Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654
The themes of “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” are intensely personal. The title suggests what is commonly a happy event, so perhaps the poem’s focus on death in its opening surprises the reader. However, the context of seventeenth century colonial life, where among women death by childbirth was second only to death by open-hearth cooking fires, justifies the link between childbirth and dying. With that explained, a second surprise is that the speaker does not soften death’s reality with pious words about an expectation of heaven or by a repentance for sin. The tone of these first six lines is as somber as the feet are even. Death is real; death’s separation is real.
At first the images of “death’s parting blow” refer to separation from friends in general, but thereafter comes a quick shift to the personal, to the separation that death might cause between the speaker and a “dear” friend, the one she is bound to by a spousal “knot.” That such a death comes well before old age adds to its pain. Now the reader has the whole picture: A woman about to give birth knows that her death is possibly imminent; the poem’s lines are her early “farewell” to her beloved husband. In this reflection pregnancy and its attending hope become irrelevant. Death’s power to separate is the only topic of importance: “I may seem thine, who in effect am none.” An image of her husband standing beside an “absent hearse” reiterates this theme in the final lines of the poem.
In the second half of the poem, the poet empties herself of her complicated emotional reaction to this potential separation, even as she sharpens her own awareness of the reality of death. What she asks of her husband on the literal level seems innocent enough: Forget my flaws, remember my virtues. Love me “who long lay in thine arms”; comfort yourself by the presence of our children; do not let your new wife mistreat our children. On the surface, her requests are peaceful-sounding and straightforward. The lack of poetic figures supports this sense of calm.
However, the words in which she makes these ordinary requests have some subtle reminders of the pain of possible separation from her husband that tortures the speaker. Thus she will pray, she says to her husband, for “you and yours,” not for “you and ours.” She asks that her husband “love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms,” an almost ghoulish distortion of their previous physical lovemaking. She calls the babies she leaves behind to be loved in her place “my dear remains,” using a word that often refers to the physical decay that death brings. She sees herself physically replaced by her husband’s next wife and asks only that her husband protect his children from “step-dame’s injury.” Is it her own pain at this replacement wife that causes the speaker to impute cruelty to the next wife in her husband’s arms? The reader feels the reality of separation that death brings when reading these words.
Whatever words the speaker chooses to convey the reality of physical separation from her husband, from his bed, from his memory, her writing of a farewell message seems to have brought the healing that she did not ask for from her Christian God. The final four lines of the poem contain the “absent hearse” image that is so central to the poem, but around it are images not of acceptance, but of comfort. The speaker sees her husband, after her death, holding and kissing the manuscript “for thy love’s dear sake.” The manuscript paper and the words on it are more than a “last farewell.” The words of the poem connect the speaker and her great love back to her beloved spouse, as they, these many years later, connect the speaker and her reader.