Anne Bradstreet Poetry Essay Samples
SOURCE: "Anne Bradstreet's 'Contemplations': Patterns of Form and Meaning," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, March 1970, pp. 79–96.
[In the following excerpt, Rosenfeld discusses Bradsteet's "Contemplations" in terms of its similarities with the works of later Romantic poets.]
On first reading, the thirty-three stanzas of "Contemplations" seem to be held together very loosely, if at all, but a closer reading begins to reveal certain patterns of imagery and ideas within the poem. The seasonal metaphor is one of these and contributes significantly to both form and meaning. A second pattern, the daily cycle of morning and night, with its attendant periods of light and dark, obviously ties in closely with the yearly cycle of the seasons. The progression of natural images—directing the poet's vision from tree to sun to river to bird to stone—is a third and needs to be examined carefully. A fourth element of structural and thematic importance involves the elaborate switches in narrative and dramatic time. A fifth concerns the noticeable contrasts between Classical and Biblical allusions. A sixth has to do with tone and mood and the varied uses of the lyrical and elegiac modes together with the larger form of the narrative. All of these factors help to make the poem the rich and complex work that it is. They also lend the poem unity, although it is a unity that is not easily apparent and only becomes so when one isolates some of the patterns of form and meaning and examines them, at first, somewhat apart.
Anne Bradstreet's use of the seasonal metaphor—which moves the poem from autumn through winter to a temporarily realized season of eternal spring and summer—is an anticipation of the English Romantic poets and inevitably provokes parallels with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. As with those poets, her seasons are both physical and spiritual and participate in the same cycle of the waning and revival of life. As more than one critic has already pointed out, several of her lines on the seasons resemble some of the most memorable lines in the poems of Shelley and Keats, a factor that may permit us to read her poetry in the light of what we have learned from theirs.
Particularly appropriate—and helpful—in this connection is the place of the poet as the central figure in the drama of seasonal change. For it is the threat to the poet in his vocation as poet and not just as mortal man that is always crucial in the Romantic's evocation of the seasons. That is true for the Wordsworth of the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," for the Coleridge of "Dejection: An Ode," for the Shelley of "Ode to the West Wind," for the Keats of the great odes—and for the Anne Bradstreet of "Contemplations." A significant part of her poem's theme (and one finds it also in the poems just cited) has to do with the challenge to the imagination of the poet's heavy and constant sense of time, flux, and a final oblivion. A major portion of this theme in "Contemplations" is carried by the seasonal metaphor.
The poem actually begins with it—"Some time now past in the autumnal tide" (1)—and from this point on it is pervasive, appearing explicitly in at least a third of the stanzas and implicitly in many of the others. The poet invokes it immediately when, walking alone in the woods of an autumn day, she quietly gives herself up to the splendid scene and is moved to remark: "More heaven than earth was here, no winter and no night" (2). She is moved by the majesty of the trees and particularly by one "stately oak" which, with its height and strength, seems to defy and transcend a "hundred winters … or [a] thousand." But the lines that most fully express the poet's attachment to the metaphor of the seasons appear later, in stanzas 18 and 28:
When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
And then the earth (though old) still clad in green,
The stones and trees, insensible of time,
Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen;
If winter come and greenness then do fade,
A spring returns, and they more youthful made;
But man grows old, lies down, remains where once he's laid. (18)
The dawning morn with songs thou dost prevent,
Sets hundred notes unto thy feathered crew,
So each one tunes his pretty instrument,
And warbling out the old, begin anew,
And thus they pass their youth in summer season,
Then follow thee into a better region,
Where winter's never felt by that sweet airy legion. (28)
The Shelleyan note is inescapable in the first of these stanzas, the Keatsian in the second. Anne Bradstreet seems to share with these poets a consciousness of the rejuvenescence of life, of the chance to recover from the old to make always new beginnings, which comes with the cycle of the "Quaternal seasons," as she refers to them in an earlier stanza (6). Stanza 18 ends, however, on a pessimistic note about man's ability to participate in the seasonal cycle, and at this point we have a departure from the later Romantic poet's affirmation of seasonal death and rebirth. Anne Bradstreet was of another age, after all, and she is nowhere closer to that age than here, where she qualifies a strong personal impulse towards Romantic beliefs with the traditional Christian assertion of man's mortality:
By birth more noble than those creatures all,
Yet seems by nature and by custom cursed,
No sooner born, but grief and care makes fall
That state obliterate he had at first;
Nor youth, nor strength, nor wisdom spring again,
Nor habitations long their names retain,
But in oblivion to the final day remain. (19)
Theseus' famous speech in A Midsummer-Night's Dream about the imagination giving to airy nothing "a local habitation and a name" is echoed here, and its implications are that the poet has suffered not only a reversal of her commitment to the seasonal metaphor but of the very quality of her imagination. For although the poem goes on to affirm that "man was made for endless immortality" (20), the kind of immortality referred to and pursued is that of orthodox Christianity and not Romantic renewal on earth. Christianity's idea of resurrection after death is based, in part, upon the symbolism of the seasonal cycle, but its final goal is transcendence of all natural forms to eternal life beyond. A prose passage in Anne Bradstreet's "Meditations Divine and Moral" helps to make this point emphatic:
The spring is a lively emblem of the resurrection: after a long winter we see the leafless trees and dry stocks (at the approach of the sun) to resume their former vigor and beauty in a more ample manner than what they lost in the autumn; so shall it be at that great day after a long vacation, when the Sun of righteousness shall appear; those dry bones shall arise in far more glory than that which they lost at their creation, and in this transcends the spring that their leaf shall never fail nor their sap decline.
This is a graceful description of familiar Christian doctrine and represents, one imagines, what Anne Bradstreet would have claimed to be her final religious position on the questions of life, death, and immortality.
Does it also represent her deepest responses as a poet, one wonders? The question must be asked, and not just for "Contemplations" but for other of her poems as well. For if one closely reads "The Flesh and the Spirit," "Verses upon the Burning of Our House," the elegies on Sidney, Du Bartas, and Elizabeth, the poems to her husband, and "Contemplations," it soon becomes clear that the currents within the poetry itself seem too often to run counter to a position of religious orthodoxy. And if it is finally unfair to throw Anne Bradstreet fully into the camp of the Romantics, so too is it unfair to cast her completely as a traditionally believing "Puritan" poet.
Several critics have called attention to "the clash of feeling and dogma" in her poetry, to the struggle between "how she really feels instead of how she should feel," and that is precisely what we are faced with here. This struggle adds character and strength to her poetry, and one should not attempt to dismiss it, as is sometimes done, by seeing it as merely an incidental flaw in an otherwise clearly defined position of either staunch Puritanism or...
What do Bradstreet's "Contemplations" lead her to conclude"?
Anne Bradstreet often contemplates nature, God, and Man in her work. By observing the majesty of her natural surroundings in "Contemplations," she reflects on the greatness of her glorious Creator. This leads her to think about the Fall of Man, and how human beings are abject creatures. Since Cain split the first blood, human existence has been hard and painful. She understands that men are cursed and that their lives are short and characterized by frailty, despair, weakness, and sin. All of man's accomplishments in his mortal life are subject to the wrack of Time. However, if man focuses on Heaven, which "is found with all security," then he may experience the bounty and grace of the afterlife. Bradstreet starts with a celebration of nature and its divine creator, and ultimately connects this idea to advice for her reader. She encourages people to concentrate on Heaven rather than material accomplishments during mortal life.
Anne Bradstreet often drew inspiration from her own life to inform her work. What is so compelling about the way she uses daily issues in her poetry?
Bradstreet's renown as a poet stems from her erudition, and also from her ability to focus on the concerns of her daily life. She could accurately convey those feelings and experiences in a capable and open way, which still resonates with readers today. Bradstreet writes about motherhood, marriage, sickness, family, and religion. She writes emotionally open lines about her feelings - her fear of dying in childbirth and her sadness when her children move away to start their own lives. She shares her sorrow and anxiety at being alone when her husband goes away on long trips. She worries about her health, but also is concerned about what will happen to her soul when her time does come. All in all, she contemplates her role as a poet and as a woman. Her work is organic and heartfelt, which is what allows her to strike an emotional chord in the hearts of readers - both during her time and today.
Anne Bradstreet often refers to her work in her poems. How does she seem to feel about her own work?
Some critics feel that Bradstreet is slightly dismissive of her own work. In "The Author to Her Book," she seems frustrated by the fruits of her labor and keeps noticing flaws. In "The Prologue," she seems to cast aspersions on her talent. However, even though Bradstreet was truly humble about her work, and although she paid lip service to male poets, she was confident in her abilities. In several of her poems, including "The Prologue," she asks men to acknowledge women's accomplishments. Her ragged verse may be flawed in places, but she is still quite clear about her grudging love for her poems. She writes about her poems like any mother who looks at her child - with exasperation mingled with pride. She never apologizes for writing her poems, nor does she provide an explanation of why she does her work. It is a part of her identity and she considers it to be significant. Although she certainly understands the differences between her poems and those written by the men of her time, she argues that they are equally valid.
In "The Four Elements," how do the four describe their merits and their flaws?
The Four Elements are not as contentious with each other as the Four Humors are, but they are certainly more extreme in their claims to superiority and their acknowledgment of their negative aspects. Fire believes that she gives life, animates cooking and chemistry, and provides vigor and energy. She does know, however, that she can reduce men and their worldly creations to ashes, and consume everything like “that great day of Doom.” Earth says she is the substance of man and beast and represents learning and the arts, but she also concedes that her earthquakes and poison can destroy men and monuments. Water is “thy drink, thy blood, thy sap and best” and is beautiful and pleasing. However, she can also cause floods and storms and swallow up countries and islands. Air is “the breath of every living soul” and can become each of the the other elements, but can also cause excessive wind and storms. All four elements exist together on the planet and bring life and death in equal measure.
What do Bradstreet's poems about her husband say about her views on love?
Bradstreet’s poems about her husband are profoundly romantic. Several of them are about the immense grief she feels when he leaves for business, while another one is simply an expression of her undying love and her belief in their eternal unity. She uses nature as a way to compare their deep connection, suggesting that they are two turtledoves or two mullets. She celebrates her husband as the father of her children, even using sensual language to connote the way in which they conceived said children. Most of these poems are not particularly religious, although Bradstreet's viewpoint on love generally aligns with the Biblical tradition of marriage. However, it was unusual for women of Bradstreet's time to allude to the physical expression of love between a man and a woman.
What is the role of death in Bradstreet's poems?
Death is something that all men and women must confront, but during the colonial era, when Anne Bradstreet wrote her poems, it was much more frequent, abrupt, and common. Diseases, Indian attacks, harsh weather, failed crops, and rough sea voyages made colonial life very difficult, and death stalked life closely. Bradstreet confronts the very real possibility of death in some of her works. Two of her poems feature her ruminations on death while being ill ("For Deliverance from a Fever" and "Upon a Fit of Sickness"), and in "Before the Birth of One of Her Children," she realizes that she could die in childbirth, as many women did. In the Quaternions, she also writes about a variety of things that might afflict the body or cause death (natural disasters, war). Bradstreet acknowledges the reality of death, but not its finality. As a Puritan, death is not entirely frightening or unwelcome because of what comes after it. Bradstreet believes in the eternal life, where she might be reunited with her family and friends, and meet her maker. In this way, having faith in the afterlife softened the looming reality of death that existed in colonial times.
How does Bradstreet feel about life on Earth in comparison to the afterlife?
Bradstreet certainly had a deep and abiding affection for her life. She delighted in her husband and her children and lamented the loss of her material possessions when the family home burned down. She enjoyed her perambulations in nature and wrote movingly about her thoughts on the trees, rivers, and the Sun. She worried about leaving her material life if she were to fall victim to sickness or the struggles of childbirth. However, Bradstreet also wrote about how difficult life is for all humans; time ravages bodies and minds, power and wealth are transient, family members die, inclement weather destroys the land, and it is easy to become distracted by the sinful pleasures of the world. Bradstreet understood that the condition of man is an inheritance from Adam and Eve, and also tried to remain focused on life after death, a great gift for everyone who converted to Puritanism. Bradstreet loved her life, but she also knew that it was difficult and recognized that God promised much more to His faithful in the afterlife.
In Anne Bradstreet's poems, what does she believe a woman's role ought to be?
Bradstreet’s view on a women’s role was absolutely a product of her time; she found a great deal of value and emotional sustenance in her life as a wife and mother. She did not complain about maintaining her household and family. However, Bradstreet also frequently expresses her views on what she believes women deserve from men. Women may not have had the same advantages and opportunities as men do (in Bradstreet's time), but they certainly are capable of great things (like Elizabeth I) and should receive acknowledgement for their accomplishments. Bradstreet never apologized for writing poetry, and felt pride in her published poems (although she did not seek out the publishing deal on her own). She may have been firmly ensconced in her home, but she also believed she was fully deserving of a life beyond her duties - like writing poetry and enjoying the love of her husband and children.
Which of Elizabeth's accomplishments does Anne Bradstreet focus on in "Her High...Queen Elizabeth"?
Anne Bradstreet presents Queen Elizabeth I’s accomplishments in her own unique voice. Although Bradstreet claims that she will never attain the public prominence of a Queen, she uses the Queen as a sterling example of what women are capable of when they put their minds to it. Specifically, Bradstreet lauds the Queen for the happy citizens, political peace, wealth, and splendor that flourished under her rule. Bradstreet writes about Elizabeth's defeat of the Spanish Armada, her intensely loyal nobles, and her many victories at home and abroad, all of which are comparable to the accomplishments of any man. Bradstreet writes that Elizabeth was “so good, so just, so learn’d, so wise.” In her elegy, Bradstreet immortalizes Queen Elizabeth I as an example for women everywhere.
What are the tensions between the sisters in "The Flesh and the Spirit"?
Bradstreet depicts Flesh and Spirit as sisters, and the tone in which they speak to one another is certainly reminiscent of real conversation between siblings. Flesh teases her sister, asking why she insists on living in a state of meditation. Flesh tries to call attention to the glorious gifts on Earth in order to get her sister to focus on something else. Spirit, meanwhile, crafts a touchy and rather cruel response, calling her sister an enemy and claiming that she will not join Spirit in eternal Heaven. Spirit calls her sister’s pleasures sinful and states that she would rather wait to experience riches in Heaven rather than pursue temporary pleasures on Earth. The fact that Bradstreet seems to be more sympathetic towards Flesh is indicative of the poet's tension between Bradstreet's love for her life on Earth and her understanding that it is ephemeral.