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.
Bradstreet in “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” writes in a formal rhyme and metrical pattern, as was the norm in seventeenth century British poetry. Her iambic pentameter rhymed couplets are exact examples of the “heroic couplets” form, so popular in a time when God’s laws regulated human conduct and poetic laws regulated creative writers. Her format is conventional and correct.
Much else about this poem is unconventional, however. First of all, Bradstreet, raised in England and well educated in her family setting, is the first person in the American colonies to have published, albeit without her knowledge or approval, a book of poetry (The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, 1650). Second, that she is an educated woman and a sophisticated poet in this time period and in the American colonies is unconventional. As a mother of eight children living in a wilderness setting, her accomplishments as poet are even more uncommon.
Yet it is the plain language of this poem that is most unconventional. Much of Bradstreet’s work contains the poetic devices popular in her time period. For example, she uses metaphors and similes liberally in her other writing. Such figures come from conventional sources, including classical mythology, other writers,...
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and contemporary science. In one poem she compares her absent husband to the “sungone so far in’s zodiac,” and in another poem she calls his love richer than “whole mines of gold.” In other writings Bradstreet alludes to such classical mythological figures as the Muses and Calliope. She used such figures in both her early poetry, which was clearly written for a broad public audience, and in her later verse, which turned to material from a wife and mother’s experience. In “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” such figures of speech, except one brief personification of “oblivion’s grave,” are absent.
Another quality of much of Bradstreet’s writing, and also common among seventeenth century poets who embraced God and Scripture in their Christian world, was a didactic or teaching purpose supported by biblical allusion. This was particularly true in her early verse, much of which was written as public poetry. Yet even in her later years, when her writings became more personal, her poetry had religious overtones. One example, “Contemplations,” is a thirty-three-stanza retelling of Christian mythology with a didactic purpose. In another later poem, “The Flesh and the Spirit,” these entities debate. Such debate is a a common seventeenth century literary-religious topic and also didactic in purpose. Thus, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” with its unadorned style and secular content, seems to stand apart from the other writings of Bradstreet.
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Harde, Roxanne. “’Then Soul and Body Shall Unite’: Anne Bradstreet’s Theology of Embodiment.” In From Anne Bradstreet to Abraham Lincoln: Puritanism in America, edited by Michael Schuldiner. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.
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