Contemplations Analysis
by Anne Dudley

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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“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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,437 words.)