by Anne Dudley

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The Poem

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Last Updated December 26, 2023.

"Contemplations" by Anne Dudley Bradstreet is a deeply meditative poem that engages with themes of nature, mortality, and the divine. Composed in the mid-seventeenth century, this poem is a significant work in early American literature. Since Bradstreet was one of the first published poets in colonial America, her voice carries the weight of historical significance. She provides a glimpse into the challenges and reflections of a Puritan woman navigating the complexities of a new world while considering deep questions about existence and spirituality.


As a Puritan settler, Bradstreet grappled with the challenges of adapting to a new land while maintaining her faith. Biblical allusions in "Contemplations," such as those to Adam and Eve, resonate with the Puritan worldview by emphasizing themes of sin, guilt, and redemption. These allusions reflect not only Bradstreet's personal beliefs but also a narrative thread that connects the poem more broadly to Puritan thought at the time. By drawing on familiar biblical narratives, Bradstreet creates a bridge between her contemplations and the religious convictions of her community.


Although much of the poem's focus concerns the connection between humanity and the divine, Bradstreet's intense focus on the natural world in this poem serves as a reflection of her understanding of God's power and presence in the physical realm. The natural environment would have been an integral part of Bradstreet's daily life because she was a Puritan living on the edge of the wilderness in an unfamiliar continent.


The untamed wilderness, often viewed as a manifestation of God's grandeur and omnipotence, becomes a recurring motif in Bradstreet's "Contemplations," as well as in many of her other works. The contrast between the lush landscapes and the struggles that were part of the colonial experience further highlights the precariousness of life on the edge of the known world. Many colonists, faced with the harsh realities of nature, were overwhelmed by its challenges. Numerous settlers starved or succumbed to the cold every winter. Deadly and debilitating diseases were always a threat, as were conflicts with Native Americans who were starting to resist the influx of Europeans into their lands. With all this in mind, the poem becomes a testament to Bradstreet's resilience and spiritual exploration amid the unfamiliar landscapes of America.


Bradstreet's works, while definitive examples of Puritan poetry in America, depart somewhat from typical Puritan themes. As no-nonsense Protestants in the tradition of John Calvin, the Puritans were largely preoccupied with notions of redemption, sin, and the rigorous pursuit of a righteous and God-fearing life. While Bradstreet does concern herself with these matters, her works reflect a much more earthly focus.


In "Contemplations," she turns her gaze to the natural world. Unlike the predominant Puritan focus on the spiritual and supernatural, Bradstreet's poetry becomes a celebration of God's creations on Earth. Her verses resonate with a desire to honor the tangible and awe-inspiring aspects of the natural world rather than place exclusive emphasis on God's kingdom in Heaven, as many of her fellow Puritans did. This departure showcases Bradstreet's unique perspective within the Puritan framework, demonstrating a blend of devout spirituality and an appreciation for the worldly aspects of God's creation.


Each stanza is composed of seven lines with a rhyme scheme of ababccc. This pattern introduces a visual and auditory balance to the poem. The regularity of the abab scheme in the quatrains establishes a rhythmic flow, providing a structured foundation for the reader. The following triplets, with their unique rhyme schemes, punctuate specific themes or ideas and offer a moment of contrast within the poem's structure. This intentional variation engages readers and highlights the significance of the content within those particular stanzas.


Symbolism plays a significant role in "Contemplations," with Bradstreet using nature to convey deeper meanings. For instance, in the third stanza, the oak tree becomes a symbol of enduring strength, prompting reflections on the cyclical nature of life. Later in the poem, the river symbolizes the relentless flow of time and is a metaphor for the brevity of human life. These symbolic elements enrich the poem's thematic depth and invite readers to explore the profound connections between the natural world and the complexities of the human experience.

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