Here are my notes from Garry Williams’ seminar at New Word Alive on the Puritan poem, Anne Bradstreet. There is a chapter on Anne Bradstreet in the homage to Puritan writings, The Devoted Life (IVP) .
Anne Bradstreet was born as Anne Dudley in 1612 so she came of age when Charles 1 was attempting to move England away from Protestantism to more Roman Catholic approach. In her poetry, Anne protests against this:
Lets bring Baals vestments forth to make a fire,
Their Mystires, Surplices, and all their Tires,
Copes, Rotchets, Crossiers, and such empty trash;
And let their Names consume, but let the flash
Light Christedome, and all the world to see
We hate Romes whore, with all her trumpery.
Anne had a privileged and educated up-bringing, marrying Simon Bradstreet, the son of a non-conformist minister and a graduate of the Puritan Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In 1630 she sailed to America with her husband and parents. Several people died during the crossing and two hundred of the thousand people in the area that Anne settled died of starvation in the first winter (‘the starving time’ it was called). It was world of promise and freedom with the hope of new beginning for Puritans, but it was also a precarious world.
The Puritans had a conception of an ordered society in which everyone had their roles. They had the opportunity completely to restructure society. They were the radicals of their day. But they did not overturn all social patterns and norms. Anne shares this outlook as her epitaph to her mother reveals.
A worthy matron of unspotted life,
A loving mother and obedient wife,
A friendly neighbor, pitiful to poor,
Whom oft she fed, and clothed with her store;
To servants wisely aweful, but yet kind,
And as they did, so they reward did find:
A true instructor of her family,
The which she ordered with dexterity,
The public meetings ever did frequent,
And in her closet constant hours she spent;
Religious in all her words and ways,
Preparing still for death, till end of days:
Of all her children, children lived to see,
Then dying, left a blessed memory.
Anne is known for pushing the boundaries. Writing poetry was considered a male occupation and some of her poems were published under a male pseudonym. Yet she extols the virtues of a loving and submissive wife. The Puritans pushed the social boundaries, but did so within the boundaries of Scripture. This meant the Puritans had a clear sense of identity in contrast to our confused times. People today are constantly redefining themselves. Without any boundaries from God’s word we are adrift.
Initially Anne was unhappy with life in the new world. It was a couple of years before she ‘resigned’ herself to her new life. ‘Resignation’ was a common concept in Puritan spirituality. It means finding contentment in the life God has given us. Anne herself eventually found this ‘resignation’ as a result of period of sickness. Again, it was common for Puritans to see adversities like illness as sent by God to sanctify us.
For what’s this life, but care and strife?
Since first we came from womb,
Our strength doth waste, our time doth haste,
And then we go to th’Tomb …
O Whil’st I live, this grace me give,
I doing good may be,
Then deaths arrest, I shall count blest,
Because it’s thy decree.
Anne teaches us to sit loosely with this life. ‘For what’s this life, but care and strife?’ Today we are often preoccupied with making our life comfortable. We think life ought to be comfortable. But Anne reminds us that life is care and strife followed by death. This helps us sit loose to this world. In a poem entitled ‘Contemplations’ she writes:
O Time the fatal wrack of mortal things,
That draws oblivious curtains over kings,
Their sumptuous monuments, men know them not,
Their names without a Record are forgot,
Their parts, their ports, their pomp’s all laid in th’ dust
Nor wit nor gold, nor buildings scape times rust;
But he whose name is grav’d in the white stone
Shall last and shine when all of these are gone.
Death takes away the achievements of this life. Only identity in Christ lasts into eternity. For the Puritans life was always ending. Life is to be used to prepare for death. They lived in a time when they were constantly confronted by the realities of death. We live in a time when we avoid the reality of death. People rarely die at home, for example, but outside the home. What is life’s task? Our view of life’s task is revealed, for example, in what we are preparing our children for.
This was a particular issue for Anne for she and her family moved to yet more remote areas, facing the threat of attack from native Americans. Unusually all of eight of her children survived infancy, but not her grandchildren. In 1665 one of grandchildren, Elizabeth, died. In 1666 fire destroyed their home. In 1668 another grandchild, Anne, died while in 1669 a grandson, Simon, died as well as one of her daughters-in-law. On the death of the granddaughter named after her, Anne wrote:
With troubled heart and trembling hand I write,
The Heavens have chang’d to sorrow my delight.
How oft with disappointment have I met,
Farewel dear child, thou ne’re shall come to me,
But yet a while, and I shall go to thee;
Mean time my throbbing heart’s chear’d up with this
Thou with thy Saviour art in endless bliss.
In a poem, written when fire consumed their home, Anne laments all she has lost. She recalls her distress as the fire took hold. She recounts the ruined possessions that she loved:
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lat that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
There is a real sense of loss expressed in this poem. But then she speaks to herself, reminding herself of the truth, calling on her heart to look to things above.
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide,
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make they trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
Than dunghill mists away may fly.
She reminds herself that looking to heaven is not second best. Her house above is made a ‘mighty Architect / With glory richly furnished’ and paid with the blood of Christ, ‘A price so vast as is unknown’.
The world no longer let me love;
My hope and Treasure lies above.
Questions for reflection
Do you know yourself in Christ?
Do you find in him the certainty of identity and purpose that our age lacks?
Is your self-understanding formed from somewhere else? Where?