The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

“Contemplations” is a poem of thirty-three seven-line stanzas that consider various aspects of nature and biblical history and reflect upon their spiritual significance. The title suggests that the poem is a collection of isolated reflections, but within the poem are several sequences that each develop an idea over a number of stanzas.

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The poem begins with Anne Bradstreet noticing the beauty of fall colors in New England as the sun sets. Many readers have shared the experience of delight in the beauty of nature. Bradstreet does not stop with her description of nature and the effect nature’s beauty has on her. She goes on in the next stanza to relate this common experience to her spiritual beliefs: If God is known by his works on Earth, and since nature as experienced is so beautiful, then how wonderful must God be, who created all of this. Selecting a single oak tree from all the beauty around her, the poet marvels on the longevity of the oak and is inspired to think about the spiritual parallel—eternity.

In the next four stanzas Bradstreet contemplates the sun, acknowledging its glory, which caused it to be considered a god by some societies. In language reminiscent of the biblical Song of Songs, Bradstreet compares the sun to a bridegroom rushing from the chamber to make his daily and seasonal journeys. At the end of the sequence, Bradstreet again uses the physical phenomenon as an emblem reflecting the glory of the Creator.

In the next section she describes herself wandering alone. She looks toward heaven in the hope of being able to glorify God in some way, but she is stymied by a sense of her own inadequacy. This leads her to consider the lowly grasshopper and cricket, both of which seem able to praise God in their own way. She wonders again at her own incapacity as she contemplates the ease with which these humble creatures worship.

The poem takes a major turn after Bradstreet remarks that even the lowliest of creatures can praise God adequately while she remains “mute.” She turns to a major preoccupation—time and eternity. Memory makes the past alive, as does history, and thinking about the past makes a person older in imagination than Methuselah. Thus Bradstreet shifts from looking at nature to looking at the Bible.

Stanzas 11 to 16 review the history of Adam and his progeny, Cain and Abel. Just as nature has a deeper meaning for Bradstreet, biblical history also has a lesson: Even though current lives are much shorter than the lifespans of humanity’s biblical forefathers, they are shortened even more by foolish sensuous practices. Bradstreet compares human mortality to nature’s cyclical process of dying in winter only to be rejuvenated in the following spring: When a person dies, there is no rejuvenation the next spring. Human mortality seems a curse. When Bradstreet wonders if she should then praise the trees, she reminds herself that only people, not nature, can aspire to immortality.

In the next section, she moves from contemplating the woods to the rivers and streams. She acknowledges the constancy of the stream that moves swiftly forward, despite obstacles, until it reaches its desired goal, the ocean. Thus, the stream’s faith and determination are a model for humanity to follow. The fish in the stream simply follow their own nature to be happy. The poet’s attention is next drawn to a bird, which she calls a Philomel. The bird does not worry about the past or fear the future; it simply enjoys its present. People, on the other hand, in stanzas 29 and 30, lead wretched lives, filled with worry, sickness, and pain, yet still do not yearn for eternal life. People are like mariners who think everything is fair sailing until a sudden storm arises to remind them of their precariousness.

The last stanza reminds the reader that only above can humanity find security. Indeed, only eternal salvation will survive earthly time. Time and the ravages of earthly life will be conquered only by those who have faith and by those who are chosen for everlasting life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622

The poem is a series of seven-line stanzas, with each stanza using the rhyme scheme ababccc. The closing triplet of each stanza provides a sense of an end, and the finality of each stanza is further confirmed by the strategy of an extra foot in each final line. The first six lines of each stanza are regularly iambic pentameter (five feet consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). The last line of each stanza has six feet (hexameter). This is an adaptation of the Spenserian stanza.

More important than rhyme and meter is Bradstreet’s adaptation of emblem form in this poem. Emblem books were popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Bradstreet probably had access to many while she lived in England at the estate of the Earl of Lincoln at Sempringham. Emblem books featured a pictorial image or woodcut and an accompanying poem that explained the moral lesson of the image. In “Contemplations” Bradstreet looks at a natural image—the trees, the sun, the river, the fish, and so on—and then explains for the reader the spiritual significance and the lesson to be learned. Rather than using an actual woodcut or some kind of pictorial image, Bradstreet creates her image with words. The poem is thus more descriptive than many Puritan poems, and the description leaves the impression that Bradstreet really looked at and enjoyed the scenery around her. After the vivid descriptions come the lessons. This poem can be looked at as a series of emblems related to a central theme, that of the meaning of time and eternity.

The emblem idea accords well with the poem’s title. To contemplate something suggests looking at it carefully and thinking about it. An emblem poem does just that: It takes a visual image and looks at it carefully, thinks about it, and derives a lesson from it.

It is somewhat surprising, however, that in this poem in which enjoyment of nature is both manifest and genuine, Bradstreet nevertheless resorts occasionally to a more artificial, poetic, or bookish description. One example is her reference to the nightingale or Philomel. Because nightingales were not found in the New England colonies, it is clear that Bradstreet is relying on her learning rather than her personal experience. The poem thus reveals Bradstreet as a daughter of the Renaissance, educated in proper English diction and the literature of Greece and Rome. Allusions to Greek gods, such as Neptune and Thetis, fit right in with allusions to figures of the Old Testament.

The transition from nature to the Bible is effected through a stanza on the function of memory and its power to make people who are dead seem to be alive. This would seem to negate the effects of death and mortality, but in this poem as elsewhere the possibility of eternal life is the only answer to the problem of human mortality.

The stanza on history’s backward reflection makes a smooth transition to the biblical account of Adam’s fall. The absurdity of wasting one’s short time on Earth in “vain delight” becomes clear in the perspective of eternity. Thus, the Bible has its lesson for humanity just as did nature earlier in the poem.

Eternity is the focal point of the last major development of the poem, as it shifts to an appreciation of human hope for immortality. Natural phenomena—the trees, the earth, the streams, the fish, and so on—may have the better of time on Earth, but immortality finally gives people the upper hand. Bradstreet’s last symbol, the white stone from Revelations, unifies the two subject areas of the poem, nature and the Bible, and yields the spiritual significance of her “Contemplations.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 129

Cowell, Pattie, and Ann Stanford, eds. Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Dolle, Raymond F. Anne Bradstreet: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Hammond, Jeffrey. Sinful Self, Saintly Self. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

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.

Martin, Wendy. An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Scheick, William J. Authority and Female Authorship in Colonial America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

Stanford, Ann. Anne Bradstreet: The Worldly Puritan. New York: Burt Franklin, 1974.

White, Elizabeth Wade. Anne Bradstreet: The Tenth Muse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

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