Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475
“Contemplations” is a poem about time and eternity. It looks at the natural world and studies it for its implications for the spiritual world. The poem looks at various aspects of time in the natural world. Trees, for example, can survive many hundreds of years, while human lifetimes are very limited in comparison; rocks and stones endure much longer. Bradstreet wonders if this means that these long-enduring natural phenomena should be praised. In considering the natural world, clearly other natural phenomena may appear to have greater claim to glory than humanity.
From another perspective, that of eternity, humanity is superior, for only people, and only a select few among them, have the hope of eternal salvation. If one’s name “is graved in the white stone,” then he or she will outlive and outlast all earthly phenomena.
Even the Bible is considered for what it has to say about time and eternity: Human lifespans are growing shorter, so time should be spent wisely and well. In a stereotypical Calvinistic view, Bradstreet notes that human time on Earth is wretched; the human condition sustains sickness, misery, and loss, yet surprisingly no one longs for death. What one must do with whatever time is granted is to work in the hope of a glorious eternity with God. Earthly achievement and status, memorials and records, are meaningless in the perspective of eternity. Only salvation can triumph over time.
The poem shows that Puritan poets characteristically looked to two sources for spiritual lessons: nature and the Bible. The lessons from these two different sources were surprisingly alike. Both nature and the Bible teach people to use their limited time on earth wisely and in the hope of eternal life in heaven. Earthly life is insignificant from the perspective of eternity.
What is unusual for Bradstreet’s time is the poet’s enthusiastic appreciation of nature. She anticipates the American Romantics when she says in the opening stanza, “Rapt were my senses at this delectable view,” in reference to brilliant fall foliage. Also noteworthy is her expressed understanding for sun worshipers of earlier civilizations—“Had I not better known, alas, the same had I.” In both cases, she remains characteristically Puritan by pulling herself back to the spiritual significance of such natural beauties. Nevertheless, the hearty appreciation of nature remains in the poetry for all to enjoy.
“Contemplations” is an interesting poem to read from the Bradstreet canon because it marks a middle ground between the conventional and derivative poetry of her early years—the poems published in The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650)—and the more personal and lyrical poems referred to as the Andover Manuscripts, not published until after her death. “Contemplations” bears hints of the personal Bradstreet while at the same time couching her thoughts and experiences in the conventional religious wisdom of the time.