Anne Bradstreet was a woman in conflict. She was a Puritan wife and a poet. There is a conflict between Puritan theology and her own personal feelings on life. Many of her poems reveal her eternal conflict regarding her emotions and the beliefs of her religion. The two often stood in direct opposition to each other. Her Puritan faith demanded that she seek salvation and the promises of Heaven. However, Bradstreet felt more strongly about her life on Earth. She was very . She was very attached to her family and community. Bradstreet loved her life and the Earth.
There are several poems of Bradstreet that demonstrate this conflict. There is Upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666 and the ones written on the deaths of her grandchildren. These are both examples of her feelings about life on Earth and her religious beliefs.
In the critical essay of Robert D. Richardson Jr., he examines the poem Upon the Burning of Our House from a conventional Puritan point of view, an exercise in finding the hand of God behind every apparent disaster. Yet, the poem moves back and forth from the human level to the divine, and it is not impossible to argue that the human level fear of fire, the sense of loss is what genuinely moves the poet, while her submission to the will of God is somewhat forced acknowledgment of an arrangement that is not really satisfactory.(105)
And when I could no longer look,
I blest his Name that gone and took,
That layd my goods now in the dust:
Yea so it was, and twas just.
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It was his own: It was not mine;
Far be it that I should repine. (311)
These lines of submission are clipped and measured, grimly singsong: they sound forced when placed alongside the following lines which emphasize personal loss. (Richardson 105)
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest
There lay that store I counted best:
My pleasant things in ashes lye.
Anne uses the proper application, interpreting the event as a warning, and as an injunction to look toward the house on high erect. But the vacillation in the poem suggests that the sense of loss outweighs, at least at times, the potential comfort promised by Puritan theology. (Richardson 106)
In the critical essay by Ann Standford, Anne Bradstreet Dogmatist and Rebel, she tells us that Anne Bradstreet comforts herself with good Puritan dogma. (76) That the burning of the house should not be questioned, but she does question it in the three stanzas where she lovingly goes over the contents of the house the questioning being through feeling tone rather than statement. As she passes the ruins she recreates the pleasant things that had been there. Despite the reasonable arguments that her goods belonged to God and whatever God does is just, there is in the poem an undercurrent of regret that the loss is not fully compensated for by the hope of the treasure that lies above. (84)
Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666 is one of Anne Bradstreets most effective poems. Part of that effectiveness comes from the poignant tension between her worldly concerns, as represented by her household furnishings and her spiritual aspirations.
As Wendy Martin says the poem leaves the reader with painful impression of a woman in her mid-fifties, who having lost her domestic comforts is left to struggle with despair. Although her loss is mitigated by the promise of the greater rewards of heaven, the experience is deeply tragic. (75)
Anne Bradstreets feelings about her home represent the most material conflict. When her home burned down she wrote the poem to voice these feelings of hers. She describes the awakening to the shrieks of dreadful voice and going out to watch the flame consume her dwelling place. But she comforts herself with good Puritan dogma. The burning of the house is Gods doing and his doings should not be questioned. In looking over the stanzas where she lovingly goes over the things that have burnt, it shows that she is actually questioning Gods will. This is a place where we see conflict within her. The questioning is through feeling rather than statement. In the following stanzas she is looking over her things lovingly:
When by the Ruins oft I past,
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast,
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sat, and long did lye,
Here stood that Trunk, and here that chest;
There lay that store I counted best:
My pleasant things in ashes lye,
And them behold no more shall I,
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant tale shallere be told,
Nor things recounted done of old.
No candleere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegrooms voice ere heard shall be.
In the above stanzas it is almost a dialogue between her feelings and dogma. She feels a sense of regret despite the fact that there are reasonable arguments that her goods belonged to God and whatever God does is just.
In reading and examining the elegies she wrote for her grandchildren we see a strong feeling of questioning. In these poems she is sharing a strong inclination of self-expression. Her strong sense of personal bereavement is very evident. Unlike when her father died there is no question of the rightness of his death because of his age. The first poem is for her granddaughter Elizabeth who died at the age of one and a half. According to Ann Standford it is incidentally one of the finest elegies in American literature. Here she admits in keeping with dogma that her heart was set too much on one who was after all only one of Gods creatures. (85)
Farewell dear babe, my hearts too much content,
Farewell sweet babe, the pleasures of mine eye,
Farewell fair flower that for a space was lent,
Then taen away with Eternity.
She concludes the stanza with a conventional question:
Blest babe why should I once bewail thy fate,
Or sigh the dayes so soon were terminate;
Sith thou are settled in an Everlasting state.
This should lead in a conventional Christian apotheosis, but the problem for Anne Bradstreet is that she cannot properly, i.e. dogmatically, answer the question. She answers it by stating how she really feels instead of how she should feel. (85)
By nature Trees do rot when they are grown.
And Plumbs and apples thoroughly ripe do fall,
And Corn and grass are in their season mown,
And time brings down what is both strong and tall.
But plants new set to be eradicate,
And buds new blown, to have so short a date.
In order not to criticize God she has to say its Gods will. Her conclusion is not in the joy of the Christian transformation but by a backing down from her near criticism of the deity and says that the taking away of this fair flower is by his hand alone that guides nature and fate. (Standford 85)
She also showed much of her doubt in the poem about her grandson Simons death. There she expressed more of her feelings that something is wrong. There is a feeling of irony and questioning of Puritan dogma of acceptance. There is a tone of bitterness in the loss of her grandchildren. She uses a ceremonial and simple expression. She is subtle in stating the irony she feels in their deaths and there is also bitterness at their loss. Her grief is evident in the poems.
Anne Bradstreet lived in a difficult time for women. She followed her father, brothers and husband to a new land. She had no choice in this since that was what women of her time were expected to do. Women of her time were not able to express themselves openly so she used her poetry. She was able to do this in a subtle way. Yet she expressed her feelings and her questioning about Puritan theology. Were her conflicts ever fully quieted within her? There is some evidence that towards the end of her life she was able to accept her fate.
Anne Bradstreet died on September 16, 1672 at the age of sixty. She was very ill in the last months of her life. Her works reflect the tension and conflict of a woman struggling for artistic expression. She was troubled by religious doubts throughout her life yet managed to be a successful mother and wife. Her belief in the beauty of this world helped her maintain a belief in a heaven.
Martin,Wendy. An American Triptych. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1984.
Richardson Jr., Robert D. The Puritan Poetry of Anne Bradstreet Critical
Essays on Anne Bradstreet. Ed Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford.
Boston: Hall 1983. 101 115.
Stanford, Ann. Anne Bradstreet Dogmatist and Rebel Critical Essays on Anne
Bradstreet. Ed Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford. Boston: Hall 1983.