully rejected as meretricious. Only the promise of redemption in Revelation 2:17, the "name … graved in the white stone / Shall last and shine when all of these are gone" (ll. 232–33).
Anne Bradstreet's affirmation of her Puritan faith in "Contemplations" is virtually identical in its important aspects with the simple and brief expression of her faith intended only for her family. In her prose spiritual autobiography addressed "To My Dear Children," she desires to help her children be reborn—"I now travail in birth again of you till Christ be formed in you." She affirms the ability of mankind's fallen reason to discern God in nature: "That there is a God my reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see." In addition, she affirms her belief in the "word" of God which promises free grace; it is her "meat"—"I have sometimes tasted of that hidden manna that the world knows not"—just as it is the "meat" of the Philomel in "Contemplations" and the "meat" of the Spirit in "The Flesh and the Spirit." But most significantly, Anne Bradstreet's inspiration in her prose spiritual autobiography is the same as in her poetic account. It is David the Psalmist, the type of Christ. It is to David that she turns in the midst of affliction:
Sometimes He hath smote a child with a sickness, sometimes chastened by losses in estate, and these times (through His great mercy) have been the times of my greatest getting and advantage; yea, I have found them the times when the Lord hath manifested the most love to me. Then have I gone searching and have said with David, "Lord, search me and try me, see what ways of wickedness are in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
Profoundly inspired by the Psalms of David, Anne Bradstreet identifies with him. David's spiritual searching is her searching. His poetic mode of expression in praise of God is hers. And as a type of Christ, he symbolizes the salvation of her spirit. Confident in her faith, Anne Bradstreet chose to express her conversion poetically, using her greatest skill to praise God. If she revealed that her talent as well as her inspiration was God given, it was not through any sinful display of pride. Yet her singular expression of" religious conversion in "Contemplations" testifies to her craft as a poet as well as to her spiritual state. Bradstreet's quest for faith to sing God's praises is inexorably tied to her desire for poetic inspiration. Thus, rather than presenting any conflict between her vocation as a poet and her spiritual state, "Contemplations" reconciles the two.
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Skeick, William J., and JoElla Doggett. "Anne Bradstreet." In their Seventeenth-Century American Poetry: A Reference Guide, pp. 34–54. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1977.
Covers Bradstreet criticism from 1844 to 1975.
White, Elizabeth Wade. Anne Bradstreet: The Tenth Muse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971, 410 p.
Standard biography of Bradstreet.
Aldridge, A. Owen. "Anne Bradstreet: Some Thoughts on the Tenth Muse." In his Early American Literature: A Comparatist Approach, pp. 25–52. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Considers the possible infleunce of Bradstreet on the Spanish poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
Cowell, Partie, and Ann Stanford, eds. Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983, 286 p.
Includes Colonial, nineteenth-century, and twentieth-century responses to Bradstreet's work.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. "The 'Unrefined Ore' of Anne Bradstreet's Quaternions." Early American Literature IX, No. 1 (Spring 1974): 19–26.
Argues that Bradford's early poetry displays many of the techniques she uses to different effect in the more highly regarded later poetry.
——. "Civil War and Bradstreet's 'Monarchies'." Early American Literature XXVI, No. 2 (Fall 1991), 119–44.
Argues that the "Four Monarchies" were so important to Bradstreet because of their relevance to the English Civil War.
Maragou, Helena. "The Portrait of Alexander the Great in Anne Bradstreet's 'The Third Monarchy'." Early American Literature XXIII, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 70–81.
Explores the contradictions between Bradstreet's portrait of Alexander the Great and tenets of Puritan theology.
Margerum, Eileen. "Anne Bradstreet's Public Poetry and the Tradition of Humility." Early American Literature XVII, No. 2 (Fall 1982): 152–60.
Discusses Bradstreet's subversive use of the modesty topos.
Martin, Wendy. "Anne Bradstreet: 'As Weary Pilgrim'." In her An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, pp 15–76. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Presents a comprehensive portrait of Bradstreet and her work, with an emphasis on the historical context.
Piercy, Josephine K. Anne Bradstreet. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1965, 144 p.
Focuses on Bradstreet's life and summarizes critical perspectives on her work.
Porterfield, Amanda. "Anne Hutchinson, Anne Bradstreet, and the Importance of Women in Puritan Culture." In her Female Piety in Puritan New England: The Emergence of Religious Humanism, pp. 80–115. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Argues that Bradstreet played an important role in the development of Puritan culture.
Rosenmeier, Rosamond R. "The Wounds upon Bathsheba: Anne Bradstreet's Prophetic Art." In Seventeenth-Century American Poetry in Theory and Practice, edited by Peter White, pp. 129–46. University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985.
Explores the influence of biblical prophecy on Bradstreet's style and technique.
Schweitzer, Ivy. "Anne Bradstreet Wrestles with the Renaissance." Early American Literature XXIII, No. 3 (1988): 291–312.
Argues that in the course of her career Bradstreet grew beyond the Renaissance models used in her early work.
Stanford, Anne. Anne Bradstreet: The Worldly Puritan—An Introduction to Her Poetry. New York: Burt Franklin & Co., 1974, 170 p.
Analyzes Bradstreet's poetry, arguing that her "entire canon represents the struggle between the visible and invisible worlds." Also includes a chronology of Bradstreet's works, a list of books with which she was familiar, and a selected critical bibliography.
Waller, Jennifer R. " 'My Hand a Needle Better Fits': Anne Bradstreet and Women Poets in the Renaissance." Dalhousie Review 54, No. 3 (Autumn 1974): 436–50.
Compares Bradstreet to female poets of the English Renaissance.
White, Elizabeth Wade. "The Tenth Muse—A Tercentenary Appraisal of Anne Bradstreet." William and Mary Quarterly VIII, No. 3 (July 1951): 355–77.
Suggests that Bradstreet was the first Englishwoman to write poetry professionally.
Additional information on Bradstreet's life and works is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 24; DISCovering Authors; Literature Criticism, Vol. 4; and Poetry Criticism, 10.
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SOURCE: "The Creative Fall of Bradstreet and Dickinson," in Essays in Literature, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring 1987, pp. 81–91.
[Here, Hesford argues that Bradstreet finds her deepest inspiration in the autumn season and in intimations of mortality.]
Applying a Calvinistic misreading of a biblical lesson, Bradstreet explains why stability must elude us in this life:
All the comforts of this life may be compared to the gourd of Jonah, that notwithstanding we take great delight for a season in them and find their shadow very comfortable, yet there is some worm or other, of discontent, of fear, or grief that lies at the root, which in great part withers the pleasure which else we should take in them, and well it is that we perceive a decay in their greenness, for were earthly comforts permanent, who would look for heavenly? ("Meditations Divine and Moral," #69)
In the Book of Jonah, the episode of the gourd (4:6–11) teaches its audience (if not the recalcitrant prophet) to value creation; Bradstreet uses it to teach her audience—her children—to devalue this green but decaying earth, to look toward eternity. Yet she undermines her pious instruction through her concluding rhetorical question, which makes apparent her emotional allegiance to seasonal comforts. Being drawn in opposite directions destabilizes and energizes Bradstreet's creative work, especially when its subject allows her to experience the opposing pulls most keenly.
The season of autumn, a type of Revelation to the book of nature, provides her with just such a subject, since it inspires her to luxuriate in comforts of apocalyptic intensity, as precariously glorious as Jonah's gourd; not surprisingly, Bradstreet's reading of autumn results in her most successfully sustained poem, "Contemplations," written about twenty years after her first celebration of the season in the Quaternion poems. As critics have noted, Bradstreet now fleshes out her scholarly interest in nature's patterns and types with a convincing voice, rich in personal knowledge and desire. The creative fall is not only the subject of "Contemplations," but also the experience it bears witness to and affords.
As in "The Four Seasons of the Year," autumn here is the season of creation and the fall; implanted in its paradisal perfection is the seed of its demise:
Some time now past in the autumnal tide,
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed,
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Where gilded o'er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true,
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue;
Rapt were my sense at this delectable view.
The first three words of "Contemplations" inform us that the paradise it presents at the outset has already been lost through the passing of time. The choice of "tide" further sets the scene in flux, suggesting its inadequacy as a permanent contest, and by the end of the second line, indeed, the reader knows that the world created here has but an hour's duration. Thus from the start, Bradstreet acknowledges the transience of earthly beauties, and her meditative ramble during the New England Indian summer moves on the edge of night and winter.
Yet also evident is the poet's attraction to the colorful, delectable world artfully served up by Phoebus Apollo, the sun. (Like other Colonial writers, Bradstreet found in classical mythology sanction for sensuous involvement in her New England surroundings.) Apparent author of the text she delights in, the sun seems Bradstreet's muse, encouraging her own fall creativity. As the poem proceeds, the sun draws her praise, almost her worship. She repeatedly raises her eyes from his text the better to see God, creation's true author and rightful recipient of her affection; repeatedly her eyes return to the sun-lit world, unable to wean themselves from the passing scene. Only after a prolonged excursion into history and subsequent ruminations by the banks of a "stealing stream" (l. 149) on the effects of time does she resign herself to the orthodox position that the text that matters is not nature's Revelation (or the record of man's questionable accomplishments), but the one mentioned in Revelation 2:17: "… he whose name is grav'd in the white stone / Shall last and shine …" (ll. 232–33). The poet's ultimate desire is not to create, but to be recreated, not to write, but to be written on the apocalyptic stone so her name will outshine the sun. The stone replaces both world and poem as text, thus capping her creative fall.
The poem's historic excursion mentioned above is prompted by the poet's inability to join a choir of nature's "abject" creatures praising their creator (stanzas eight and nine); … she is not in close enough communion with the rest of nature to participate in its mass, sing in its language; thus she must speak instead of that which makes communion impossible: man's fall into historical consciousness and sin becomes the burden of her song, a purely human source of creativity. Bradstreet first focuses on the primal family (stanzas 10–15), then reflects on the human condition (stanzas 16–20) in the tone of radical biblical wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job. Like Solomon (the traditional author of Ecclesiastes), she is made melancholic by the vanity of our existence; like Job, she is bitter that this existence has not even the cyclical longevity of the green earth (see Job 14:7–10), though immortality is our recompense. Biblical wisdom, with its interest in natural patterns and human affairs, provides a language, a voice through which, here and elsewhere in her work, Bradstreet can assess and articulate the fall of her experience.
Bradstreet perhaps most identifies with the original human source of wisdom, "our grandame" Eve, whom she imagines in stanza 12 contemplating the course of history in a "retired place," much like the poet herself:
Here sits our grandame in retired place,
And in her lap her bloody Cain new-born;
The weeping imp oft looks her in the face,
Bewails his unknown hap and fate forlorn;
His mother sighs to think of Paradise,
And how she lost her bliss to be more wise,
Believing him that was, and is, father of lies.
Bradstreet's Eve shows no guilt for her sin, only grief for her loss. Holding bloody Cain in her lap, she thinks of Paradise; she is indeed the archetype of the poet, with longing that comes from being sensuously and consciously alive, and with that blood-stained wisdom that comes from being an experienced mother.
It is as such that Bradstreet speaks in much of her mature work, encouraging and admonishing her offspring, bewailing their absence or loss, chastizing herself for her strong attachment to them (as well as to other extensions of her body and her body itself), finding her ordinary and extraordinary concerns as a woman enmeshed in fleshly relationships meet subjects for her poetry. Her religion carries her toward silent resignation and the stony silence of eternity, but her emotional ties to others and the world involve her in words, through which she can work out or at least articulate her fears and sorrows, and verbally commune with the very human sources of her keenest joys. Thus her fall into her married, motherly, and grandmotherly roles, while consuming most of her time, stimulates her creativity; when she can write, she can write with the wisdom and authority of one who has not so much listened to that old serpent, the father of lies, but to herself as she falls, and so can speak the truth about what she has suffered and loved.
Bradstreet's love poetry makes such bold use of literary conventions that they carry conviction. When she closes her "Letter to Her Husband Absent upon Public Employment" with "Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone, / I here, thou there, yet both but one…," the language itself achieves the emotional union she longs for. When, in "To My Dear and Loving Husband," she concludes "Then while we live, in love let's so persevere / That when we live no more, we may live ever…," her unorthodox plot to storm heaven through intense fleshly love intensifies her verse. That she felt embodied in her verse is indicated in her poignant plea to her husband in "Before the Birth of One of Her Children" to "kiss this paper for thy dear love's sake" should she die in childbirth. And her moving elegies for all those who, like her "Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet," were her "heart's too much content," suggest she was far more adept in making present her personal losses than in realizing her spiritual hope. In her mature work, Bradstreet writes as an Eve bearing the fruits of her mortality.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5504
SOURCE: "Gender, Genre, and Subjectivity in Anne Bradstreet's Early Elegies," in Early American Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1988, pp. 152–74.
[In the following excerpt, Sweet considers the ways in which Bradstreet created a feminine poetic persona for herself in the context of the male poetic tradition.]
Facing a genre that writes the feminine only as object, Bradstreet exercises certain discursive strategies that may be called "strategies of reformation": local modifications of a discourse that permit the formation of the experience of subjectivity in a previously unproductive discourse and that expose, momentarily, the power relations inherent in that discourse. These strategies are necessary because a woman, bound by the gender system, will experience de-subjectification within discourse that clearly identifies "the subject" with masculinity. Bradstreet wants to write, but not from within the gender system that proscribes feminine subjectivity. In this sense she is trying to displace the category of writing subject, in moves that look much like those of classic deconstruction. These moves expose the political consequences of a discursive construct, in this case the parallel hierarchical oppositions of masculine/feminine and subject/object.
The problematic of subjectivity and gender is initially displayed in the elegy on Sidney, the earliest of the three public elegies. As Anne Stanford points out, the model for this poem was Joshua Sylvester's elegy on Sidney ("Anne Bradstreet's Portrait of Sidney" [in Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, 1983]). But Bradstreet's elegy is most interesting for the ways in which it deviates from the conventional structure of invocation, classical tribute, Christian meditation, and consolation, which Sylvester had so closely followed. Bradstreet seems to refuse the prescribed gesture of invocation by elevating Sidney above the muses, for example:
Thy Logick from Euterpe won the Crown,
More worth was thine, then Clio could set down.
But the muses in turn refuse such treatment and assert their authority near the end of the poem. At this point the poem reflects on the production of poetic discourse by feigning an interruption in its own production. The "I" of the poem "muses" on the possibility of being fully constituted as a subject of this discourse—first with reference to the object created by the discourse (Sidney the poet):
Fain would I show, how thou fame's path didst tread,
But now into such Lab'rinths am I led
With endless turnes, the way I find not out,
For to persist, my muse is more in doubt:
Calls me ambitious fool that durst aspire,
Enough for me to look, and so admire.
The object of the poem is metonymically the very genre in which subjectivity is being produced: Sidney is the author of poems that represent the discursive formation. Following Sidney along fame's path—that is, tracing his appearance as political and poetic subject ("Armes, and Arts")—the poet loses her place in the maze of discourse. There is no clear position for the subject to occupy. At such a juncture, a masculine poet would receive the aid of a muse, which would restore him to a productive position, enabling him to finish the poem. Bradstreet's muse, however, dictates silence. As a site of the refication of the feminine in discourse, the muse prescribes the position of the feminine (non)subject: do not produce discourse, for to do so would be to produce your own subjectivity. This much could perhaps be written off as a conventional gesture of humility which, in the elegy, is just one more means by which the poet is constituted—a mere diversion (which would raise the question of what kind of subjectivity is produced by a gesture of self-deprecation). But the interruption continues and becomes the focus of the poem; thus, while discourse is still being produced, gestures of hyperbolic praise required by the genre disappear. The poem is approaching the boundaries of the discourse.
The discourse of Sidney seems at this point foreign to the poet, whose pen—the instrument of literary production—writes unguided in an image of production without subjectivity:
Goodwill, did make my head-long pen to run,
Like unwise Phaeton his ill guided sonne, …
So proudly foolish I, with Phaeton strive,
Fame's flaming chariot for to drive.
When Sidney had confronted the issue of fame in Astrophel and Stella, he had simply placed himself in a strong alignment with classical discourse by objectifying Stella in the body of a muse. But in Bradstreet's poem classical allusions, which evoke the world of the muses, demonstrate the way subjectivity conventionally is constituted only as masculine. A representation of the muses cannot coexist with a subject identified as feminine. The muses themselves are puzzled (for even if they are favorably disposed toward female poets, a reader will recall that they had seen very few since Sappho, and thus are probably uncertain about their relations with Bradstreet). They deny the poet's subjectivity by taking away the instrument used in the production of discourse:
That this contempt it did the more perplex,
In being done by one of their own Sex;
They took from me the scribbling pen I had,
I to be eas'd of such a task was glad.
For to revenge his wrong, themselves ingage
And drave me from Parnassus in a rage.
The muses—the reification of the feminine in this discursive formation—will not permit a feminine subject to play the role of poet (with all the privileges that entails, such as access to the inspiring waters of Hippocrene).
But the muses' prohibition becomes a demonstration of the reification of gender, once it is clear that a poetic subject has been produced, in spite of the discursive prohibitions voiced by the muses. It is simply not a subject to which the attributes of a gender clearly apply. Or, more precisely, it is a subject caught up in a confusion over sex and gender. A muse literally "has" a gender (at least in the way that I am using the term)—in fact it has nothing else, being only a representation of objectified femininity in discourse. But a muse cannot have a sex, because it is not a biological being (so Milton mused about the angels). Here is the root of the problem: because sex and gender are represented on the same level in the figure of the muse, the two are conflated. The converse is true as well: sex and gender are conflated also when a masculine poet produces himself as a subject in relation to a muse. When Bradstreet produces herself (it is difficult to escape the pronoun system) as a subject of such a discourse, the resulting poem tropes the conflation of sex and gender that the masculine poetics refuses to voice.
The discourse is re-formed, but only through a self-reflexive strategy that takes the poem away from its object and into an exploration of the discourse itself and its prescription of subjectivity. Some critics have found this excursion to be artistically unfortunate; thus it is with a sigh of relief that they report Bradstreet's revisions for the posthumous 1678 edition, which removed (among other things) the lines about Phaeton and the chariot. The force of the poem remains nevertheless. In the concluding lines, the muses still determine the production of subjectivity by controlling the production of discourse:
Errata through their leave threw me my pen,
For to conclude my poem two lines they daigne
Which writ, she bad return't to them again.
"Femininity" is represented in the poem as being the worst enemy of a woman poet; the convention of the muses is demonstrated to be the means by which the discourse controls access to itself. "Errata" occupies an interesting position here, for the name is clearly a corruption of "Erato," the muse of erotic poetry, who inspired (among others) Astrophel and Stella. Thus the name simultaneously identifies a discourse and distances the present production from that discourse, while invalidating the convention (what authority can the muse of error have?). "Errata" also signifies the fly-leaf on which printer's mistakes are corrected, thus indicating that Bradstreet, even when she revised the poem, realized that the possibility of truly error-free production lies somewhere outside the literary object as it is normally constructed. If "Errata" is Bradstreet's muse, the resulting literary production is on the margins of the dominant discourse—but is also a correction of it. The revised poem is not as extravagant as the original, yet it maintains the original strategy of representing an interruption in the production of discourse. A new couplet appears, summarizing the position of the subject with respect to the discourse:
Then wonder not if I no better sped,
Since I the muses thus have injured.
To injure the muse, in this context, is to deconstruct the reification of the feminine as it is represented discursively in the figure of the muse.
The elegy on Du Bartas examines the effects of two potential distortions of the conventional dyad of (masculine) poet and (feminine) muse. The subject first tries out the position of muse herself and then creates her own muse, a male child. This poem does not display the formal "incoherence" of the elegy on Sidney, because in some sense there is less at stake. Unlike Sidney, the figure of Du Bartas does not represent the discursive formation in which subjectivity is being produced. Bradstreet knew Du Bartas as the author of a Christian epic rather than as a writer of elegies. His Devine Weekes and Workes in fact places God in the position of muse. Bradstreet does not confront the implications of such a strategy, but instead excludes herself from the discourse of Du Bartas with the lines
Thy Sacred works are not for imitation,
But monuments for future admiration;
thus maintaining the generic structure of her elegy more or less intact. But of course this does not eliminate from elegiac discourse the problem of the muse. Nor does it eliminate the general question of the deployment of gender-based power in discourse. As a reading subject, the poet finds herself subjugated by Du Bartas' epic, which has the power to "Lead  millions chained by eyes, by ears, by tongues." The effects of power operated by discourse are represented early in the poem—in another image of physical domination:
My ravisht eyes, and heart, with faltering tongue,
In humble wise have vow'd their service long.
Du Bartas' poetry is clearly aligned with male power, a power that seemingly cannot be deployed by a feminine subject.
Given these power relations, Bradstreet first explores the prescribed site of the appearance of the feminine (the muse), by displaying her subjugation as reading subject and consequently representing herself as muse-object:
My dazled sight of late, review'd thy lines,
Where Art, and more then Art in Nature shines;
Reflection from their beaming altitude,
Did thaw my frozen hearts ingratitude;
Which Rayes, darting upon some richer ground,
Had caused flowers and fruits, soone to abound;
But barren I, my Daysey here doe bring,
A homely flower in this my latter spring.
The transformation from reading subject to writing subject cannot be effected without going through the detour of the muse—a strategy that might function as an affirmation of male discursive power, but for the refusal of the subject to be objectified. The potential intercourse between Du Bartas and this muse is shown to be unproductive; no "flowers and fruits" of poetry will come from such a relation. A subject cannot occupy the position of the object-muse, so a gesture of humility, and a representation of the sterility of the conventionally fertile relation between poet and muse, become strategies by means of which subjectivity is produced in the site of poet (where gender is normally specified, but by conventions that—as we have seen in the elegy on Sidney—are open to local modification).
But such a constitution of the subject would simply return the poet to the problematic conventional relation between poet and muse, if not for the striking re-formation that appears next:
My Muse unto a Childe, I fitly may compare,
Who sees the riches of some famous Fayre;
He feeds his eyes, but understanding lacks,
To comprehend the worth of all those knacks.
Bradstreet deconstructs the convention by reducing her muse to the level that the muses had previously prescribed for her in the elegy on Sidney. The child is permitted to look, but not to speak; thus inhibits the production of discourse:
[He] findes too soone his want of Eloquence,
The silly Pratler speaks no word of sence;
And seeing utterance fayle his great desires,
Sits down in silence, deeply he admires.
Several strategies are being deployed in this substitution of muses. First, by changing the gender of the muse but at the same time identifying him as a prattling child, Bradstreet has preserved and yet reversed the conventional opposition of genders in the poet/muse dyad while demonstrating the absurdity of the convention. Readers could hardly admit that this muse dwells on Parnassus. Second, where normally the poet gains a voice through a represented relation with the muse-object, here voicelessness—the inability to produce subjectivity through discourse—is located specifically in the muse, thus freeing the site of "poet" for unconstrained, unaided production (the elegy continues for fifty lines plus an epitaph). Finally, that the muse is a child adds some tension to the assumption that the fertility of the intercourse between poet and muse depends on the possibility of a sexual relationship between poet and muse. Bradstreet had played on the assumption earlier in the poem, but it becomes even clearer here that both the gender and the sexuality of the muse are always only represented, never "natural." The reification of gender is neither affirmed nor denied in this citation of the convention; instead, it is exposed and deconstructed through a reversal that gives voice to the voiceless gender.
The elegy on Queen Elizabeth involves a different sort of reversal: conventions of Sidney and Spenser are written with a feminine inflection. In the opening invocation of The Faerie Queene, Spenser had placed Elizabeth in the position of muse. Before that, Sidney had pursued a logical consequence of the objedification of the feminine by conflating the object of the poem with the muse. If there is a muse in Bradstreet's poem, it can only be Elizabeth because the poet immediately dissociates herself from the conventional muses:
Her personall perfections, who would tell,
Must dip his pen i'th' Heliconian Well;
Which I may not, my pride both but aspire
To read what others write, and then admire.
The dissociation is given added force by the opposition of the "I" of the poem to the masculine pronoun "his" (the unmarked gender in this discourse). Femininity appears to be inscribed in all three possible positions: poet, muse, and object.
But if the muses always hover about elegiac discourse, in this poem Elizabeth is never overtly identified as a muse. Although she could be said to inspire the poem as object, she seems not to be an example of objectified femininity. Rather, she is represented as a speaking subject who brings into the poem new, reconstructed discursive relations. The couplet "But can you Doctors now this point dispute, / She's argument enough to make you mute," metaphorically explores a discourse in which a feminine subjectivity has not only been successfully constituted but is in fact fully present. By virtue of her unusual position of power, Elizabeth can be represented as discourse in the act of being produced, in the form of a self-sufficient argument.
Such a discourse remains elusive, however, and there is a sense in which, since Elizabeth's death, the possibilities have become more restricted:
Let such, as say our sex is void of reason
Know 'tis a slander now, but once was treason.
When occupied by a feminine subject, the position of the monarch as a locus of power had temporarily altered the relations between juridical and quotidian discourses. Thus any argument that women are "void of reason" was placed not only in the discourse of gossip ("slander"), but also in a more powerful juridical discourse. But, as, [Cheryl] Walker points out [in "Anne Bradstreet: A Woman Poet," in Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, 1983]:
the reign of Elizabeth, which opened up opportunities for women in both education and publishing, was a mere moment in history…. [A]fter the Queen's death, there was an ominous murmur around and about, and the distinct sound of doors closing once again in the faces of hopeful women.
With the death of Elizabeth, the locus of power transferred to James I, a masculine subject, and what was once inappropriate to juridical discourse became inappropriate only to the discourse of gossip, where power is more widely dispersed. In "social" discourse generally, proscriptions against this sort of slander compete with the gender system which constructs a "woman" who is, popularly, "void of reason"—an argument to which Elizabeth can no longer provide a living counter-example.
This sense of nostalgia for the authorizing power of a female monarch pervades the poem, culminating in a final strategy in which Bradstreet enlists millennialist theology in a re-formation of Arthurian romance:
No more shall rise or set such glorious Sun
Untill the heavens great revolution:
If then new things, their old form must retain,
Eliza shall rule Albian once again.
Elizabeth, and all the power she makes possible, replaces Arthur as the once and future monarch of England. But nostalgia is usually for a time that never was, so we need to ask what difference Elizabeth finally made. As the embodiment of the law, she served as a demonstration that the feminine gender was not "naturally" excluded from positions of power. But she did not abolish the reification of gender, and thus she always spoke—in her own poetry, for example—partly from within the place left open to her by the gender system. The source of her power was, after all, the patriarchal theocratic system. Bradstreet may have found the example of Elizabeth empowering—a figure waiting to be read as a living deconstruction of the gender system—but she could not after all occupy Elizabeth's privileged position. A text prescribing the education of women shows that in 1620, things remained much as they had always been: "… instead of reading Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia let them read the grounds of huswifery. I like not a female poetesse at any hand" (Thomas Powell, Art of Thriving).
When the figure of the poet is aligned by gender with the power of Elizabeth, the production of subjectivity in poetic discourse is not problematic for Bradstreet. There are no difficulties with the reified femininity represented by the muses. It might be said that Bradstreet does temporarily identify a female precursor in Elizabeth, who authorizes a rebellion against patriarchal authority….
Bradstreet's early elegies show that in seventeenth-century elegiac poetry, a feminine subjectivity cannot be said to appear, or if it does it "appears" only as an "absence." The feminine is only objectified, in the figure of the objectmuse. This does not necessarily imply that a woman can be only a non-subject (witness the exceptional case of Elizabeth), but it does raise an important question…. Specifically how can a "feminine" subjectivity appear in a discourse that makes no provision for it? One answer, for Bradstreet, is that poetic discourse speaks only of the writing subject, the author-poet—and yet there are also reading subjects, whose genders are culturally defined not only by elegiac poetry, but by other (religious and quotidian) discourses where the "feminine subject" has a place (e.g., Puritans of either sex with sufficient education wrote devotional poems and prose meditations). But more important for Bradstreet the poet is the realization that if femininity is reified in poetic (or any other) discourse, so is masculinity. In this sense, "the poet" is also an object, constructed by the discourse that "he" produces. It is not that Bradstreet attempts to produce a specifically feminine subjectivity in poetic discourse. Rather, she shows how subjectivity can be detached from gender, and how even the male poet is always objectified even as "he" produces "his" own subjectivity. She deconstructs the gender system by exposing how it is constructed and how the discourse has perpetuated itself by maintaining a system in which masculine gender is ordinarily a constitutive component of subjectivity. The three elegies, then, can be read as immanent critiques of the gender system as it (dis)appears in poetry. They acknowledge the power of, and seem to participate in, the gender system—and yet they play feminine off of masculine in the sites of poet and muse, demonstrating that while gender is often restrictive for subjects categorized as "feminine," it is only a contingent feature of subjectivity.
Bradstreet's contemporary readers did not recognize the extent of her demystificatory enterprise (perhaps she was not quite aware of her own accomplishments in this vein), or were not, in any case, willing to acknowledge it. One of the more telling signs of the position of "the feminine" in the public poetry of the time is the very title of The Tenth Muse. The great honor done Bradstreet by John Woodbridge (who presumably chose the title when he arranged for publication) can be seen from our perspective as a simple adherence to the rules of a discourse that had not yet permitted a feminine subject to occupy the position of poet. If, on the basis of the reading proposed here, the title seems ironic, it probably did not appear so at the time, when women could be represented only as muses and as objects—products of discourse who yet could not produce discourse. Thus the ability of women to produce their own subjectivity in public poetry was officially denied, and Bradstreet was assigned to the category of puzzling, but ultimately harmless anomaly, in accordance with Woodbridge's preface:
I doubt not but the Reader will quickly find more then I can say, and that the worst effect of his reading will be his unbelief, which will make him question, whether it be a womans Work, and aske, Is it possible?
Some of the commendatory verses that preface the volume share this rhetoric of puzzlement, while one sarcastically dismissive poem places female poets completely outside the domain of useful production: "But stay a while, they seldome rise till ten a clock." Most of these poems proclaim the worth of the volume while simultaneously pointing out how odd it is that a woman could have produced it. And most also cite the convention of the muses, for example:
And if the Nine vouchsafe the tenth a place,
I think they rightly may yeeld you that grace.
Even though such references may well have been inspired by the title of the volume, they identify the existing discursive practice that collapses sex into the gender: there is no place on earth for a poet who is a woman, so the figure of the (female) poet must be placed in the mythical realm. If these poems can be taken as evidence of the early reception of the volume, it is clear that most of Bradstreet's readers did not recognize the nature of her critique.
Of all the poetry Bradstreet wrote after the appearance of The Tenth Muse, only "The Author to Her Book" seems to be concerned explicitly with the gender of the poetic subject—not because the discourses of public poetry no longer required re-formation in order to permit the female poet the ability to produce her own subjectivity, but rather (as I will argue below) because after The Tenth Muse, Bradstreet wrote primarily in other, less problematic discourses. In this light "The Author to Her Book" can be read as a summation of the project of re-formation in the early poetry, and also, perhaps, as a comment on the difficulty of the project. The position of this poem in public discourse is clear because it is so closely aligned with Spenser's "To His Booke." Spenser represents his poet as the metaphorical father of his poetry:
Goe little booke: thy selfe present
As child whose parent is unkent….
But if that any aske thy name,
Say thou wert base begot with blame.
Bradstreet's "The Author to Her Book" also represents the poet as parent and reiterates Spenser's concern with genealogy, but most of her poem is devoted to images of deformation. Such images, absent from Spenser's poem, remind the reader of how the elegies in The Tenth Muse modified the discourse they inherited:
Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain….
in raggs, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judg).
But at the same time this poem suggests that no amount of revision could re-form The Tenth Muse; and while the poet places the blame on herself, we have seen that it is the discourse itself that would prohibit a fully successful re-formation:
… affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:
I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joynts to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobling than is meet.
Of all Bradstreet's poems, "The Author to Her Book" is the most self-reflexively concerned with deformation and re-formation; and like other apparently "deformed" poems, it displays the gender-specific relations of subject to discourse such that we can "read" those relations not only in the poem itself, but also in the discourse that determines it. While Spenser's poem produces a masculine subject—a "shepheards swain"—who has engendered a book of poetry (upon the muse, according to the present but unthematized convention), Bradstreet's poem represents the poet as a mother who gives birth. Thus the conventional sexual relationship between poet and muse is re-formed in a way that seems to continue the deconstructive project of the public elegies: "If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none." Spenser's poem is the product of a father poet ("unkent," but very much an active presence) and a mother muse (not represented, but implied by the discourse). Since the discourse makes no provision for a reversal of that relationship, Bradstreet's mother-poet must be represented explicitly as sole progenitor. There can be no denying that the poet is represented as having a sex. As such, she cannot escape the requirements of the gender assigned to the mother: she has sole care of her child-poem, fashions for it a suit of homespun cloth, and is generally represented as fulfilling her domestic role. This poem displays the problem but despairs of a solution and indicates the future direction of Bradstreet's poetry.
Most of her later poems are written from within a discourse of domesticity and display an acceptance of the "woman's place." They have been valued highly (certainly more highly than the early elegies) by feminist and traditional critics alike. According to Adrienne Rich's assessment in 1966, only certain poems written after the publication of The Tenth Muse "rescue Anne Bradstreet from the Women's Archives and place her conclusively in literature … [: ] poems in response to the simple events in a woman's life" ("The Tensions of Anne Bradstreet"). But Rich later recanted, saying that her earlier reading had privileged a "masculine view of history and literature" (preface to "Tensions"). And it is true that the marriage poems and others such as the verses on the burning of her house have been widely anthologized and discussed—generally from a patriarchal perspective on the canon. While these poems are good of their kind, they are comfortable and unproblematic in terms of their acceptance of the gender system….
Perhaps a discovery of the power of discourse to resist change (to resist the exercise of certain kinds of power) was Bradstreet's reason for abandoning the genre of the public elegy. In any case, with the exception of "The Author to Her Book," all of Bradstreet's later poems are written within discourses in which the constitution of a feminine subjectivity is unproblematic. The necessity of a woman to produce herself as the subject of everyday social discourse was perhaps an overwhelming constraint for Bradstreet as her domestic duties gained stronger influence over her literary ambition; an accurate description of the situation might be [Elizabeth Wade] White's chapter title, "Family Life and Literary Development" (Anne Bradstreet). Where the early elegies demonstrate that subjectivity could in some cases be detached from the gender assigned to the poet, the domestic poems merely reproduce the ideology of social discourse, which reifies gender.
In the later elegies and epitaphs, written on members of her family rather than on public figures, the writing subject is produced within a social discourse that determines the relations between subject and object: daughter and father, grandmother and grandchild, etc. Most of these elegies were not intended for publication, and here in particular the position of the writing subject is never an issue, since the title of each poem identifies the figure of the poet as a relative in mourning. The classically inspired discourse of public poetry is erased in favor of a purely Christian system that has no place for such creatures as muses.
In all the later domestic poems (a genre readily separable from the private elegies, although determined ultimately by similar discursive practices), the constitution of a feminine subject is legitimated by social norms. While these domestic poems occasionally incorporate devices from a discourse we would now identity as "metaphysical poetry" (e.g., the extended pun on "hart" and "deere" in one of the "Letter[s] to her Husband"), in general these poems remain within the bounds of a discourse of domesticity (and outside classical discourse). Here the position of the feminine subject is unproblematic because wholly specified. The represented figure of the poet is absent from these poems, because the writing subject is constructed by the roles of wife, mother, and home-maker, rather than by the role of poet. The position of "poet" in the public sense is not available in this discourse (a fact of which Bradstreet was probably aware, since she never intended any of the domestic poems to be published as Poetry). The positions of wife and mother, on the other hand, existed ready-made.
Different discourses specify different ways of reading and different positions for the critic as reading subject. To read the early public poems in the same terms as the later private ones is to see failure (e.g., lack of "genuine expression") where there was real achievement. The production of subjectivity could be accomplished in the early poetry only by means of strategies that appear ungainly when judged by the inapplicable standard of the domestic poetry. When the constitution of a feminine subject is unproblematic, as in Bradstreet's domestic poetry, no strain is put on the dominant discursive conventions. Thus the domestic poetry does not expose the gender-based power relations of the discourse that determines it; rather, it merely reproduces the existing ideology (the gender system), without questioning the "order of things" created and supported by discourse. Since these later poems display no traces of any problematic attempts to re-form a discursive practice, it has been too easy to apply to Bradstreet's career a romantic fiction of a struggle for and progress toward a "personal voice." The story I have proposed may make it look as if instead she surrendered or retreated into less hostile terrain.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4864
SOURCE: '"To Finish What's Begun': Anne Bradstreet's Last Words," in Early American Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1988, pp. 175–87.
[In the following essay, Kopacz discusses the endings of Bradstreet's poems.]
On a number of occasions Anne Bradstreet indicated concern about finishing her poems. In marking the hiatus after writing the first three sections of the long poem "The Four Monarchies," for example, she writes, "After some days of rest, my restless heart / To finish what's begun, new thoughts impart" (lines 1–2). Three-fourths of the way finished, she found herself "restless" to get on with the job. Forced to cut short her description of the fourth monarchy, under a formal "Apology" she writes, "To finish what's begun, was my intent" (line 3553), and she explains the circumstances that made finishing impossible. To be sure, many critics have voiced relief that this particular poem was not finished. But finishing, in the sense of completing something begun, was important for Anne Bradstreet. "Perseverance, inherited and cultivated, was a strong trait in her character," wrote [Elizabeth Wade] White [in Anne Bradstreet: "The Tenth Muse, " 1971]. It was just as important to finish a poem as it was to finish her "errand into the wilderness." So she with-stood the rising of her heart at first sight of New England, became "convinced it was the way of God" ("To My Dear Children"), submitted to His will and her husband's will, gave birth to eight children, and lived to the ripe age of sixty—daughter, wife, and mother of leading magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While other women refused to come (such as the wife of the Reverend John Wilson, who had to return to England himself to persuade her) or took one look at the glorious New World and threw themselves overboard (the wife of William Bradford), Anne Bradstreet accomplished her errand to New England. And she finished her poem on "The Four Monarchies."
Yet completing a poem was only part of the concern. The poem had to be concluded in an appropriate way. The critics have had much to say here. Indeed, critical evaluation of Anne Bradstreet has in some quarters depended almost exclusively on those sixteenth-century conventions of apology and seventeenth-century reaffirmations of doctrine that end so many of Bradstreet's poems. Because of these conventions and doctrinal assertions, Bradstreet's poetry was for many years regarded primarily for its historical value. The Tenth Muse was, after all, the first volume of poetry published by a New World author. Moses Coit Tyler and Samuel Eliot Morison, pioneers of early American literary awareness, perceived Bradstreet as a quaint historical anomaly; they seem amused that a woman would write the first volume of American poetry. Perhaps Bradstreet handicapped herself by frequently writing in the self-effacing, humble tone that Waller tells us was conventional among seventeenth-century women writers. For whatever reason, the solid erudition of the poems in The Tenth Muse was overlooked in favor of their frankly imitative manner, and most readers have preferred the later poetry, wherein Bradstreet is said to have come into her own both as a woman and as a poet. These poems published later—poems about the deaths of family members, fear of childbirth, love poems to her husband and domestic crises such as the burning of her house—interested the cultural historians because of what they tell us about life in New England in the mid-seventeenth century. In both the early and the later poetry the literary conventions and doctrinal assertions in the poems bound Bradstreet to her culture—her English literary heritage and her New World theology.
As critical interest in Bradstreet grew, scholars clarified the literary influences and explored the religious dimension of her work. Du Bartas had been recognized as an important source for Bradstreet as early as Nathaniel Ward's commendatory verse published in The Tenth Muse in 1650. In addition to careful analysis of Du Bartas' influence, critics have examined the influence of Raleigh, Spenser, Sidney, and Shakespeare, as well as lesser known literary figures. At the same time, a resurgence of interest in Puritan studies made it possible to explore the play of religious themes in Bradstreet's poetry—the conflict between the visible and invisible worlds, for example, or the tension between this world and the next.
Feminist criticism brought another wave of fresh scrutiny. Some studies sought to place Bradstreet in a tradition of female writers and to acknowledge the difficulties of writing as a woman. Walker points out [in "In the Margin: The Image of Women in Early Puritan Poetry," in Puritan Poets and Poetics, ed. Peter White, 1985] that Bradstreet and other Puritan women were depicted even in the literature of their time as being distinctly marginal in the life of the community, historical fact to the contrary. Yet just as it was predictable that early critics, mostly men, would find Bradstreet slavishly but imperfectly trying to emulate the male writers who influenced her, it was predictable that early feminist critics would find Brad-street rebelling both openly and covertly against her maledominated culture. In this reading conventions cannot be praised as the ties that bind, but become thorns in the side. They must be explained—explained away, if possible….
The issue of orthodoxy is inextricably related to Bradstreet's endings, for they seem to focus the tension that some critics see between emotion and doctrine. Whether literary or doctrinal, the endings demonstrate Bradstreet's imbedding herself within literary and religious contexts that can help her understand the world and the great questions of life that all thinking persons confront. The endings of the poems are important also because Bradstreet herself regarded them as particularly revealing. Whether exercising a religious convention or a literary one, Bradstreet was compelled by her thorough grounding in eschatalogical thinking to feel that any kind of concluding was tantamount to some final evaluation or summing up, some ultimate, transcendent meaning.
As a devout Puritan, Bradstreet believed that everything one does receives divine notice and is, given John Cotton's explanation of a "calling," a form of prayer. Therefore, writing was not an activity distinct from making meals, changing diapers, or conducting affairs of state. Even though John Woodbridge, Bradstreet's brother-in-law, assures the "Kind Reader" that her "poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshment," writing was not an activity for one's leisure time, in a recreational sense. In separating the poetry into two distinct camps, public and private, modern historians and literary critics contend that the private poetry is more "authentic" or "genuine" than the public, but it is a distinction that Bradstreet herself would not make—all writing being equally devoted to the service of God. Bradstreet's early "public" poetry on the four elements, the humours, the ages of man, the seasons of the year, and the four monarchies is the same fabric as the "private" poetry, the work of her later years. All are forms of prayer, whether explicit or not. In defending Bradstreet's work against the charge of "pious moralizing," Piercy distinguishes between a writer's imposing didacticism or religion upon a reader and being thoroughly enmeshed in a religious outlook; Bradstreet is clearly the latter. Whether writing about the apparent injustice of a grandchild's death or about the history of the world, Bradstreet was mindful of her God and her mission on earth.
Given the Puritan propensity to see all activity as a form of prayer and to take spiritual stock of oneself, it should be no surprise that Bradstreet's endings show a desire to evaluate, to crystallize the meaning of an experience or thought or feeling. The endings move toward eschatological considerations sometimes explicitly, but more often, to their merit, implicitly, with a power that surpasses the cognitive implications of the words on the page. Indeed, rather than being mere conventions, literary or religious, slapped onto the end of a poem simply to mark the finish in an artistically typical or doctrinally conventional way, Bradstreet's endings often show consummate aesthetic skill in giving not only an answer to the intellectual and emotional questions raised, but also a feeling of ultimate conclusion and accomplishment. In short, Bradstreet's endings finish her poems and conclude them as well. In saying this, we need to distinguish between Bradstreet's finding peace of mind, which may or may not be achieved by an ending, and bringing a satisfactory sense of conclusion to a reader.
"The Four Monarchies" is a concluded yet unfinished work. Bradstreet never gets beyond Tarquinius Superbus in the succession of chiefs during the Roman Monarchy, the last of the four monarchies she planned to describe. And even the kings whom she does catalogue receive surprisingly short shrift compared to descriptions in the earlier monarchies. Yet despite its fragmentary nature, Bradstreet manages to convey to a reader of "The Fourth Monarchy" a sense of completion by using the conventional addendum of "Apology." Here the person changes from third to first, and Bradstreet explains why she could not finish the historical account: after a number of unsuccessful attempts, her papers were burned in the fire that destroyed her house. There is no attempt to blend the personal material of the "Apology" with the rest of the history, as she does in the elegy on Sidney. Yet merely explaining the reasons for not completing the work brings to the reader the satisfaction of an answered question, a sense of conclusion.
Furthermore, the final couplet deftly returns us to the history of the fourth monarchy, without the abrupt rupture that marked the move from history to personal statement earlier. In returning to the old familiar subject matter, Bradstreet gives a sense of completion even though the historical narrative is not completed in the chronological manner of the first three monarchies. Personifying her monarchies as lacking legs, Bradstreet reassures the reader that it doesn't matter, for the fourth monarchy has for "many ages been upon his knees" (line 3572). In the time of a couplet Bradstreet "completes" the history up to the present time ("the world now sees" [line 3571], emphasis added). The slow march of time established through the succession of kings in earlier monarchies becomes irrelevant from a different perspective, one that views the distant spanning of the centuries from a divine position. During these "many ages," durative verbs prevail (the world "sees"; the monarchy has "been" on its knees; her monarchies "lack" legs). In using these verbs of duration rather than verbs that mark percussive action, Bradstreet reinforces our sense of being so temporally distant from the monarchy that we can look back with a certain amount of cool unconcern. In fact, she tells us this is no matter ("Nor matter is't this last" [line 3571]), and the medial caesura emphasizes the fact. The meter conveys a tone of flat, imperial judgment. The reader senses something worthy of note, a "divine" perspective that conveys stability and permanence. In short, Bradstreet has achieved successful closure paradoxically by explaining why she could not finish and by dismissing the history she did not give us, thus making the absent present.
While it is certainly an accomplishment for Bradstreet to bring a historical narrative to successful closure without following through on the deliberate march of time set up in the poem, ending an elegy is even more difficult because the elegy dwells on a theme that itself frequently brings closure—death. Because the subject of an elegy is death, the concept of death raised at the end would not sufficiently differ from the body of the poem to bring a sense of closure, as it does with tragedy, for example. Another conventional from of closure was also denied Bradstreet in those elegies that have become most problematical—final emotional acceptance of death. Thus, elegies for both public figures and family members tested Bradstreet's skill.
The "Elegy Upon … Sir Philip Sidney" has been criticized for its ending. Stanford, for example, says the ending is merely a long digression, so that the "faults of this poem—its lack of unity and the overworking of the lengthy digressions—overshadow its virtues" [in Anne Brastreet: The Worldly Puritan, 1974]. But what better way to end a poem on the death of a famous man than with a whimsical, humorous, life-giving anecdote—itself something of the spirit of the man? The poet turns to herself in bringing the poem on Sidney to conclusion. She is unable, she says, to report on Sidney's fame, and the Muses refuse to help her "Since Sidney had exhausted all their store" (line 79). Furious, they take her "scribbling pen" (line 80), drive her from Mount Parnassus, but allow Errata to return her pen so she can write two concluding lines. The anecdote has the effect of bringing immediacy and genuine personality to the eulogy, as well as foreshadowing a conclusion. Readers are told what to expect—exactly two more lines, so they are psychologically prepared to read those lines as an ending. And when their expectations are fulfilled, they feel the experience has been brought to a satisfactory end.
But the lines would function well in any event. The subject of Sidney's fame has been important throughout the poem; in the penultimate line Bradstreet abandons her attempt to describe this fame ("So Sidney's fame I leave to England's rolls" [line 90]). "So" effectively introduces the couplet by suggesting a logical connection between everything that has preceded these lines and implying an epigrammatic finish that will follow. But even if Sidney's fame lives on, "His bones do lie interred in stately Paul's" (line 91). There is no escaping the finality of mortality. The effect on the reader is that of closure, both because we have been prepared to expect it formally and because we are forced to confront the fact of physical decay. The whimsical account of the poet's being driven from Parnassus, far from being a digression, brings together various themes of the poem—the difficulty of writing poetry (and to appreciate this fact enables one to better appreciate Sidney), Bradstreet's personal interest in Sidney, and the power of art to prolong "life" through fame. We laugh at Bradstreet's caricature of herself, and we accept death as the natural conclusion of life. The near rhyme of the final couplet, differing as it does from the exact rhymes that precede it, reinforces a sense of finality by duplicating that uneasy feeling we experience in contemplating death. Sidney's "bones" are a cognitive reminder of our mortality, and the slant rhyme is a sensuous reminder. Thematically and formally the poem achieves successful resolution in its ending.
The poem in honor of Du Bartas follows some of the same patterns in the ending as that for Sidney, namely the theme of fame's outliving the artist, the poet's returning to her own inability to praise adequately, and her poetic leave-taking. But this time the ending also effects a kind of frame, most noticeably because of the poet's first-person voice. In Poetic Closure [Barbara Herrnstein] Smith, comparing closure in poetry and painting, refers to "a point at which, without residual expectations, [the reader] can experience the structure of the work as, at once, both dynamic and whole." The frame around a painting and the framing narrative of this poem function similarly: both provide a perspective from which the audience perceives the whole. The reader thus feels the stability that is a major source of successful closure when Bradstreet returns to the first person.
Yet the ingenuity of the frame extends beyond person to subject matter: both the beginning of the poem and the ending are about finishing. Ironically, the poem begins with Bradstreet's expressing her inability to finish; indeed, the task of adequately praising Du Bartas seemed "so great" that Bradstreet "Gave o'er the work before begun withal" (lines 6, 7). And thus, despite the disclaimer, she launches into a relatively lengthy poem of praise, much of which directly addresses Du Bartas. After a section on her muse, who is so amazed at Du Bartas' literary riches that he is humbled to silence, and a comparison to France's great heroes, who won fame for France only by their "heaps of wounded slain" (line 62), Bradstreet returns to wonder "at the hand of heaven, / In giving one [the gifts that] would have served seven" (lines 68–69). The substitution of the third-person "one" for the expected second person of direct address subtly prepares the reader for the careful, third-person distancing from Du Bartas six lines from the end. Here, reflection on the enduring quality of Du Bartas' fame emotionally signals a leave-taking that is reinforced by the closed couplet form. Consequently, Bradstreet's return to the theme of her own inadequacy and leave-taking in the final four lines, her finishing the poem, frames the experience so a reader accepts the dynamic of continuing fame amid the finality of mortality and the conclusion of elegy. Like the circle of a frame, Bradstreet ends where she began, ending.
The word play of the final line enhances the sense of conclusion. Sounds are repeated in key words presented antithetically—"Good will, not skill" (line 85). Smith notes that antithetical summaries are a conventional closure for many sixteenth-century poems (31). The epitaph that follows the poem exploits the convention. It flirts with polarities—birth and death, heaven and humanity, Art and Nature, dying and reviving. In the final couplet ("so Bartas died; / But … he is revived" [lines 93–94]) the passive present-tense verb counters the opposing past tense, and the reader by now almost triumphantly accepts Du Bartas' death and the conclusion of an aesthetic experience. Thus in both the frame and final antitheses Bradstreet shows herself aware of literary fashion and adept at using conventions to resolve a poem.
The third elegy on a public figure, the one for Queen Elizabeth, has achieved much critical attention because Bradstreet uses the occasion to defend women. Yet the poem also reveals the poet's skill in concluding. Repetition of the word "happy" ("happy England," "happy, happy … days," "happiness" [lines 106–08]) builds expectation, and repetition of "she set" (line 111) emphasizes the loss. In the final four lines of the poem Bradstreet plays with antithetical summaries again ("No more shall rise or set so glorious sun" [line 112] and "new things their old forms shall retain" [line 114], emphasis added) as she looks forward to the joy of the millennium. Her readers would have recognized the familiar device of closure and would have rejoiced in their anticipation of the millennium. Like the sun, Elizabeth has "set," but she will "rise" once more to "rule Albion once again" (line 115). The conclusion works because, as in the poem on the four monarchies, Bradstreet offers at the end a totally different temporal point of view, one that makes human time, and consequently human mortality, of little consequence. In Elizabeth's ruling "once again," we have come full circle, always a positive image of closure. Not only are we reassured through the thematic, religious consolation of the millennium, but also through the reconciliation of words of opposite meaning.
While attention has been drawn to the public elegies because Bradstreet's suggestion that fame can overcome death has been seen by some critics as unusual, the private elegies have evoked the strongest disagreement. Controversy frequently centers on doctrinal assertions that appear in the final lines of the poems. The elegies written on the deaths of her grandchildren—Elizabeth, at a year and a half of age; Anne, just over three and a half; and Simon, a month and a day—show Bradstreet at her most emotional and putting her faith to its greatest test.
In the poem in memory of Elizabeth, emotional tension builds as Bradstreet reiterates "Farewell" and then questions her own discontent over this farewell: "why should I once bewail thy fate, / … Sith thou art settled in an everlasting state"? (lines 10, 12). The second stanza is especially disconcerting; in an apparent answer to her question, Bradstreet reminds us that natural order affords decay and death only after timely growth. The next two lines focus the problem because they point out the injustice of this death: "But plants new set to be eradicate, / And buds new blown to have so short a date" (lines 17–18). The conjunction "but" clearly indicates that this death goes against natural order. The final line of the poem is the one that has caused so much debate: "Is by His hand alone that guides nature and fate," clearly attributing this untimely death to God. Murdock's reading [discussed in Stanford's Anne Bradstreet] is shared by many. He believes that Bradstreet found herself "perilously close to writing rebelliously against God's decrees. She pulls herself up in the last line." He then asserts, "It falls flat, even metrically, because it is dictated not by real feeling but by deference to orthodox doctrine" (64).
But instead of its failing thematically and metrically, the line closes the poem in thematically and structurally effective ways. Bradstreet deliberately vents her emotions in this poem; she was not ashamed of them, and she did not deny them. The task of the Puritan was not to repress the emotions, but to direct them. Emotions were not considered autonomous, but subject to the control of the will. Believing in faculty psychology, Bradstreet thought it her duty to restrain her emotions, to bring them in line with productive behavior. Writing a poem was just such a form of productive behavior because it was a form of prayer, and consequently an active attempt to prepare the heart. While modern sensibility sees "tension" between emotion and doctrine, the Puritan viewed them as integrally related. Consequently, the final line is not an ironic laying down of doctrine, but a fact that must be brought into line with the emotional feeling of the poem; not contradictory to emotion, but coinciding with it. Bradstreet may still feel upset about the death, but it is not accompanied by anger with God.
The poem demonstrates a number of strategies that ensure this composure. First of all, it is organized in two stanzas, the second answering the question raised by the first. A question-and-answer format structurally affords a sense of closure. The rhyme scheme of the poem is: a b a b c c c d e d e c c C. The return of familiar sound (c) in the triplet of the second stanza contributes to a sense of closure. And finally, the last line conveys the effect of closure by an additional foot. The change from iambic pentameter to hexameter adds solidity and finish. The final alexandrine comes in an assertive statement, and the last word of the poem is "fate." No devout Puritan would argue with fate. Anne Bradstreet may still regret the death of the infant; the poem cannot wipe away those feelings. But the work comes to an end that is aesthetically satisfying because it is both structurally and thematically sound. The aesthetic closure is a deliberate working toward the integration of emotional and theological stability. To oversimplify, the poem is a process, not a product. And the process is prayer.
The poem on the death of the infant Simon is the second most controversial of the private elegies. [In '"Farewell Dear Babe'; Bradstreet's Elegy for Elizabeth," in Early American Literature, 15 (1980)], Mawer finds a tone of "outrage," while Stanford finds the poem "intensely ironic" and "close to blasphemy" until the "quiet settling down" of the last four lines. Both critics suggest an orthodox ending that doesn't quite work. Yet in this poem perhaps even more than the others, the ending is an integral part of a complex web and cannot be considered distinct from what precedes it.
The entire poem juxtaposes the timely and the timeless. Consider the verbs of the opening line: "No sooner came, but gone, and fall'n asleep." The child "came" at a specific point in time; the activity could be dated. Yet he is "gone"; this verb marks a different sense of time because it reveals duration, as does the final verb of the line, "fall'n asleep." If Bradstreet were not from the very beginning contrasting different views of time, the verbs in the line would have been parallel in form—"come" paired with "gone," or "came" paired with "left" or "went," both durative or both percussive. Yet they are not to be seen as mutually exclusive; indeed, they are quite compatible, for the devout Puritan lived constantly aware of the two levels of time—humanity's mortal time on earth and God's eternal presence.
Although the babies have been "Cropt" by God, with all the sudden abruptness the consonants imply, it is neither mere orthodox assertion nor ironic rebellion for Bradstreet to say "yet is He good" (line 8). The eternal, enduring presence of His goodness is an undeniable fact, reinforced by the response of "awe" reported in the next line. Line 10, "Such was His will, but why, let's not dispute," again juxtaposes human time and God's time; "His will" is timeless, firm, while men and women are engaged in timely disputation. Although it was difficult to hold to the timely and the timeless simultaneously, the Puritan was accustomed to thinking on both temporal levels.
"Let's say He's merciful as well as just" is the most potentially explosive line of the poem, but it is only the modern reader who can read it so. "Let's say" is the imperative mood, parallel to prior exhortations in the poem—"let's be mute" (line 9) and "let's not dispute" (line 10), or the familiar command, "Let us pray." This hortatory accepts completely what it commands; it cannot be read as ironic or sarcastic, as Stanford suggests. Indeed, the line immediately preceding the one in question describes the Puritan posture—"With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust" (line 11), hardly an attitude from which to lash out in ironic rebellion against God. In fact, it serves to remind us of divine power in creating a human being out of the dust of the earth, to which we will all return.
The final four lines effect successful closure in a number of ways. First, Bradstreet reworks the theme of coming and going with which the poem begins, but this time with millennial suggestions. God "will return" to "make up … our losses" (line 13). Instead of the mortal coming and going of her grandchild, Bradstreet concerns herself now with the return of divinity on earth. And because she is confident of His return, she can direct the infant, "Go pretty babe, go … " (line 15), in marked contrast to her sense of powerlessness over the infant's departure in the first line ("No sooner came, but gone … "). The movement from "gone" to "go" measures the progress she has made in understanding this death over the course of the poem. The command to "go" is repeated—"go rest with sisters twain"; the author directs the child to join that timeless realm, emphasized by the durative verb "rest." We remember that in the opening line the child was "asleep"; "rest" at this point successfully close the poem by repeating a concept, but this time with deepened meaning. That the child will successfully cross over to the world of the timeless becomes clear in the last line, for he will "Among the blest in endless joys remain" (line 16). "Remain" is a durative verb, and the line preponderates with the sense of the timeless (the joys are "endless"; the child will be "Among the blest"). Even the sounds of the line are continuing sounds—the m and n surrounding the dipthong in "remain" and the repetition of the s/z sound in "blest," "endless," and "joys." Thus, the ending works in this poem; it makes the poem a whole and leaves the reader in a position of stability and permanence because it so deliberately echoes the earlier, more painful view, when human time and God's time struggled against each other. The reader has come full circle with Bradstreet and is now wiser and reconciled to timeless existence.
What these "public" and "private" poems show is that Bradstreet was at all times a Puritan poet, in the fullest sense of the term. She was Puritan in her respect for the great cultural tradition she emerged from; the conventions of apology and statements of humility at the end of many poems show her attachment to this tradition and her belief that poetry was a consecrated art. She was a poet in her adept manipulation of conventions to achieve successful closure. She was a Puritan in seeing her conclusions as extremely important, in having them carry the burdens of eschatalogical implications. She was a poet in conveying these implications through ingenious concluding strategies of thematic resolution; question and answer; repetition of sounds, words, and images; in playful antitheses that strike the mind as paradoxical; and in framing narratives. She was Puritan in granting doctrine the final say. She was a poet in striving to make doctrinal statements fit the poem as a whole, in working through the process of creativity. And finally, she was a Puritan poet in seeing each poem as not so much an artifact as a prayer. After the last line was written, the success or failure of the poem would be determined by a divine judge, who would note the poem as a work in progress toward the ideal end—eternal life with God on high. The last word remains to be written.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8117
SOURCE: "Why Our First Poet Was a Woman: Bradstreet and the Birth of an American Poetic Voice," in Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, Vol. 13, 1988, pp. 1–35.
[In the following excerpt, Caldwell discusses Bradstreet's struggle with traditional male images symbolizing poetic creation, and concludes that Bradstreet became the founder of American poetry precisely because of her marginal position.]
It takes a worried man—or woman—to sing a worried song, and it is not surprising that Bradstreet's earliest poetry is more worried, in a more obviously "feminine" way, than anything she wrote later. Self-consciously erudite, duly apologetic, and above all, written "to please [her] wintry father," these "public" poems are marked by frequent, nervous recurrences to two conventions that Bradstreet certainly would have encountered in her wide reading. One is the well-known modesty topos, a long-established posture of authorial self-effacement and disparagement. Critics have differed about the degree of genuine self-doubt in Bradstreet's apparently formulaic apologies, but since all but one of them appear in poems she wrote before the age of thirty-five (and significantly, before her father's death), it seems reasonable to suppose that the novice poet found some real and necessary comfort in a convention that provided an acceptable outlet for her fears. Far more interesting, however, are her early imaginative encounters with a second convention, namely, the often-used image of the pen (an image that virtually disappears from Bradstreet's work after 1650), for this is a masculine symbol whose employment by a woman poet can never quite be taken for granted.
Among Bradstreet's favorite reading, we know, was the work of Sir Philip Sidney, perhaps her distant kinsman. Sidney's use of the pen in the first sonnet of Astrophel and Stella (1598) is probably the best-known occurrence of that image in English literature: a pen that, truant or idle though it appears, eventually delivers the poet from his allegedly pregnant state in a sort of hermaphroditic triumph. Today we are acutely aware, especially from the work of Gilbert and Gubar, that for women writers, the pen can represent a fearsome problem—this phallic instrument that the male writer wields in literally "begetting" his "thoughts on paper," this symbol of the male author's sexual authority that is also "the essence of literary power." Little wonder, then, that when the twenty-six-year-old Bradstreet took up her pen, early in her writing life, to record a tribute to her hero, Sidney, she could not get this time-worn convention of her literary culture to work for her….
Apollo laught to patch up what's begun,
He bad me drive, and he would hold the Sun;
Better my hap, then was his darlings fate,
For dear regard he had of Sydney's state,
Who in his Deity, had so deep share,
That those that name his fame, he needs must spare,
He promis'd much, but th' muses had no will,
To give to their detractor any quill.
With high disdain, they said they gave no more,
Since Sydney had exhausted all their store,
That this contempt it did the more perplex,
In being done by one of their own sex;
They took from me, the scribling pen I had,
I to be eas'd of such a task was glad.
For to revenge his wrong, themselves ingage,
And drave me from Parnassus in a rage,
Not because, sweet Sydney's fame was not dear,
But I had blemish'd theirs, to make't appear;
I pensive for my fault, sat down, and then,
Errata, through their leave threw me my pen.
For to conclude my poem two lines they daigne,
Which writ, she bad return't to them again.
So Sydney's fame, I leave to England's Rolls,
His bones do lie interr'd in stately Pauls.
[In "Anne Bradstreet's Public Poetry and The Tradition of Humility," Early American Literature 17 (1982)], Eileen Margerum makes the interesting argument that this passage is a "diversion" and "not a statement of poetic self-doubt," that Bradstreet's aim here is to deflect attention from her "unorthodox views" in praising Sidney's amorous poetry at all, since he was then "out of favor with the Puritans." But, regardless of her conscious motives, Bradstreet's treatment of the pen figure has nothing in common with the confident, even breezy literary sexuality of the male poets. Instead, there is shame before her own sex for having a pen at all; it must be confiscated by those Fury-like muses, only to be returned for brief service—hurled at her like a weapon by "Errata." Clearly, it is an insulting mistake for Mistress Bradstreet to wield a pen, and the problem is not handled, as it might have been, with irony and wit. The episode takes shape through a barrage of classical images strewn nervously and even bewilderedly about. One detects real, not mock, distress in this passage, confusion as to what the poet's stance should really be, and a sense that the whole weight of inherited literary convention is pressing the poet into an uneasy, abrupt silence.
This is not an isolated case, merely attributable to the fact that the Sidney elegy was probably only the second poem Bradstreet ever wrote. In "To her most Honoured Father," Bradstreet dedicates her earliest efforts to Thomas Dudley, even though her "lowly pen" is unequal to the "Eagles quill." Dudley presumably used in writing his own (now lost) poem on the four parts of the world. "In honour of Du Bartas, 1641" finds Bradstreet wishing for "an Angels voice, or Barta's pen," although her tongue is hopelessly "mute." At the end of the Grecian section of "The Foure Monarchies," "My tyred braine, leaves to a better pen, / This taske befits not women, like to men." Even the elegy to a woman, Queen Elizabeth, questions the efficacy of the poet's pen, though in a milder way: "No Phoenix, Pen, nor Spencers Poetry" can sufficiently praise "Eliza." He who would do so "Must dip his Pen i'th' Heleconian Well; Which I may not … " A few years after the Sidney elegy, however, Bradstreet's "Prologue" to the so-called Quaternions—her four long poems on the elements, humours, ages, and seasons—finally uses the pen image with complexity and skill.
1. To sing of Wars, of Captaines, and of Kings,
Of Cities founded, Common-wealths begun,
For my mean Pen, are too superiour things,
And how they all, or each, their dates have run:
Let Poets and Historians set these forth,
My obscure Verse, shal not so dim their worth.
2. But when my wondring eyes, and envious heart,
Great Bartas sugar'd lines doe but read o're;
Foole, I doe grudge, the Muses did not part
'Twixt him and me, that over-fluent store;
A Bartas can, doe what a bartas wil,
But simple I, according to my skill.
3. From School-boyes tongue, no Rhethorick we expect,
Nor yet a sweet Consort, from broken strings,
Nor perfect beauty, where's a maine defect,
My foolish, broken, blemish'd Muse so sings;
And this to mend, alas, no Art is able,
'Cause Nature made it so irreparable.
4. Nor can I, like that fluent sweet tongu'd Greek
Who lisp'd at first, speake afterwards more plaine
By Art, he gladly found what he did seeke,
A full requitall of his striving paine:
Art can doe much, but this maxime's most sure,
A weake or wounded braine admits no cure.
5. I am obnoxious to each carping tongue,
Who sayes my hand a needle better fits,
A Poets Pen, all scorne, I should thus wrong;
For such despight they cast on female wits:
If what I do prove well, it wo'nt advance,
They'l say it's stolne, or else, it was by chance.
6. But sure the antick Greeks were far more milde,
Else of our Sex, why feigned they those nine,
And poesy made, Calliope's owne childe,
So 'mongst the rest, they plac'd the Arts divine:
But this weake knot they will full soone untye,
The Greeks did nought, but play the foole and lye.
7. Let Greeks be Greeks, and Women what they are,
Men have precedency, and still excell,
It is but vaine, unjustly to wage war,
Men can doe best, and Women know it well;
Preheminence in each, and all is yours,
Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.
8. And oh, ye high flown quils, that soare the skies,
And ever with your prey, still catch your praise,
If e're you daigne these lowly lines, your eyes
Give wholsome Parsley wreath, I aske no Bayes:
This meane and unrefined stuffe of mine
Will make your glistering gold but more to shine.
This poem has been much discussed, and its fifth stanza is probably the most quoted of all of Bradstreet's lines. The poem's witty send-up of male "superiority" hinges cleverly on the juxtaposition of male pen and female needle—witty, but awesomely serious in its revelation of a woman writer's tangled feelings about her vocation. Here, the pen figure is mingled with two other emotionally laden image-clusters: needle, tongue, musical instrument—all of which have sexual overtones, and two of which can be dangerous; and images of threat and hurt: wars, wounds, brokenness, the preying of hawks. Moreover, the famous fifth stanza is notable not only for the needle/pen opposition, but also for the key word "obnoxious." Since its primary 17th-century meaning was "exposed to (actual or possible) harm; subject to injury or evil," we must read the line, "I am vulnerable to criticism," not "repellent to my critics," as we would mean now. It is the effect on herself of those cutting tongues, and not her effect on them, that worries the speaker. For this poet, the tongue—in some poems directly associated with the masculine pen—is a fearsome object; in others, as here, the speaker also has a good deal of pain and trouble with her own tongue. The reader's eye is also drawn to stanza three, poignantly and familiarly rendering the woman poet-singer as defective or deformed, a musical instrument that has been played too roughly, its strings broken, no longer virginal (and the pun is intended, for this might be a virginal, that small tabletop harpsichord popular in the 16th and 17th Centuries), foolish, broken, and blemished. The poem, with its freight of cutting, wounding, and maimed objects, seems to say, "Don't hurt me, men." Yet all the while, the speaker shoots out barbs or needles of her own, by fearlessly launching her poem in the masculine, old-world epic mode of the Aeneid, by tossing off puns, by playing on the art-versus-nature convention, by skillful rhetorical shifts—in all these ways, she seems to laugh at the male literati. In the guise of subservience, couched in the conventions of poetic self-effacement, she needles her supposed critics. In fact, the needle in stanza five may be less important as a symbol of women's domesticity than as a symbol of women's weaponry. If in the masculine world of wars, captains, and kings, the pen is mightier than the sword, the woman poet can hope to make the needle, and the act of needling, mightier than the pen.
But it is not a successful standoff. There is still the anxiety and the pain in this poem about the making of poems. Susan Gubar tells us [in "'The Blank Page' and the Issues of Female Creativity," in The New Feminist Giticism, ed. Elaine Showalter, 1985] that for a woman the making of art can feel like the destruction of the woman's own body.
Because of the forms of self-expression available to women, artistic creation often feels like a violation, a belated reaction to male penetration rather than a possessing and controlling…. Women's paint and ink are produced through a painful wounding, a literal influence of male authority. If artistic creativity is likened to biological creativity, the terror of inspiration for women is experienced quite literally as the terror of being entered, deflowered, possessed, taken, had, broken, ravished—all words which illustrate the pain of the passive self whose boundaries are being violated…. [Women artists] often describe the emergence of their talent as an infusion from a male master rather than inspiration from or sexual commerce with a female muse.
Such may well be the case with the early Bradstreet, even though we must respect the long distance and differentness between the centuries. True, in "The Prologue," Bradstreet's broken, out-of-tune muse is female, is herself; in her very early elegy to the epic poet Guillaume Du Bartas, she "compares" her muse to "a Chide" (but interestingly, a boy child) whose speech falters and who is also "weake brain'd I." But Bradstreet's muse in a truer sense was the man who was "the strongest influence in her life"—her father, Thomas Dudley. To him, she consecrated all of her early work, which she clearly felt he had inspired; from him flowed any "worth" she might contain; to him, all duty owed. It may be, as Wendy Martin argues, [in An American Triptych, 1984] that the contrasts between Bradstreet's elegy for her mother (a remarkably pallid poem) and the elegy for her father "dramatize the differences in roles that Puritan women and men were expected to play in their society." They also dramatize the differences in Bradstreet's feelings towards each of her parents. "Father, Guide, Instructor too," he was the one who gave his second child and eldest daughter her extraordinary education, and he was the one, apparently, to encourage her writing (or whose encouragement mattered). He was also at least one of her poetic "precursors" or "mythic progenitors," for he had written poetry, almost all of it now lost. For this reason, he may also have been what Joanne Feit Diehl calls "the composite father … the main adversary" [in "Come Slowly—Eden," Signs 3 (1978)].
Diehl, in her study of women poets and the muse, points out that male poets are naturally able to "separate their poetic fathers—mythic progenitors—from the [traditionally female] muse" and by engaging in an oedipal struggle to court the muse away from the poetic father or precursor, "invoke the aura of inspiration" they desire. But such a synthesis is denied the woman poet, who "cannot 'beget' art upon the (female) body of the muse" and who therefore must get her "literal influence," in Gubar's phrase, from a "male master"; so she conflates precursor and muse into a "doubly potent" masculine figure, "fears his priapic power and wards him off with intense anxiety as she simultaneously seeks to woo him." These insights into the woman poet's dilemma seem especially ominous for Bradstreet: to have had a muse who was both her "poetic father" and actual father must have been burdensome indeed. There is a telling glimpse of this problem in a pair of passages. In the final stanza of "The Prologue," the speaker both "wards off" and "woos" the manly "high flown quils, that soare the skies" catching "prey"; we find the same image in "To her most Honoured Father," written about the same time (1642) and paying ambivalent homage to Thomas Dudley's own poem on the four parts of the world.
Their paralells to finde I scarcely know,
To climbe their Climes, I have nor strength, nor skill,
To mount so high, requires an Eagles quill:
Yet view thereof, did cause my thoughts to soare,
My lowly pen, might wait upon those four.
Thus, the poet teases and resents, worships and fears the patriarchal "Eagles quill"—the only means available to her for writing poetry. Given the confusion of the paternal presence in her creative imagination and given the "conventional romantic relationship of poet and muse," we can understand why Bradstreet fled, Daphne-like, from the Apollonian laurel that her poems might have earned: The violent sexual origins of the "Bayes" may have seemed much too close for comfort.
But we should not forget that even as he was her muse and progenitor, Governor Thomas Dudley exerted something other than mythic force. He was also, to his daughter's imagination and in actual fact, a figure in history: "One of thy Founders, him New-England know, / Who staid thy feeble sides when thou wast low," and a formidable founder at that, who according to his own account, "Dy'd no Libertine" and whose daughter defended him as
True Patriot of this little Commonweal,
Who is't can tax thee ought, but for thy zeal?
Truths friend thou wert, to errors still a foe,
Which caus'd Apostates to maligne so.
Thy love to true Religion e're shall shine,
My Father's God, be God of me and mine.
But it was not Dudley's allegedly stern and "arrogant" character alone that made him central to his daughter's poetic quest. She, of course, claimed in her elegy to him that he was "Well known and lov'd, where ere he liv'd" (prudently adding, "by most"); but something more interesting is revealed in the succeeding line, bland as it may at first appear: "Both in his native, and in foreign coast." Dudley's native coast was, of course, on the British side of the Atlantic, whereas New England, in Bradstreet's vocabulary, was still "foreign" after more than twenty years. Whether it seemed foreign to her own sensibility or whether the poet was assuming Dudley's own outlook, one thing seems clear: This was Dudley's "historical" significance for her; he was, in all his power and presence, a figure of the Old World; he "was" the Old World. Hence, it was only after he died in 1653, a few years after the publication of The Tenth Muse, that Bradstreet's poetry began to steer its well-known course away from patriarchal European literary models and toward the personal and empirical, never to return…. Fifty-six years ago, Samuel Eliot Morison attributed the shift in Bradstreet's poetic life to the trauma of seeing The Tenth Muse in print, which "completely cured her of the Du Bartas disease, and of writing imitative poetry." A recent interpretation by Wendy Martin is that the liberating shift occurred on the death of the father. Martin is right, but we may add that with Dudley's passing came the "death" of old England to Bradstreet's poetic imagination. When Bradstreet lamented in her elegy that "His Generation serv'd his labours cease." did she not feel the double impact of these words? Yes, Dudley the governor and magistrate had served and labored for his contemporaries, and his entire generation of Winthrops and Cottons, now dead, had served and labored for the country; but Dudley's "Generation" of a poet-daughter, his "labours" as her mythic progenitor—these, too, had served and passed. That these complementary readings are so tightly joined in one or two words indicates the inseparability in Bradstreet's psyche of Dudley the muse from Dudley the type of his "native" England. Now Bradstreet had to go her own way in the "pathless paths" of the New World experience. Now her book "had no father."
"The Author to her Book" marks this point of no return. Though precise dating of her writings is sometimes impossible, there is no reason to doubt that Bradstreet wrote this poem shortly after the surprise appearance of The Tenth Muse in 1650 and therefore near the time of her father's death. Addressed to the work that had been "snatcht" by her brother-in-law and "expos'd to publick view" by being published in England without Bradstreet's permission, the poem at first appears to give conventional treatment to a familiar metaphor: the book as the author's brainchild.
Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise then true
Who thee abroad, expos'd to publick view,
Made thee in raggs, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judg).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:
I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joynts to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling then is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i'th' house I find.
In this array 'mongst vulgars mayst thou roam,
In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come;
And take thy way where yet though art not known,
If for thy father askt, say thou hadst none:
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door.
Although it is not strictly an envoi, "The Author to her Book" may be tellingly compared with numerous selfdisparaging "sendings on the way" of "newborn" books by Bradstreet's admired predecessors. [In Shakespeare's Images of Pregnancy, 1980], Elizabeth Sacks has shown that at a time when "the English language itself was undergoing rebirth," scores of Renaissance works, "born from the poet's laborious throes," were "viewed as … vulnerable, helpless infant[s] struggling for existence in an unfriendly world." Spenser, Sidney, Chapman, Turberville, Lyly, Dekker, Shakespeare, and others dressed the idea with "florid obstetrical metaphors," imagining their creations with "bleeding" and "gaping wounds" inflicted in "delivery" by careless printers, or literary offspring maimed, crippled, lame, deformed, and monstrous, vulnerable to harsh treatment by the larger world. Sacks points out that "rediscovery of the generation metaphor"—which can be traced back at least as far as Plato—"seemed appropriate" in a period of prosperity, expansion, and "great literary productivity," but her findings suggest that in the hands of authors afflicted with "male womb-envy," the metaphor often took on a dark and even bitter aspect. Coinciding with the "novelty of popular printing" and the burgeoning of published literary texts, it gave shape to the poets' fears about winning sympathetic support from patrons and public, and it could even be twisted into a "savage" weapon of "displeasure and contempt," as in the Harvey—Nash debate of the 1590s. It may even have reflected Tudor and Elizabethan obsessiveness about barrenness and the production of heirs.
Bradstreet, then, had at her disposal a rich and wellworked, if somewhat equivocal, metaphor. She must have known Spenser's dedication to Sir Philip Sidney of The Shepheardes Calender (1579), wherein the poet, in the modest guise of "Immerito," sends his "little booke" to the patron for protection: It goes, "As child whose parent is vnkent"; if "Enuie barke at thee," it is to hide under the patron's wing; if asked who made it, it will reply that a "shepheards swaine" sang it while feeding his flock; if asked its name, "Say thou wert base begot with blame / For Thy thereof thou takest shame"; in the end, "when thou art past ieopardee, / Come tell me, what was sayd of mee / And I will send more after thee." She must also have known Sidney's own dedication to The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1590), which likened "this idle work of mine" to an unwanted child.
As the cruel fathers among the Greeks were wont to do to the babes they would not foster, I could well find in my heart to cast out in some desert of forgetfulness this child which I am loth to father. But you desired me to do it. … I hope, for the father's sake, it will be pardoned, perchance made much of, though in itself it have deformities…. [My head] having many, many fancies begotten in it, if it had not been in some way delivered would have grown a monster…. But his chief safety shall be the not walking abroad; and his chief protection the bearing the livery of your name.
The exploitation of this metaphor went to even greater lengths when the poet felt no need to portray himself as a serious, courteous gentleman. Such was Bradstreet's Southern contemporary, George Alsop, four years an indentured servant in Maryland, whose own "The Author to his Book" introduced a satirical pamphlet (1666) describing that colony. Alsop's ribald, violent couplets begin with a lifelike account of the poet's seduction, rape, and abondonment by Apollo. The resulting boy-child is a "Brat as black as Ink," and the poet, fearing he will be accused of fornication with an African slave, throws his "Bastard" out into "a monstrous World," imaginning all sorts of degradations for him and his final death by hanging, although "In Resurrection he will surely live." Half the poem is taken up with acid portrayals of English critics as sour, stuffy, and posturing murderers, ignorant "Asses and captious Fools" incapable of understanding "The Heathen dresses of another Land" and who are not "real men." The poet, presumably, is a real man, and he indicates it in part by toying bawdily with the childbirth metaphor as a slap against the fastidious critics of himself and of the New World.
Yet the reader gets very different impressions from the men's protestations, on the one hand, and Bradstreet's, on the other. All these poets achieve ironic effects based on the notion of parental love, all employ a grotesque imagery that is unacceptable on a logical plane, and all betray a genuine affection for the "base-born" literary child. But Spenser, Sidney, and other courtly male poets are concerned primarily with paying an elaborate if convoluted compliment to actual patrons and often to their literary precursors, as Chaucer had done in his envoi to Troilus and Criseyde. Their transparent pose of humility is grounded in a real situation, i.e., their precarious, discomforting dependence on the patronage of powerful royals and nobles. Hence, the men who write these poems, including Alsop, reassert their autonomy by teasing and mauling the parent-child figure until it yields up an aggrandized, even defiant picture of the poet himself, whether he is a tough guy, a charming, singing swain, or a manly, Zeuslike brain enticingly swollen with fancies.
Bradstreet's treatment of the metaphor is something apart from all these. We must remember that she probably felt compelled to write her poem in response to the prefatory one by her brother-in-law John Woodbridge, whose Tenth Muse dedication, "To my deare Sister, the Author of these Poems," called the book "so faire an infant," defended his own efforts "To force a womans birth" and "Expose her Labours," and regretted that without Bradstreet's "owne sweet hand; 'Tis not so richly deckt, so trimly tir'd." In reply, Bradstreet's lowly imagery of a fatherless child roughly handled may look conventional and may seem to be-speak some half-playful mixture of self-deprecation and secret pride; but the homely, realistic details—the washing and rewashing of the "child's" face, the store of homespun cloth "i' th' house"—and the relative gentleness with which the speaker tries to mend the (once again) blemished, broken child are not in the reckless spirit of the male poets. It is as if the poet is not really comfortable with this particular tradition, and, although she purports to use it in the mannered, clever, and masculine way, some real distress seeps out in what seems a muted reprimand to her brother-in-law, to male literati in general, and perhaps particularly to those in the Old World "abroad." The reluctant use of imagery that would be unnatural to a loving mother and caretaker of many children is more a sign of withdrawal from the bastions of literary patriarchy (implied in the poem's very first line) than it is either a genuine confession of artistic inadequacy or even a plea for critical acceptance. When this poet remarks that her poems have no father, she does not do so in an ironic pretense of rejecting the "child," like Spenser or Sidney. It is the truth. Her poems have no courtly patron and no familial pater. The patron/pater is dead, and with him, as we have seen, something of the Old World itself. Hence, the poem is built on a foundation that must be discarded. If there are traces of some breach between old England and New England in the emotional thrust of the poem's contents, such a breach is also implied in the skewed employment of a convention, deeply embedded in European literary culture, that will not serve in the new place….
Still, we might expect Bradstreet to use the figure more than she does, at least in the early period of her writing, when she was closer to European conventions and when, as a bride, she was also very much preoccupied with her own (biological) fertility. The convention, however, is scarcely there, and both of the two Bradstreet poems that do clearly use the maternity/creativity metaphor—one is "The Author to her Book," as we have already seen—come late in her writing life and are unusually fearful and melancholy. We need only recall the historical alliance of childbirth and death—death of the mother and of the baby—to realize why this should be so. But the curse of Eve, "the great daunger" and "the great paine and peryl of child birthe," was not only an axiom of life in an age when twelve to fifteen percent of English women died in childbirth and many more from ensuing "complications" and "debilitations"; it was also inescapably linked with male domination: "Vnto the woman he said, I wil greately increase thy sorrows, & thy conceptions. In sorowe shalt thou bring forthe children, and thy desire shal be subject to thine housband, and he shal rule ouer thee" (Genesis 3:16). Well might these associations have dampened the creative urges of any woman who dared on her own to write poems. But perhaps just as significant were contemporary assumptions about the exact role of the woman in the process of reproduction. Marina Warner points out [in Alone of All Her Sex, 1983] that before 19th-century microscopes discovered the ovum, a mother was regarded as "merely a nutritive force in the genesis of a human life," the passive storehouse of substance and food; whereas the "vital procreative" part that gave "form and movement" to the child was believed to be only by the active "operation" of the father. Moreover, Warner vividly recalls the traditional Christian association of mother Eve with "nature, a form of low matter," and with "all that is vile, lowly, corruptible" and physically repellent: "Woman was womb and womb was evil." It was all very well for men to play with these notions in their ironic melodramas of giving birth to poems, but quite another for women poets, who lived inside women's bodies, and most of whom had, of course, experienced actual, physical childbirth, to want to associate these negativities and condemnations with their literary labors. And if, as in Bradstreet's case, the muse was envisioned as her very own father, the "paine and peryl" of artistic childbirth would be grievous indeed, if not unthinkable….
If a poet's voice is "something he inherits, but which environment modifies and on which experience tells," then Bradstreet's destiny as a poet had to be tied intimately to the new place, with all its problems and perplexities. Yet Bradstreet did warble out the old and did begin anew by turning a problem, this very problem of speech and of language, into an opportunity to write a different sort of poetry than she had been trained to write.
This development is perhaps most clearly seen in those poems, written a few years after she composed "Contemplations," in which Bradstreet lamented the deaths, within a period of four years, of three small grandchildren, all the offspring of her first-born son, Samuel. The three poems have been subjected to some Puritan-like wrangling among scholars over the alleged heresy and unorthodoxy of grandmother Bradstreet's struggle between grief and belief. Yet surely as human beings we can assume that the loss of a child or grandchild is deeply and searingly felt even within a religious life, and that it is worthwhile to look at the poems as poems, as constructs of language that reveal something about the expression of feeling in poetry and even in American poetry. The question is not only one of dogma and Puritan orthodoxy, but, given the human anguish at the deaths of these children, a question of how the experience gets translated into poetic language and form.
When we explore this question, we find that the three elegies form a related group and should be read as such, for there are noticeable progressions in feeling and form from Elizabeth's to Anne's to Simon's memorial. Even the titles record this change: The two granddaughters are "deceased," but the grandson, third to go, has "dyed"; the first two died "being a year and half old" and "being three years and seven Moneths old," the third died "being but a moneth, and one day old", (emphasis added). The first elegy, to Elizabeth, is set within a framework of natural phenomena, plants, fruits, and flowers; the second, to Anne, is set in a more ephemeral realm of bubble, glass, and turning shadow; the third stands nakedly before God. The first is in two neat seven-line stanzas with a carefully woven rhyme scheme of couplets and triplets, the second is in nine consecutive couplets, and the last is in just six couplets, as if to echo the brevity of the tiny infant's life. The first two start with conscious statement directed outward: "Farewel dear babe," "With troubled heart & trembling hand I write"; the third opens with a musing not so much heard as overheard: "No sooner come, but gone, and fal'n asleep." The first two speak in the first person singular: "Blest babe why should I once bewail thy fate," "How oft with disappointment have I met," "I knew she was but as a withering flour"; the last elegy entirely eschews the "I" in favor of a general "we." The first takes on the question of the natural order of things with a certain stately, declarative didacticism; the second quivers with a series of rhetorical shifts that act out the "troubled heart" of the speaker as she moves through a swift succession of moods; but the third gives us what can only be called the sound of silence.
No sooner come, but gone, and fal'n asleep,
Acquaintance short, yet parting caus'd us weep,
Three flours, two scarcely blown, the last i'th' bud,
Cropt by th' Almighties hand; yet is he good,
With dreadful awe before him let's be mute,
Such was his will, but why, let's not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust,
Let's say he's merciful, as well as just,
He will return, and make up all our losses,
And smile again, after our bitter crosses.
Go pretty babe, go rest with Sisters twain
Among the blest in endless joyes remain.
Brevity and compression are the expressive strategy here, and the flickering, halting rhythm, the absence of an "I," and the silent spaces in the poem all suggest a speaker withdrawn or withdrawing, not unlike Emily Dickinson's speaker in "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." This is a tight-lipped poem, hinging on silence. A full third of the poem enjoins quiet and constraint. The tone throughout is one of chary resistance to speech, of breath held back. The hand of God "Crops" in silence, as in a desert or a vacuum and not amidst the rustically abundant nature of the Elizabeth poem. The Savior, of course, does not speak, but only smiles enigmatically and eerily. The one direct speech in the poem utterly undercuts the notion of communication: "Go pretty babe, go rest with Sisters" is a timeworn domestic formula and seemingly all the speaker can manage, like a weary mother sending the noisy children out to play so she can be quiet and alone. In all these ways, the poem enfolds itself in a taut, laconic moodliness. Yet line seven, "With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust," draws us in; it is the exact center of the poem and the only line rooted in the Bible. The source is the Lamentations of Jeremiah (3:26–29):
It is good bothe to trust, and to waite for the saluation of the Lord.
It is good for a man that he beare the yoke in his youth.
He sitteth alone, and kepeth silence, because he hath borne it vpon him.
He putteth his mouth in the dust, if there maie be hope.
The Geneva exegesis for these last two lines reads, "He murmureth not against God, but is pacient. He humbleth him selfe as thei that falle downe with their face to the grounde, & so with pacience waiteth for succour." So again, speech is enjoined, but with an important anticipation of change. We are reminded of Job, whose story also stands behind the grandchild elegies ("Man that is born of woman, is of short continuance, and ful of trouble. He shooteth forthe as a flowre, and is cut downe: he vanisheth also as a shadow, & continueth not" [14:1–2]), and who does eventually encounter a God who speaks to him. Much has been said about these poems' stony resistance to the divine dispensation; but, at least, by grounding her elegies in certain portions of scripture, Bradstreet can remind herself of the promise of succour that eventually will come from God in speech, in dialogue with man, even if it is only in the next world: "Thou drewest nere in the daye that I called vpon thee: thou saidest, Feare not" (Lamentations 3:57, emphasis added); or perhaps more to the point, she can remove herself in some sense from the little world of men and recall the great lesson that "Job's answer was found, not in the friends' talk about a God who puts everything to right in the world's affairs, nor even in what God says and does, but in God himself." [Hugh Anderson, "The Book of Job," in The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, 1971].
In the meantime, in this realm, the poem stands, honest and uncompromising, held together by the tensile strength of its speechless speech…. What she can do is speak in a voice of stark honesty, unwilling to fall into archness, reticent to the point of silence, yet all the more eloquent for what she withholds, the buried feeling in the line. Albert Gelpi has characterized "the American strain as it splits away from the British" in terms of Edward Taylor's qualities: "honesty which lacks tact and finish, self-involvement which can snarl itself in knots and crotchets, fresh energy which can move into clumsiness, a complex personal idiom ready to sacrifice conventional clarity." I would suggest that Bradstreet's quieter honesty and her forced, oblique inwardness are also characteristic, emerging in a plainer surface by far than Taylor's and one that looks simple, but which does not sound so to the attentive ear. Bradstreet's muted voice, her sound of silence, is an eloquent construct of the unsaid but not the unarticulated. It is a voice suited to the experience of a New World not yet fully accessible to the consciousness of its inhabitants.
Some of the subtlety and intensity of Bradstreet's achievement can be foreseen in an early poem, "Before the Birth of one of her Children," written some time before 1647 and therefore possibly the first of her warblings "anew." This is Bradstreet's other "childbirth" poem, but it is a birth poem in a far more authentic way than is "The Author to her Book" or similar works by contemporary male poets. We have seen that for the woman writer, birth is too weighty a matter to be used as a mere device: When Bradstreet does give it serious attention as a metaphor, it is completely integral to the meaning of the poem.
All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joyes attend;
No tyes so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with deaths parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh inevitable;
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon't may be thy Lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot's unty'd that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my dayes that's due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
The many faults that well you know I have,
Let be interr'd in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel'st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms:
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes my dear remains.
And if thou love thy self, or loved'st me
These O protect from step Dames injury.
And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent Herse;
And kiss this paper for thy loves dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last Farewel did take.
This poem is about itself, quite literally. Its goal is both physical union and immortality through the poem as an object, as a palpable thing. The poem begins with what appear to be the usual aphorisms about the mutability of all things, but these conventional statements have a sharp point, for as Bradstreet unfolds her poem, its own existence and its own mutability will be brought into question. From the outset, the poem turns the reader's attention increasingly toward itself and toward the immediate situation, i.e., the situation that impels the poet to write "these [particular] farewell lines," until it ends in its own concrete objectification: a paper to be kissed, imbued with salt tears that can be tasted by the mouth. The taste of salt has many associations and surely suggests here the poet's bitter grief at the possibility of losing her husband (she loses him if she dies): We hear echoes of the story of Lot's wife and of the Passover symbolism. But probably, just as surely, this 17th-Century housewife would think of salt as a preservative against deterioration. The speaker juxtaposes images of nothingness, emptiness, absence, numbness, and oblivion with images of decay: "Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms" is oddly necrophiliac; the children as "remains" grotesquely bring to mind the poet's own rotting corpse. Yet the paradox is that something pure will actually be preserved from mere nothingness and from decay: the poem, written on its salt-soaked paper. This general notion may not seem very startling—it has been encountered before, notably in Shakespeare's sonnets—but the immediacy and physicalness of the poem's language are unusual. These are first apparent in the double meaning of line five: "The sentence past is most irrevocable" calls attention to the preceding line as a physical thing; it is there and it is irrevocable, as is the heavy blow of the death sentence, to which it is a witness. Similarly, "these farewell lines" are these lines and no others. Moreover, the lines are woven with exhortations, initially in the form of gentle subjunctives but soon transformed into relentless imperatives: Love thy dead, look to my babes, protect the children, honor my hearse, kiss this paper. There is, especially, a constant implied demand to look at the poem and to remember its injunctions as one remembers its author. Indeed, "Look to my little babes my dear remains" has the same kind of double force as line five, for those babes, those remains, can be construed as the poems as well as the children that have been created. In a sense, poem and author, poems and children, are all one, and they can be kept alive only through the perceptions of Simon Bradstreet. Although it is beyond the poet's power to ensure her husband's reading of this poem, with its ensuing effects, her concern about reaching his eyes is one indication of that command she is trying to exercise over his person: his mind (memory), his affections (love), his senses (seeing, kissing, tasting), all through the immediacy and activism of the language of the poem as it is being read and presumably reread.
Hence, by the end of the poem, it is clear that the poem itself has taken an active part in the process it relates: the process of preserving the feeling that fueled it, not "consumed with that which it was nourished by" so much as preserving that which nourished it, in the living act of being read. And this physical participation in the process of its own creation, or at least in the process of its emergence into someone else's consciousness, is something like what babies do to be born into the world. There is even a laborious "panting" quality in the sequence of breathless pleas beginning with "and" in the last ten lines: "And when thou feel'st," "And when thy loss," "And if thou love," "And if chance," "And kiss this paper." One might say the poem "is" a baby, and the baby is the poet's self or the part of herself that loves her family, idealized into art. [In The Nightingale's Burden, 1982], Cheryl Walker in fact points to "the association between self-representation in children ('my dear remains') and self-perpetuation in art" as the key to the poem. Yet the children are less important in the poem than the literal birth of the poem itself. Unlike the male poet who uses childbirth as a fancy or a conceit, Bradstreet implants the metaphor so deeply within the poem that we feel something, some identity, some meaning, is really struggling to be born here, struggling to be engendered. From the feminist point of view, that something may well be a "wounded" self, or worse, an eternally absent self, represented only by the paper, which will be read by the man, thus returning the woman to her customary entombment as man's "text and artifact." Yet the interwoven issues of self-birth, self-preservation, and self-expression to which this poem attests are not necessarily confined to women or even to individuals. We have here a whole society trying to give birth to itself, to preserve itself, to utter itself; yet the members situated in a relationship with old England that consists in being what Leslie Fiedler has called "The Other's Other," a people whose self-definition must be determined "not directly, but reflexively," against its own mythologized version of the Old World. So here, the poet's "translated" self is to be reconstructed by the imagined Other, the husband, as he literally reads her in the form of the poem that she herself has made. It is not a simple, domestic, "woman's" poem, and although it is certainly not a resolution of problems (not that poems should be), it takes us a long way from needles and pens. The old, clever conventions are gone; in their place are the makings of a more powerful and ingrown symbolism, rooted in concrete and inescapable experience. "Before the Birth" may not be a second "Nativity Ode," but it is a step toward honest dealing with American concerns, a step that could not have been taken in the same way by a mannered minor English poet like Katherine Philips. Yet it is a poem that only a woman could have written. This is not to suggest that New England's men did not experience the problem of identity or of finding an authentic voice; just the contrary. But no man of the first generation recorded these struggles in a significant way in poetry: It fell to a woman to do it, forced by her gender into a confrontation with urgent problems of poetic expression.
Indeed, an argument can be made that all the first-generation colonists were in the position of women—a variation on the feminist critics' theme that all women have been "colonized." Consider that the American Puritans were accused of cowardly, womanish flight from the troubles in England; that they had to grapple with problems of authority in Massachusetts while paying homage to a patriarchal home government that either patronized, chastised, or ignored them; that they had to face unprecedented experiences for which traditional language and forms were inadequate; that in New England there were subtle strictures on free expression by anybody. Psychologically and symbolically, the colonists were, in these respects, "women." For such a community, a woman poet was a natural representative, her nerve endings alert to the peculiar struggle for identity and for authentic expression that feminist critics have exposed as the urgent concerns of women writers, so many of whom have found themselves writing in a "New World." It is not, then, so surprising that Anne Bradstreet was bringing forth a newborn, New World poetry while men on both sides of the ocean were still engaged in the witty pleasures of literary couvade….
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6820
SOURCE: "'Then Have I … Said with David': Anne Bradstreet's Andover Manuscript Poems and the Influence of the Psalm Tradition," in Early American Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1989, pp. 52–69.
[In the following essay, Doriani discusses Bradstreet's use of the poetic conventions of the Biblical Psalms.]
"What we need to realize now," said Robert Daly in 1978 [in God's Altar: The World and the Flesh in Puritan Poetry], "is that … Puritan orthodoxy was conductive to the production of poetry, and that Bradstreet's poetry is illuminated by an understanding of the theology which structured the experiences her poetry expressed." Daly argued that Bradstreet remained faithful to her tradition in that she celebrated the sensible world while consistently ascending to a celebration of its Creator through her contemplations of the world. But Bradstreet's orthodoxy, as it emerges in her devotional poetry, goes even beyond her attitude toward the world and poetic uses of it. What she does in her Andover Manuscript poems is not only to draw on the themes and emphases of Puritan theology but to adopt the rhetorical techniques and voice of the Psalms as the Puritans understood them. Her imitation of the Psalms—in technique, stance, and thematic patterns—indicates her ability to work comfortably within her tradition, searching for a poetic language that God would accept.
That Anne Bradstreet's poetry reflects the influence of the Psalms—the Book of Psalms as well as the Bay Psalm Book—has been generally acknowledged. Her indebtedness to the psalm tradition is, however, far greater than an imitation of the metrics of the Bay Psalm Book translations or the diction and imagery found in the Book of Psalms. The Andover Manuscript poems, written as reflections on intensely personal events in her life, show a more comprehensive reliance on the Psalm tradition than has hitherto been acknowledged. For Bradstreet, the psalter and the Puritan tradition surrounding it prove conducive to the production of poetry and provide her with a voice to imitate, the Davidic voice, as she strives to praise God even in her suffering.
The importance of the Hebrew Psalms for the New England Puritans derives from the Protestant Reformation. With Calvin and Luther's sanctioning of psalm-singing for corporate as well as private worship came the quick adoption of the psalms as the hymnody of many churches in western Christendom. Translators drew on popular secular tunes for the music of their new metrical psalms; the balled or common meter of their renditions contrasted favorably with the unmeasured music of the Roman Catholic plain-chant. The rendering of the Psalms into vernacular poetry was a favorite pastime of poets and pastors from the Reformation through the eighteenth century. It is significant that only ten years after arriving in the New World the Massachusetts Bay Puritans produced their own psalter—the Bay Psalm Book—that would supersede the Pilgrims' Ainsworth Psalter in ease of singing and the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter in faithfulness of translation.
For the Puritans, the singing of psalms satisfied at least two priorities: their enjoyment of music and their high estimation of the language of Scripture. In the Psalms the Puritans found a catalogue of praises in a language acceptable to God. Tradition held that David, God's faithful servant, provided a model of the language of praise that God had sanctioned. Although he was admittedly human in his sinfulness, David was also regarded as a type of Christ. His composition of psalms, in their reflection of the range of human spiritual experience, opened up the channel between God and man. Thus the Psalms were important not only for joyful, corporate singing but also for serious study and meditation. The numerous metrical translations of the Psalms in the seventeenth century attest to their central place.
That David the type prefigures Christ the antitype is central to understanding the seventeenth-century view of the Psalms. In his role of suffering servant, David was seen as exemplifying Christly behavior in the struggle to overcome sin and gain redemption. In one respect, then, the Psalms were regarded as illuminations of the connection between the psalmist's situation and the struggles of the contemporary Christian. The Psalms not only gave Christians of all ages encouragement and comfort in their suffering, but also provided experiential patterns to imitate in the Christian journey towards obedient living. David was the foremost model for all pious exercise, from repentance to supplication to joyful praise. In his total dependence on God, David provided a sanctioned way of communicating with God. As a type of Christ, he provided the words suitable for imitation in the Christian struggle. Because he was human, Christians could identify with him; because he was a type of Christ, they could look to him as a guide in their own service of God.
David was a seminal figure for imitation not only in his spiritual struggles but also in his poetics. As the chief work of poetry in the Bible, the Book of Psalms itself became a model for devotional writers and poets. Luther had stressed the usefulness of the language of the Psalms in the composition of original verse. Since the age of assured inspiration had ended with the canonization of the New Testament, any devotional poet aspiring to write in a sanctioned manner had to be satisfied with imitating holy Scripture. The Psalms, then, were the essential model for sacred songs and poetry. The authors of the Bay Psalm Book, in justifying their metrical translations of the Psalms for worship, declared in their preface that "certainly the singing of Davids psalmes was an acceptable worship of God, not only in his owne, but in succeeding times." Further, because God Himself had sanctioned poetry by using it in the Psalms, poetry was seen as an acceptable vehicle for devotion—especially if it imitated the Psalms. Thus poetic activity had biblical justification. It is not surprising that the genres of the prayer-poem, the religious lyrical poem, and the hymn were popular in the seventeenth century: all were patterned on the models that David had presented in the Psalms. David was viewed, then, not only as a saint but also as a sanctified artist. The psalter thus became an aesthetic guide "through its stances, its voices, and its use of the Word of artistry God accepted." It provided the best of the language of humanity in its most noble service: communication with God.
In a personal journal begun in 1656, Bradstreet's first entry is a spiritual autobiography addressed to her children; she indicates her turning to the Psalms for solace in the midst of personal affliction. In the letter "To My Dear Children," she says that, in her times of greatest affliction, "I [have] gone to searching and have said with David, 'Lord, search me and try me, see what ways of wickedness are in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.'" As the model of the faithful pilgrim, David provides the words for her as she struggles with emotional crises and physical suffering. He also provides her with a sanctified poetics. As she indicates in the letter, her intention in writing is not "to show my skill, but to declare the truth, not to set forth myself, but the glory of God." At the same time, she indicates that her immediate purpose is that her children might have the "spiritual advantage" of her experience. She follows the letter with entries about her succeeding struggles with illness and doubt, recording the entries in both poetry and prose. Reliance on the Psalms for the poetry of this notebook provides her with the means to serve the spiritual advantage of her children in the larger context of glorifying God. In providing a poetic language acceptable to God, the Psalms also provide a mode which will give her poems a lasting pedagogical importance. As the psalmist's verses teach the children of God of all times, so does her imitation of the Psalms allow her to attain a sanctified immortality for these poems intended for her children. As she writes in her letter, she has bequeathed these poems to her children so that she "may be daily in [their] remembrance" and thus teach them even after she has died, encouraging their faithfulness to and hope in God. "Make use of what I leave in love," she writes in the poem that opens her letter, "And, God shall bless you from above." She shows her indebtedness to the Psalms in David's role both as faithful servant and as sanctified poet.
Certainly Bradstreet had written earlier about her personal suffering, even as early as 1632, as in "Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno 1632, Aetatis Suae, 19." This poem, unlike the poems on "public" topics, follows the common meter of the Bay Psalm Book, a meter that she would adopt again in the poetry of her notebook. But the similarity of this early poem to the Psalms—or to her later psalmlike poetry—stops there. Even the metaphor with which she opens and closes the poem, the "race" of the faithful follower of Christ, is not psalmic but Pauline (as in 2 Tim. 4:7). It is not until later in her life that she experiments with a full range of psalmic techniques in her personal poetry.
As [Adrienne] Rich points out [in her introduction to Jeannine Hensley, The Works of Anne Bradstreet, 1967], Bradstreet's active sensibility was decidedly changing after 1650, the year of the first edition of her The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up In America. The titles themselves of the thirteen poems added posthumously to the second edition (1678) indicate the change. These poems show a turn to more personal subjects: her responses to illness, the anticipation of the birth of a child, her loneliness for her husband in his absence, her responses to the deaths of grandchildren. No longer would she take on such subjects as the ancient monarchies, the four humors, or Queen Elizabeth. Instead, the poems become responses to the events of a woman's life, just as the poems in her notebook are. Five of the thirteen poems bear dates congruent with those of her notebook: "In Reference to Her Children, 23 June, 1659" and the poems on the deaths of grandchildren Elizabeth (1665), Anne (1669), and Simon (1669), and daughter-in-law Mercy (1669). It is noteworthy that three of these poems refer to deaths that occur in the autumn of 1669; one of the poems in the Andover Manuscript is also dated August 31, 1669. Yet none of the poems not in the notebook show any significant adoption of the psalm tradition. The poems of the notebook take on a special importance as she reserves the psalmic model for them. Through these poems we get a glimpse of a deeply personal side of Bradstreet, a side in which she shows us a deep commitment to her Puritan heritage as she struggles to assume the Davidic voice.
Since childhood Bradstreet had listened to the singing of the Psalms; she had heard the Psalms in the Sternhold and Hopkins version as a young child and then in the Bay Psalm Book in the fifteen years preceding her first journal entry. The authors of the Bay Psalm Book—university-trained ministers Thomas Weld, John Eliot, and Richard Mather—wanted to replace the Sternhold and Hopkins version with renditions more faithful to the original Hebrew, even if this meant a sacrifice of poetic effect. They declare in the psalter preface that their goal was to provide the psalms in their "native purity," not to give a paraphrase or in any way vary the sense of the sacred verse. For Bradstreet, the Bay Psalm Book translations provided a quite close rendering of the Hebrew Psalms at the same time that they provided verse models. These, and the Geneva Bible prose versions she read and meditated upon as a faithful Puritan, give her access to the biblical poetry and the psalm tradition.
The most insistent and persistent characteristics of the Bay Psalm Book selections—and Bradstreet's Andover Manuscript poems—are, of course, the metrical regularity and simple rhyme schemes. All but two of Bradstreet's poems of 1656–62 are in the two most common meters of the Bay Psalm Book: common meter and long meter. Bradstreet uses both the open (abcb) and closed (abab) rhyme schemes of the Bay Psalm Book. Although she does not imitate any particular psalm, the similarity in sound to the Bay Psalm Book selections is striking, as Psalm 23 demonstrates:
[Rivkah] Zim points out [in English Metrical Psalms, 1987] that, with respect to metrical psalms, metrical regularity can constrain a poet by the need either to fit his or her words to preexisting tunes, or to make the verses suitable for musical improvisation. Nevertheless, he recognizes, such metrical regularity would also have assisted a singer to read these holy songs and to sing them to brief melodies stanza by stanza. The metrical regularity and their ability to be sung would also make the verses easier to remember. Writing for an audience whom she very much wanted to edify, Bradstreet perhaps saw in the metrical psalms a form by which, in its ease of memorization, she and her lessons might be remembered.
Yet her larger purpose, as she indicates in her letter, is to glorify God. The diction and imagery found in the Psalms provide her with a sanctified poetic vocabulary. That she adopts the psalmic diction and imagery in the poems of her notebook is obvious, as in her use of the psalmic expressions of "paying vows" and "rendering praises" to God (appearing in eleven out of the fourteen Andover Manuscript poems); the biblical images of God as "light," "strength," "shelter," "shadow," and even a protective bird in His role of divine caretaker; the metaphor of God's "face" to suggest His favor; the metonomy of His rod and staff to reflect His fatherly, chastising care; and other psalmic figures. She uses such imagery to take the stance of the Davidic suffering servant. Like David, she suffers because of her own sin—and God's consequent chastisement—or because of the trials which are necessarily a part of her life, such as the loneliness she must endure in her husband's absence. In this stance as servant she voices her dependence on God by calling to Him in her afflictions or by praising Him as her help and strength. David provides a fitting model for her to emulate in her struggles with suffering and doubt. Even more strikingly, she imitates not only the psalmic diction and imagery but psalmic structural techniques as she imitates David's voice.
In her Andover Manuscript poems, Bradstreet uses interrogation, the shifting of audience, and amplification, which Fithian describes as, along with antithesis, the major rhetorical techniques used in the Psalms to express the poetic voice. As does the psalmist, Bradstreet sometimes uses the technique of interrogation to communicate her familiarity with God. This technique of direct questioning appears, for example, in Ps. 6: "My soule is also sore troubled: but Lord, how long wilt thou delay?" (v. 3). The psalmist often uses interrogation to call God to action. Since he enjoys a close relationship with God, he is in a position to urge God to take action, and he does so by interrogation. Likewise, Bradstreet uses interrogation in her poem "My Soul" when she writes, "Come Jesus quickly, Blessed Lord. / Thy face when shall I see?" (11. 25–26). More often, however, she uses the technique in the way that the psalmist uses it in Pss. 8, 27, and 89—as a sort of rhetorical device to communicate inadequacy and dependence on God. Here the direct questioning has the character of praise. Ps. 27:1 provides a good example: "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whome shall I feare? the Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I bee afraid?" Bradstreet uses the technique similarly in "In Thankful Remembrance for my Dear Husband's Safe Arrival":
What did I ask for but Thou gav'st?
What could I more desire?
As in Ps. 8:4, she does not intend her questions to be answered; she uses interrogation to communicate her own inadequacy before a gracious and loving God. The technique also appears, used in a similar way, in the opening lines of her "July 8, 1656" poem: "What God is like to Him I serve? / What Saviour like to mine?" (11. 1–2). The implicit answer, of course, is "none"—thus she goes on to praise her God. Like David, she communicates her worship of God, acknowledging the magnitude of His love and care. Such worship springs from her sense of gratitude to God: He has done so much for her in removing her affliction, yet He receives so little from her, as she asserts in an early prose passage from her journal. And again, like David, she realizes that the only offering she can make is praise. Interrogation provides her a vehicle to express her gratitude and praise in an intimate way.
Imitating David's shifting of audience within the context of a single psalm allows Bradstreet to give voice to her praise of God in a full way as well as to deal with her doubts in her times of suffering. In the Psalms, David often turns from addressing God to address his own soul or a general audience. It is common to see several shifts of audience in a single psalm; David will often address God, then turn to ask his soul a question, then turn back again to God in a report of the condition of his soul, as in Ps. 42:
In the first verse, the psalmist is obviously directing his words to God. Then he turns to his soul, rebuking it for its doubt and distress; subsequently he turns his attention back to God. At times, David shifts his attention to address a general audience, as in the ninth verse of Ps. 42: "I will say unto God, which is my rocke, Why hast thou forgotten mee?"
In Bradstreet's poetry, the shifting takes on special importance in that it provides her with the opportunities both to encourage her own children—her analogue to David's audience—and to praise God directly herself. As in "On My Son's Return," she urges her children on the path to obedience as she calls, in the first four lines, for "all praise to Him" (1. 1). Then she turns to address God herself, reviewing His faithfulness towards her in His care of her son. The shift implicitly allows her to praise God as His faithful servant as well as to remind her children—and herself—of the trustworthiness of God. In "For Deliverance from a Fever," she directs most of the poem to God Himself, recounting to Him her experience with a fever and, in doing so, offering her praise to Him. The shift to a general audience occurs near the end, after line 25:
Thou show'st to me Thy tender love,
My heart no more might quail.
O, praises to my mighty God,
Praise to my Lord, I say,
Who hath redeemed my soul from pit,
Praises to Him for aye.
Having experienced serious illness and recovery, Bradstreet desires to remind her readers that it is God who heals, as she states in her July 8, 1656, prose entry. Thus she turns in the last quatrain to call on a general audience to give praises to God. Reminding her children of the grounds for praise—the rescue of a suffering woman from her affliction—she urges them to join in her adoration, as if teaching them how to bless God. Moreover, the technique allows her to express the fullness of her gratitude: it is as if she feels so overwhelmed with gratitude that her own individual praise is insufficient as a response to God for His goodness to her.
Bradstreet's choosing to shift between a variety of audiences instead of writing only prayers addressed to God also allows her to challenger her readers to see life's trials from a broad perspective and thereby learn the "very lesson she must force upon herself." As Jeffrey A. Hammond has pointed out [in '"Make use of What I Leave in Love': Anne Bradstreet's Didactic Self," Religion and Literature 17 (1985)], the intentionally didactic nature of Bradstreet's verse is often a reflection of her efforts to identify and communicate what she saw as the real truth behind her periods of suffering and recovery—that is, that God is dealing in a fatherly way with His child. Certainly she indicates such a purpose in her letter "To My Dear Children."
That her devotional poetry is "virtually a seamless blend of the confessional and the didactic" is in keeping with her shifts of audience. When she turns to address a general audience (as in "From Another Sore Fit": "What shall I render to my God / For all His bounty showed to me?" [11. 14–15]), she no doubt has in mind her own children, desiring to challenge them to see past their own moments of affliction, as she does, to the One who provides sustenance, strength, and loving-kindness. At the same time, the technique affords her the opportunity to give full voice to her feelings as she moves easily between audiences, prodding her soul, addressing God, or calling Jesus to return—all of which she does in "My Soul," shifting four times in only twenty-eight lines (253). Thus her readers see her confession of her suffering, which she often perceives as chastisement from God, as in "Deliverance from a Fit of Fainting": she declares that her "life as spider's webb's cut off" (1. 6). Yet her readers also see how thanksgiving springs from such suffering: "My feeble spirit Thou didst revive / … Why should I live but to Thy praise?" (11. 10, 14). That the Christian expresses such thanksgiving is important to godly living, Bradstreet affirms in her July 8 prose entry. She herself "dares not pass by without remembrance" of the love God showed to her in her suffering. Such thanksgiving reflects David's model throughout the Psalms.
The psalmic technique of amplification—an addition to or expansion of a statement—also allows Bradstreet to voice her feelings about God in a way sanctioned by David. Of the three forms [Rosemary] Fithian describes [in "'Words of my Mouth, Meditations of My Heart,'" Early American Literature 20 (1985)]—hyperbole, accumulatio, and exclamatio—Bradstreet uses two in her Andover Manuscript poems, hyperbole and accumulatio. Hyperbole in the Psalms often communicates the psalmist's utter dependence on God by a graphic description of his physical condition. For example, in Ps. 31:10 the psalmist writes, "For my life is wasted with heaviness, and my yeeres with mourning: my strength faileth for my paine, and my bones are consumed." Similarly in Ps. 22 he describes his bones as being "out of joynt" and his heart as "like wax … molten in the middes of my bowels" (v. 14) as he seeks God's deliverance.
In her poems written about her periods of illness, Bradstreet also intensifies her own condition. In "From Another Sore Fit" she describes herself as having "wasted flesh" (1. 10) and as "melting" in her own sweat (1. 8), before God in His grace reaches out to help her. In "Deliverance from a Fit of Fainting" she describes her life as a "spider's webb's cut off" (1. 6) to communicate her physical weakness during her sickness, and she writes that she was "though as dead" before God "mad'st [her] alive" (1. 12). Her self-belittling conveys the Puritan belief that deliverance is to be sought in God and not in self: she is utterly dependent on God. Moreover, that such a heartbroken speaker could call upon God for help would certainly bring consolation for her readers, as Hammond points out. Hyperbole also communicates the capacity of God to deliver His children, as in Ps. 93 where God is "more mightie" than "the noyse of many waters" and "the waves of the sea" (v. 4). Bradstreet similarly exalts the Lord by making hyperbolic statements: "Thy mercies, Lord, have been so great / In number numberless, / Impossible for to recount / Or any way express" ("In Thankful Remembrance," 11. 20–23). Even in the midst of her trials, she knows that God will ultimately not forsake her and that in Him alone lies triumpth over affliction.
Accumulatio, the amassing of detail, is Bradstreet's most frequent poetic technique, specifically in the form of Hebrew synonymous parallelism. In this technique the lines of poetry are paired, with the second of the lines repeating the basic meaning of the first while adding detail, as in Ps. 145:18–19:
The Lord is neere unto all that call upon him:
yea, to all that call upon him in trueth.
He will fulfill the desire of them that feare him:
he also will heare their crie, and will save them.
In each instance, the first thought is not only repeated but supplemented. Like the other psalmic techniques, the parallelism is seen in both the Geneva Bible and the Bay Psalm Book selections, preserved in the metrical psalms by virtue of the accuracy of the translations. In the Bay Psalm Book, verses eighteen and nineteen of Psalm 145 are rendered thus:
As in the second verse of this case, the authors of the Bay Psalm Book often accommodate long lines of the psalms by arranging the parallelism between two pairs of lines. Bradstreet uses both forms of the parallelism. In the very first poetic entry of her notebook ("By Night When Others Soundly Slept") she employs the technique, arranging the parallelism between single lines:
By night when others soundly slept,
And had at once both ease and rest …
I sought Him whom my soul did love,
With tears I sought Him earnestly….
(ll. 3–4, 7–8)
She too expands the content of the first line by adding detail in the second. "From Another Sore Fit" provides additional examples (11. 6–7, 10–11), as well as "In My Solitary Hours," in which the pairings occur frequently (stanzas 1–3, 8, 10, 13). The parallelism can be found throughout Bradstreet's poetry; it appears in virtually all of the poems of her notebook. When she arranges the parallelism between two pairs of lines instead of between two single lines, she treats a two-line phrase as if it were actually a single line, as we have seen in the Bay Psalm Book:
Whence fears and sorrows me beset
Then didst Thou rid me out;
When heart did faint and spirits quail,
Thou comforts me about.
("For the Restoration of My Dear Husband," ll. 1–4)
A two-line phrase often echoes the preceding two lines in her poetry, usually in the same stanza. Thus a line is actually paralleling the second line after it, still preserving the structure of psalmic accumulatio.
Bradstreet fits such paired lines into the thematic patterns found in the Psalms—the most striking similarity between Bradstreet's Andover Manuscript poems and the Psalms. In the tradition of the Psalms, the articulations of the devout person's struggle toward obedience reflect categories with distinct themes, as Fithian has noted: lament, supplication, and thanksgiving. Although elements of two categories are often combined within a single psalm (such as thanksgiving and supplication), the three kinds are arranged within quite specific structural patterns in the Psalms. The great majority of Bradstreet's Andover poems clearly expresses thanksgiving and praise, as in the Psalms. This type of psalm typically begins with an exclamation of the intention to praise, often either in an epithet or in an imperative call to worship. Next, the psalmist gives the specific grounds for praise—for example, a catalogue of dangers that God has helped the psalmist to overcome, or a list of God's activities. Often an index of God's qualities constitutes the grounds for praise. Finally, a proclamation of praise appears.
Psalm 146 exemplifies a psalm of thanksgiving. The exclamation of the intention to praise appears in the first two verses. In this Psalm both a call to worship and declaration are given in the opening: "Praise ye the Lord. Praise thou the Lord, O my soule. I will praise the Lord during my life…. " Next, as his grounds for praise, the psalmist describes God in terms of what He has done; this catalogue provides the major portion of the content of the Psalm. The psalmist describes God as He "Which made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is" and "Which executeth justice for the oppressed" (vv. 6–7). The psalmist also describes what God does in the present, such as giving sight to the blind (v. 8) and "releeving the fatherless" (v. 9). The statement of praise appears as the last verse of the Psalm: "The Lord shall reigne for ever…. Praise ye the Lord" (v. 10).
Among Bradstreet's poems, "From Another Sore Fit" and "Deliverance from a Fit of Fainting" clearly exemplify the thanksgiving theme. In each she declares her intention to praise in the first stanza by affirming God's worthiness for praise ("Worthy art Thou, O Lord, of praise," she writes in the first line of "Deliverance from a Fit of Fainting"). She continues in both poems with a list of the grounds for her praise by describing God's merciful acts toward her. She writes, "My plaints and groans were heard of Thee, / … My wasted flesh Thou didst restore," ("From Another Sore Fit," 11. 7, 10); similarly in lines 10–12 of "Fit of Fainting" she lists the reasons for her praise. Bradstreet concludes each by declaring her desire to praise: in "Fit of Fainting" the declaration appears in the last stanza ("Why should I live but to Thy praise?" [1. 14]), while in "Sore Fit" it occupies the last four stanzas ("Thy name and praise to celebrate, / O Lord, for aye is my request…. " [11. 26–27]). This declaration allows her to rehearse the events of her suffering and put them into cosmic perspective, thereby affirming to herself and to her readers that, although her suffering is real, it is not ultimate. Whether she emphasizes these events or the statements of praise which follow, it is clear that such praise emerges from a strong sense of pain and suffering. The thanksgiving pattern as modeled in the Psalms gives her ample means both to recapitulate her pain and to express her gratitude to God for delivering her. Most often her thanksgiving is gratitude for removing the affliction—the "sore fit" or the "fit of fainting." Yet, as she points out in many of her prose entries, it is also gratitude for God's fatherly care, for chastising her by means of affliction to make her a "vessel fit for His use." Asserting that God "hath no benefit" by her adversity, she states that He afflicts her for her spiritual "advantage," that she may be a "gainer" by it. Moreover, she can live no more "without correction than without food." Thus she is grateful for the "mercies in His rod" ("Sore Fit," 1. 16) and for His chiding her in her doubt ("Fit of Fainting," 1. 11).
Among her Andover Manuscript poems Bradstreet also includes several poems of supplication, a form that allows her to affirm God's trustworthiness as she petitions Him for help. A psalm of supplication is distinguished from a lament by its mood of certainty. Although the psalmist is asking for God's help, as in the lament, he is doing so in full expectation that God will heed his call. This type of psalm typically opens with an invocation followed by a list of reasons why the psalmist expects God to respond to his cry for help. This list could be a description of what God has revealed to the psalmist about Himself in the past—either God's qualities or His saving actions—or it could be a description of the psalmist himself, of his attempts to be obedient to God as he tries to persuade God or call Him to account to be the caring father He has promised to be. In this last instance the psalmist often presents himself as the figure of a righteous man, as in Ps. 17:3: "Thou hast proved and visited mine heart in the night: thou hast tryed me, and foundeth nothing.… " A request follows, in addition to an indication that the psalmist realizes the possibility of God's help. Sometimes the psalmist includes a promise to praise. In Psalm 71 the supplicating nature of the psalm is readily identifiable. First, the tone is that of certainty, of assurance that God will respond: "For thou art mine hope, O Lord God, even my trust from my youth," the psalmist writes (v. 5). The psalm adheres to the basic structure of a psalm of supplication. The invocation occupies verses one to four ("encline thine ear unto me," [v. 2]), followed by a description of the Lord's graciousness, as in verses seven and nineteen, in which the psalmist points out God's trustworthiness and the "great things" He has done. The psalmist's petition is that God would deliver him, as he repeats in verses two and four and rephrases throughout the psalm (for example, "Goe not farre from mee" [v. 12]). He tells God of his intention to praise ("Therefore will I praise thee for thy faithfulnesse, O God, upon instrument and viole" [v. 22]) and ends the psalm as if he had already been delivered ("they are confounded and brought unto shame, that seeke mine hurt" [v. 24]).
Since most of the Andover Manuscript poems are thankful responses to God's graciousness, the supplication poems are few. Yet the two that do reveal such a theme—the poems about the departures of Bradstreet's son and her husband—adhere closely to the psalmic pattern of supplication. Each poem begins with an invocation, a call for God's attention:
Thou mighty God of sea and land,
I here resign into Thy hand….
("Upon My Son Samuel," ll. 1–2)
O thou Most High who rulest all
And hear'st the prayers of thine,
O hearken, Lord, unto my suit
And my petition sign.
("Upon My Dear and Loving Husband," ll. 1–4)
Each continues with a description of the poet's obedience. In the poem on her son, Bradstreet concentrates on her obedience in the nurture of her son: she mentions the prayers, vows, and tears involved in raising him (1. 5) and her faithfulness to him as a mother (1. 6). In "Upon My Dear and Loving Husband" she describes not only her own obedience in stanza 5—similar to the way that the "righteous man" of the Psalms does—but also her husband's (stanza 3), as if in an effort to persuade God to take care of him: "At Thy command, O Lord, he went…. Then let Thy promise joy his heart" (11. 12, 14). She intensifies her persuasion when she calls her husband God's "servant" (1. 10)—as a reminder to God about His responsibility to him—and her own "dear friend" (1. 11)—suggesting that God should take care of him because of His responsibility to Anne herself.
In both poems, as in the psalms of supplication, the speaker's request for God's help is confident. In the poem on her husband, she declares that she is commending Simon into God's "arms": she has made the initial move and trusts that God will receive her husband (11. 8–9). She calls on God to "keep and preserve" her husband (1. 10) as well as herself in his absence (11. 16, 19), declaring that God is her "strength and stay" and that His "goodness never fails" (1. 17, 1. 31). In "Upon My Son Samuel" her request also seems confident. Again she asks God to "preserve" and "protect" her son (11. 13, 14); she asserts her confidence in God when she declares that she has "no friend … like Thee to trust" (1. 11). Moreover, she is confident of God's favorable stance towards her son: "For sure Thy grace on him is shown" (1. 10).
Both poems conclude by concentrating on praise, with an indication that the poet realizes that God will help in some way. In "Upon My Dear and Loving Husband" Bradstreet emphasizes her intent to praise: she tells God that her and Simon's response to His safekeeping will be that they together will sing His praises (11. 46–51). In "Upon My Son Samuel" she asserts that she will celebrate God's praise if Samuel returns safety, seeming to assume that he will (11. 15–18). Almost as an afterthought she adds that she hopes that she will see him "forever happified" with God if she should die before his return. Whatever happens, it will be God's will; He will do what is best (1. 20). In both poems she has an attitude of peace and confidence in God, characteristic of the psalms of supplication. She has seen God work before in her life, answering her prayers for deliverance and healing her illness and doubt. She has no reason to believe that God will not exercise His fatherly care in some way for her loved ones.
Only one "lament" poem seems to occur among Bradstreet's devotional poems; the absence of her husband is the only occasion on which she reflects in these poems a state close to depression. In this poem we see the influence of the psalmic lament as she pleads with God to comfort her in her loneliness and to return her husband to her. A psalmic lament typically involves five basic parts, as in Psalm 3. The invocation or cry for help opens the psalm ("Lord, how are mine adversaries increased? how many rise against me?" [v. 1]); it is followed by the complaint ("Many say to my soule, There is no helpe for him in God" [v. 2]). Then the psalmist voices his trust in God, reviewing God's care for him in the past ("I did call unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard mee … " [v. 4]). He follows this by petitioning God, laying his request before Him ("O Lord, arise: helpe me, my God" [v. 7]). These three elements following the invocation can occur in any order in a lament; sometimes they are repeated (as in Psalm 3, in which the psalmist repeats his trust in God). The lament typically concludes with a vow to praise God or with the statement of praise itself. In Psalm 3 the praise occurs in the last verse: "Salvation belongeth unto the Lord, and thy blessing is upon thy people" (v. 8). "In My Solitary Hours" is Bradstreet's single patterned psalmic lament in the Andover poems.
The invocation and complaint are combined in the first stanza. Calling on God to hear her, she tells Him to observe her "tears," "troubles," "longings," and "fears." In stanza two she asserts her trust in God: "Thou hitherto hast been my God; / … Through Thee I've kept my ground" (11. 7–10). She continues to express her trust in stanzas three and four, reflecting on her past close relationship with God. She even declares that God is more "beloved" to her than is her husband. Thus the foundation is laid for her petition, which occurs in stanzas five, eight, and nine: she asks God to "uphold" her, to grant her His favor, and finally to bring back her husband. She reiterates her trust in God in stanzas six and eight and concludes the poem with a vow to praise—individually (11. 39–40, 49–50, 53–54) and with Simon (11. 43–46). Again she demonstrates that praise does emerge from her suffering, but this time she is in the midst of suffering and can only promise to praise. Yet though she suffers, she is still able to trust. Certainly she is a "gainer" by her adversity: like the psalmist, she has seen that, although God may hide His face, He does not desert His children. She knows that it is God to whom she must go for care, and so she lays her petitions before Him. The psalmic lament provides a fitting structure for her to voice her distress as well as her intent to praise.
By imitating David in the language, voice, stance, and thematic patterns in the poems of her notebook, Bradstreet takes on the voice of David, demonstrating her powerful identification with David: "then have I … said with David," she writes in her letter. In her quest for faith as well as for a poetic, David provides a model for her as both an approved servant and a sanctioned poet. As she struggles with her relationship to God, questioning His care for her in her periods of illness or His presence in her family's absence, she turns to David and writes psalmlike poetry. And we cannot help but hear a godly mother's desire for her children to hold fast to the faith, even after she herself has died, when she asks God
In her opening letter she remarks, "I have often been perplexed that I have not found that constant joy in my pilgrimage and refreshing which I supposed most of the servants of God have." It is in David that she finds a servant of God who knows affliction, a suffering believer with whom she can identify. Yet she has also "tasted of that hidden manna" and has had "abundance of sweetness and refershment after affliction." This is the lesson she would have her children learn. Praise and thanksgiving can indeed emerge from pain and suffering, if one is confident in Him who returns "comfortable answers" to prayer. David's words provide sanctified poetry; his experience provides a point of identification for the suffering yet trusting Christian. And his poetic forms—both those of the Bible and the metrical translations of the Bay Psalm Book—provide an effective pedagogical model. Inspired and sustained by the psalms, Bradstreet is better able to voice her praise of God in a period of affliction and thereby urge her children on to greater faith.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2826
SOURCE: '"Enrapted Senses': Anne Bradstreet's 'Contemplations,' " in American Sublime: The Genealogy of a Poetic Genre, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, pp. 67–93.
[Here, Wilson argues that the sublime first emerges in American poetry in Bradstreet's verse.]
That there is a God my Reason would soon tell me
by the wondrous workes that I see, the vast frame
of the Heaven and the Earth, the order of all things,
night and day, summer and winter, spring and autumne
The consideration of these things would with amazement
certainly resolve me that there is an Eternal Being.
["To My Dear Children"]
Anne Bradstreet (c. 1612–1672) was surely there first, but we still don't know how, poetically, to situate or claim her. The strange country of the Indian wilderness which her courtly/Christian poetry helped to domesticate and to legitimate conveys traces of a tone and tradition which later signaled, no less explicitly, the transport of the sublime. Bradstreet "said something" of her new country: she invented and indulged in "rapt senses" of place that, later, turned into a kind of commonsense and commonplace of the American will to remake the material landscape into a locus of spiritualized awe and self-empowerment. I take "Contemplations" to reveal such a pious landscape of American "election"—of self-election into the "rapted wit sublime." Bradstreet's poetry remains exemplary, it seems to me, of an awe-stricken sublimity struggling to be born in an inhospitable climate of "desert wilderness" and a cultural landscape of hegemonic plainness, as her woman's voice becomes marked with anxious transgression exactly as it is lifting into rapture.
As an early and even oxymoronic incarnation of such a Christianized sublime, Bradstreet is both blasted to mute admiration by the grandeur of the past yet enabled by the sublimity of this radical tradition—the "other tradition" of her beloved Du Bartas and, later, of John Milton—to achieve some version of an original voice. Worshipping the poetic sublime, Bradstreet says something from New England by which to supplement and make new the Nine Muses of tradition. American poetry is often caught (as in Bradstreet, from the start) in this fruitful tension between an indebtedness to prior languages silencing the self before the burden of the European past, and hyperboles of inventiveness, or vacancy—the will to modernity marking a displaced self struggling to innovate poetry in a future-haunted landscape of emptiness and bulk, as a way to voice what John Cage would later proclaim is "knowing nowness."
As a Puritan woman given to the very male art of English poetry which had come down to her, as she realized, "shod by Chaucer's boots and Homer's furs"; as a would-be poet of high feeling before the creatural world, whom Nathaniel Ward rightly praised in the "Introductory Verses" as an "Auth'ress [who] was a right Du Bartas girl," sporting her own brand of stylistic "spurs"; and as a woman of "unweaned" maternal attachments to her own flesh and blood touchingly portrayed as "eight birds hatched in one nest," Bradstreet wrote from the curious position of a marginalized subject permitted to aggrandize and to feel. That is, she could as such a poet succumb to sudden, transgressive flights of rapture (yet thereby produce out of these moods her own convictions of faith and grace) before the creatural world. Indeed, this storehouse of natural images was fast becoming (after Du Bartas and the awakened European interest in Longinus) the basic substance of the sublime mode, as humilitas gave way to a divinely sanctioned sublimitas, anywhere on earth.
Just registering such poetic moments of "feeling knowledge" (sublime transport) in poetic "contemplations" or prosaic "meditations," Bradstreet was (by gender) already outside the law of plain-style subordination; her voice of sensuous rapture was secretly operating, as we might now say, "from the peculiar sub rosa position of the doubly-displaced subject" who is never fully present to the (male) interpretive community as plain sign nor as self. The sublime seemingly ratified such illicit moods and motives outside, or beyond, the law. Such power, at least, came with the occupational territory.
Postfeminist revisionings of American poetics now underway might allow us to rescue Bradstreet's verse from the hegemony of Perry Miller's New England Way as anti-fleshly and characteristically "plain," as monological and metaphysical in its poetic mode. For, if the dissemination of the vaunted "Plain Style" worked to restrain male egos into stylistic plainness, or shackled and bloated the energy of Edward Taylor into nervous excess, say, the female poet as Tenth Muse could spring up in the Massachusetts wilds from inhabiting, by contrast, the secret space of her own recurring rapture. Bradstreet early suggests the locus of an American countertradition, the making not only of what Wendy Martin and Cheryl Walker have tracked and differentiated as "a female counter-poetic" to the reign of phallo-logic, but also, from a more genealogical point of view, of the generic possibility of an American sublime not wholly displaced by anxiety towards the past, a mood of which, as a scribbling woman and wilderness poet, she had an impressive dose.
Empowering herself as poet, Bradstreet installs and instantiates the genre of the American sublime. Yet Martin oddly disqualifies Anne Bradstreet—if not American woman poets more generally—from innovating such a sublime mode, stipulating, almost, like Edmund Burke, that these privatized poets tend to write at the level of the domestic, the ordinary, and the beautiful. "Because these women writers [Bradstreet/Dickinson/Rich] reject the male hierarchies that accord more importance to public than to private life," Martin claims [in An American Triptych, 1984], "their poetry is not a narrative of sublime moments but a chronicle of the quotidian."
Writing palpably within a Protestant tradition of exalted feeling and high truths modeled after the Devine Weekes of the Calvinist poet, Du Bartas, Bradstreet nevertheless could and indeed did, I will claim, write a sublime poetry of "feeling knowledge" towards that very quotidian which, in an instant of transport, linked the "rapt contemplation" of nature, as item and framework, to the contemplation of God. Surrounded by privations and dread, the American sublime is emergent, seemingly stranded, yet there in the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. The ingredients and consequences of this event have gone largely unrecognized, at least as instantiating the makings of a poetic genre.
Like latter-day American and equally Christian poets, such as William Livingston, William Cullen Bryant, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, or Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, Bradstreet registers "the sublime" as a moment of pious awe before the landscape in which the poet is dislocated, undone, yet perilously uplifted into regions of spirit. The poetic result is, quite often, an elevated tone of praise and a sense, more materially speaking, of symbolic self-empowerment where the ego fits in a scene of its own self-constituted unity. The sublime, as Bradstreet early glimpsed, might have cash-value consequences if sustained through faithful labor. This scenario of conversion, heights and risks of ecstasy in an indigenous setting, is memorably depicted in "Contemplations," a poem which suggests the emerging genre of an American sublime in its tone of "rapted wit" and master narrative of conversion.
Displaced from community power into the no-place of poetry, this hyperbolic Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up In America (1650) was presented to her largely male readers by amazed male critics ("To force a woman's birth" in such a labor of "pleasant witty poetry," the book was printed in London not by herself but by her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge) as a "right Du Bartas girl." That is, Bradstreet emerges as an amazing (and threatening) offspring of the Protestant sublime which was increasingly legitimating such private "rapture" to supplement the textual mediations of the Bible and the Church. The mood seemed necessary to the settlement of New World havens.
The Puritan sublime of this "right Du Bartas girl," as depicted in "Contemplations," could be conjured to serve the rapture of conversion: representing the moment as an interiorized opening of "rapt senses" to natural creatures of the Massachusetts wilds such as birds, brooks, and trees, of which woman herself was a salient embodiment after the figural fall of Eve. Her "rapt," if not sun-raped, senses were made into signs of exalted feeling, of course, and (more latently) into signs transgressing the very plain-style limits (in the sub/lime) which the poem went on to moralize. That is, however evocative of New World powers, the mood of the sublime had to be converted into a credible metaphor of divine law and of man's fall into sensuous subjectivity, a legitimate figura for the collective (male) project to subdue a beast- and Satan-filled wilderness.
Relegated by gender to the humilitas of lowly domestic productions (the textual slogan of this "Feminist Bradstreet" emerging in the 1980s, as in Martin, becomes "In better dress to trim thee was my mind, / But nought save home-spun Cloth, in the house I find") and, as a Calvinist, hyper-cognizant of her own reprobation, Bradstreet subjected herself to moods of recurring stylistic anxiety towards representing any such elevated subjects or attitudes beyond reclamation. This anxiety yet reveals her deepest aspiration to evoke the sublime style in a cultural code of Puritanism which largely constrained her voice to use the "home-spun Cloth" of lesser modes of lyric / domestic production. Needless to say, these quotidian lyrics are deft and local, such as those love poems to her Christ-like absent husband or ones keeping track of her chattering flock.
In the larger frame of "Contemplations," however, she blames this lingering sense of stylistic inadequacy and any smallness of voice (humilitas) on her own female "imbecility." But this self-definition is surely overdetermined by the Puritan consciousness of womanhood as inferior, as well as of sinfulness as a perpetual threat (as is exposed in stanzas 10 through 17, where figural men pursue base instincts and vain pleasures, and "The Virgin Earth, of blood, her first draught drinks"). This drive to settle upon a humbled voice of textual austerity is also urged upon her by the sermon-induced hegemony of "the Puritan Plain Style," which would downplay the raptures of selfhood and the richness of nature. The "inner feminist world" of Bradstreet was fully mediated by such Puritan strictures and a discourse of piety which subjected this brilliant poet to the laments of a failed sublime. Unsponsored by props of tradition or genre, this can make for a voice of perpetual anxiety and seemingly idiotic awe before prior and surrounding shapes of textual grandeur.
If the sublime of Bradstreet emerges blasted and torn, and her drive to write poetry is hemmed in by anxiety and threatened by a self-humiliating sense of modesty and scorn, this is because the sublime comes down to Bradstreet as already gendered in voices of mastery and empowerment that are fully Eurocentric and not her own. Courting female power, this "right Du Bartas girl" Bradstreet must enter into if not invent a genre of permitted trespass in which women such as herself can seize or inhabit roles formerly alotted to the strength of men.
As Patricia Yaeger theorizes in "Toward a Female Sublime," without in any way considering the untimely figure of Bradstreet, the forces that would conspire against a woman inhabiting any sovereign sublime have made for what Yaeger calls a "failed sublime." "In texts where it occurs," she theorizes, "we witness a woman's dazzling, unexpected empowerment followed by a moment in which this power is snatched away—often by a masculine counter-sublime that has explicitly phallic components." Though women poets like Bradstreet are surely capable of miming and joining the great, we must go on to recognize, as Yaeger argues, "that something in the social order (either something external, or a set of beliefs internalized by the actant herself) intervenes, and the heroine finds herself not only stripped of transcendent powers, but bereft, in a lower social stratum than before" [in Gender & Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism, 1989]. The context and ideological hegemony of Puritanism would mitigate against claims of self-glory or threats of female empowerment; hence they must be smuggled in and questioned, if not explained away, by Bradstreet herself as "poetic rapture" or as merely the inflated claims of the bewildered, brazen, and dispossessed.
To evoke one telling example, Bradstreet's "bleating" strain and "rudeness" of style as she contemplates the "royal hearse" of Queen Elizabeth would yet register, rather outrageously and with all the anxious power-dynamics towards self-anointed queenhood of Emily Dickinson, her own rapture before that British "rex" who had already, in quite worldly terms, invalidated the (very sexist) claim that "our sex is void of reason" and incapable of such precedent-making grandeur:
Although, great Queen, thou now in silence lie
Yet though loud herald Fame doth to the sky
Thy wondrous worth proclaim in every clime,
And so hath vowed where there is world or time.
So great's thy glory and thine excellence,
The sound thereof rapts every human sense,
That men account it no impiety,
To say thou wert a fleshy deity.
This wonder-struck elegy "In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory" is coded with rapture if not divinization before female power/grandeur, that exalted consciousness of the specular model's superiority. No less so emerges Bradstreet's humility, which this poet was forever feeling, even before a fellow woman who might model her own empowerment and will to elevation. Bradstreet is transported to incarnate a mode of elevated praise, however, by a woman herself elevated into a "fleshy diety," a highly un-Puritanical creature of political grandeur subjecting England to a reign of happiness who had sent "Her seamen [subversive pun on textual semen] through all straits the world did round."
As a poetic stance, nonetheless, Bradstreet aspires to mime the fleshly grandeur of her subject—here the praise of a female sublimity—which paradoxically inspires her to a rapture that humbles if not annihilates the emergence of her own voice: "Her personal perfections, who would tell / Must dip his pen in the Helaconian well, / Which I may not, my pride doth but aspire / To read what others write and so admire." So blasted, the voice falls off into that of a readers' sublime: that is, Bradstreet becomes dwarfed by the prior sublimity of England and France, which only male "pride" could aspire to emulate (as does her emulous cock son). But her effusive praise for this "glorious sun" as son/rex of England is motivated by a sense that woman can and will instance this power, this "excellence" and majesty, which the Queen like a fleshly deity had once embodied. Through Elizabeth, Bradstreet models yet disables the emergence of her own American sublime.
Not surprisingly, the affect-rich and over-allusive textuality of Tenth Muse had inspired in Nathaniel Ward his own quite misogynistic warning, distanced in the timeless voice of Apollo. "Let men look to't, lest women wear the spurs." Or as John Woodbridge warns readers concerning woman poets too ambitious of such grandeur, unlike his "modest," "solid" and "comely" Mistress Bradstreet, "Some books of women I have heard of late, / Perused some, so witless, intricate, / So void of sense, and truth, as if to err / Were only wished (acting above their sphere) / And all to get, what (silly souls) they lack, / Esteem to be the wisest of the pack." Such "silly souls" (Puritan females) would aspire to lord it above their subordinate workaday sphere ("in better dress") writing intricate sense and even voicing "truth," that is, the logocentric perogative of the governing male. If these souls aspire to the esteem and envy of the phallic pack and somehow style themselves sublime, they will prove incapable of those "pleasant witty strains" Woodbridge attributes to his scribbling sister-in-law, whom he yet forcibly publishes (and advertises, as in colonial travelogues) as a New World wonder, a goddess lately (somehow) sprung up in crabbed New England.
Bradstreet depicts these very sublime moods of "amazement," against all odds, as a self-made labyrinth of enraptured feeling in which sensuousness exceeds moralization, or public recuperation, yet is interpreted as a sign of God: "The consideration of these things would with amazement certainly resolve me that there is an Eternal Being." "These things" of which Anne Bradstreet speaks to her children are the "wondrous workes" of nature, which present to the senses the vast and orderly evidence for God's existence. Such works, moralized, provide the basis for an immense metaphor of correspondence between earth and heaven. The New World is not necessarily, thereby, a place of hermeneutic deprivation. Contemplating nature in such rapt moods of election, faith is possible, indeed inevitable—a "feeling knowledge" fitfully obtained. Nature awes Bradstreet into faith in God as the source of vastness and as author of her own potential greatness on earth. Not alone "the verity of the scriptures," not extraordinary events like miracles or tempests, not analytical meditation on the state of the self, but nature affectionately beheld fills the mind with the self-subjugating idea of God. Vacancy could be converted and moralized into poetic immensity. However shorn of creature comforts, surely colonial America had that….