Before the Birth of One of Her Children Themes
by Anne Dudley

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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....

(The entire section is 654 words.)