Here is this week’s Memo from Moderator David Grimsted, continuing his exploration of our church’s Puritan roots.
Anne Bradstreet’s three most intensely beautiful poems celebrate her passionate union with her husband, Simon. One is a “letter” to him when “Absent on Public Appointment.”
My head, my heart, my eyes, my life—Nay, more
My joy, my magazine of earthly store.
If we be one, as surely thou and I,
How stay’st thou there, while I in Ipswich lye?
For me, these Bradstreet poems reek love, sexual and humane, more powerfully than do Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Elizabeth Browning’s verse. Separated, the couple’s world is always dank winter, because Anne and Simon are each other’s Sun.
My chilled limbs now nummed lye forlorn,
Return, return, sweet Sol from Capricorn.
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Then view those fruits through which thy heat I bore,
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space
The living pictures of their Father’s face.
She awaits Simon’s return to the warmly “welcome house of him my dearest guest.”
Bradstreet, born in 1612 in England, was sixteen when she married Simon. Two years later this extended Puritan family sailed to Massachusetts with John Winthrop. After some hard times, they prospered. Both Anne’s father and her husband were to become colony governors. She wrote poetry for self, family, and friends. A minister brother-in-law took it to London where it was published to some acclaim. Much of this early work was on quartets of things like the humors and ages of man. They were erudite, intelligent and stiff. Bradstreet prepared a second book that wisely emphasized her personal experiences: husband, children, home, and her Puritan version of life’s incredible wonders and dependable sorrows.
Bradstreet invested much of her love, care, and fear in her children, these “eight birds I hatcht in one nest.” In this 1659 poem, she described traits of the five who had already flown from home, with three still “in the nest.” Yet, knowing the dangers, physical and moral, around them, her worries warred with her love.
If birds could weep, then would my tears
Let others know what are my fears,
Lest this my brood some harm should catch
And be surprised for want of watch.
. . . .
My age I will not once lament,
But sing, my time so near is spent.
In “Contemplations,” Bradstreet’s sweet testimony to life’s wonders and its woes, the most moving line comes when she watches fish laying eggs and then swimming off with no further concern. Anne envies these “watery folk that know not your felicity.”
Soon after arriving in Massachusetts, despite the family’s early struggles, Bradstreet wrote, “I came into this new Country, where I found a new World and new manners at which my heart rose.” Her long poem-dialogue between Mother England and New England is, despite some deep love of Mother, perhaps the clearest early statement of American exceptionalism. The colonial daughter is less riven by rank pride, self-indulgence, division, and hate, Bradford claimed.
Bradstreet’s poetic intensity is much leavened with good humor and self-laughter. The prologue to the early Tenth Muse is laughingly apologetic—“Let Greeks be Greeks and women what they are.” Bradstreet has more fun in “The Author to her Book” for the revised edition. She tells how unsuccessful she was in making less limping its meter and more elevated the “home-spun Cloth” of its language. Still, she decided to put into the world this “ill-formed offspring,” this “rambling brat (in print).” The bastard had no known father and its mother was poor “which caused her to send thee out the door.”
Her poem on Queen Elizabeth praised this best and most brilliant of rulers, who fully
has wip’d off the th’aspersions of her Sex
That women wisdom lack to play the Rex.
And what Elizabeth taught was a lasting truth;
Now, Masculines, you have taxed us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason
Know ’tis slander now, but once was treason.
Bradstreet lived and wrote from a woman’s world. Puritan society was one of “separate spheres,” but ones joined through a sense that responsibility and ability were gender equal—and equally needed by all in the hard work of seeking God’s will and wishes for His human strugglers.
I’ve especially enjoyed rejoining Bradstreet in the “social isolation” provided by Covid-19—so generously God-given—from which devolves new tears, new fears, and, yes, new kindnesses. We watch a world burning as Bradstreet watched her home and all its content burned to ash in 1668.
And when I could no longer look,
I blessed this grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just.
I seek mostly in vain for signs of divine or social justice, but could there be a more decent and dignified response to our tragedies, big and small?
Escape your social isolation by reading some Bradstreet. With libraries closed by sensibly cautious cowardice, she is to be found on Google. Go to “Anne Bradstreet Poetry” and browse Poetry Foundation’s good selections of her work. This is where our church started. Have we progressed?
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