In Anne Bradstreet’s “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” set in seventeenth century New England, a pregnant woman, fearing death in childbirth, writes a farewell message for her husband. While the speaker emphasizes the reality of the physical separation that death will bring, she also finds the one way to cross over the barrier of death, leaving her manuscript, her words, with him.
The poet’s first six lines assert that “death’s parting blow” separates one from all bonds with friends and that death is universal, “irrevocable,” and “inevitable.” The poet, a professed Christian, does not say that such partings end when all are together in heaven, or that the life of the spirit is superior to life of the flesh, as one might expect in a time when religion was a strong force in the world. She faces death’s physical separation from all acquaintances without offering consolation.
The poet moves from this general idea of death’s reality to a particularly painful situation she faces, the separation from someone who is “dear” to her, someone to whom she is bound by a “knot”: her spouse, the one to whom she addresses “these farewell lines.” The context now clear, the speaker addresses to her spouse a series of concerns she has about the impending separation.
First, in the only religious reference in the poem, she tells him that she prays that God will grant her husband and children a long life. Next she asks her husband to forget her flaws but to remember her virtues. Moreover, she asks that he continue to love her in memory even after her physical presence is gone. She asks that he heal his loss and grieving by his ongoing care of the children she leaves with him. Assuming that her widowed husband will remarry, she asks that he protect the children from any cruelty their stepmother might practice on them.
Finally, she asks that if he finds her farewell message after she has died he cherish it, touch it, even kiss it, almost as if the manuscript and her words, in remaining after her death, allow her to cross back over that barrier, if only for an instant. One reading the poem so many hundreds of years later can, perhaps, enable the writer to cross the barrier of death one more time.