Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sailing, Sailing O’er the Ocean Blue . . .

In any century, tall ships take one’s breath away.
I’m stuck learning stuff I really don’t want to have to learn (a sensation that my students are no doubt familiar with) now that Anne is leaving England via watercraft.  There’s a great lore around tall ships and a very picky vocabulary, and there’s nothing for it but to master at least the rudiments.  Sigh.

So for instance, if Anne is leaning over the railing looking at the water -- what’s that railing called?  That’s not the gunwale, is it?  I think “gunwale” would apply to the upper lip of a smaller craft.  I asked Dr. Google, who helpfully supplied me with many diagrams of ships, the different parts labelled, but none had the name of the railing thing.

It’s hard to track down the details that I need to know.  For instance, how do you get on a ship, in the 17th century?  A gangway, Love Boat-style?  Or do the passengers have to mount some sort of ladder affair?  I decided it had to be a gangway, and with as little description as possible (the less to err) I put one in.  I spent a couple of hours yesterday trawling the internet trying to track down the answer to that question, and I’ve got a couple of book titles to check as well, if I feel highly inspired down the road to figure it out.

And what about the sleeping arrangements?  The replica of the Mayflower has bunks for its passengers, but if that was so, I sure hope they had seat belts for those things.  Can you imagine being in a bunk when a storm hit?  A storm at sea was like a roller coaster.  British sailors were killed by being thrown out of their bunks until the British Navy switched to hammocks around 1600.  These were the deep hammocks, so you’re in a sort of cocoon when you’re inside them.  Even if the ship is pitching, you’re still secure, since the hammock would sway with the motion and the occupant would remain balanced.

My puritans had to be in hammocks.  Hammocks were safer and cheaper than bunks.  One of the chief drawbacks would be that you’d sleep cold in a hammock, and it was cold out at sea.  (If you’ve ever camped in cold weather and foolishly slept on an air mattress -- you know what a hammock on the ocean would be like.)  But you’d have some sort of padding in the bottom of your hammock (probably a straw-filled mattress) to help with that.

I was pleased to learn that the Arbella, Anne’s ship, was a large ship, stately even, with a cargo hold twice the size of the Mayflower’s.  She had an eagle on her prow and three masts.  Most of the people were housed belowdecks, on a middle deck that was above the hold.  Likely Anne was not there, though.  Some makeshift cabins were constructed on the main deck for the ladies of high rank.  Surely one of those ladies was Arbella Fiennes Clinton Johnson, daughter and sister of earls and wife of one of the most prominent colonists -- and for whom the boat was named.  Arbella’s family owned Sempringham, the manor where Anne spent so many years of her girlhood.  I would imagine that a few ladies housed with Arbella to wait on her (they brought England with them, at least at first).  The logical choices for that role would be Anne and her mother. I think men and women slept separately on this trip -- even married couples -- though I’m not sure.

The problem with these cabins was that if the Arbella’s guns had to be fired -- and she was bristling with weapons -- the cabins would have to be taken down or else they would be in the way of the gun sights.  (So these were cannons on the main deck, I suppose).  And that did happen, in the early days of the voyage.  Some of the women’s stuff was tossed in the sea so it would not be ignited by any flaming arrows that the enemy might send over.  Maybe the gentlewomen might have been better off living belowdecks; at least they would not have lost some of their blankets into the English Channel.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Time For a Poetry Break

Happy Poetry Month, everybody!  I only just realized today, April 18, that that is indeed what it is.  I suppose that a historian writing about a poet should keep up on these things.  But it’s because I’m a historian, You See, and not a poet, that I nearly missed it.  That also must explain why I gave Women’s History Month (March) such loving attention here at Carping Tongues.

But let’s celebrate Poetry Month with a poem.  I don’t know much about poetry, but I recently found that poems are meant to be read aloud.  Last November I taught a class on Anne Bradstreet and I wanted to read some of her poetry to the class.  One poem was to a child who had died, and I had to practice it aloud several times to make sure I wasn’t going to get all choky over it in class, since dying-children poetry wrings my heart every time.

As I read it aloud, over and over, I discovered its craft.  Two verses, each seven lines, with a rhyme structure of ABABCCC, DEDECCC.  The choice to make the last three lines of each stanza rhyming – and to have the same rhyme for the last three lines of both verses – gave a repetition that, to me anyhow, spoke of grief.  It made me think of rocking in a rocking chair, back and forth endlessly, while the heart is aching.  You come down hard on that “ate” – fate, terminate, state, eradicate, date, fate.  “Fate” is the first and the last words in this series.  That can’t be chance, especially since the subject of the final stanza is WHY, GOD.

You try it:  read this aloud.  This poem is about the loss of Anne’s one-year-old granddaughter.  Take it slow, and see where the emphasis seems to fall as you speak it.

Farewell dear babe, my heart's too much content,
Farewell sweet babe, the pleasure of mine eye,
Farewell fair flower that for a space was lent,
Then ta'en away unto eternity.
Blest babe, why should I once bewail thy fate,
Or sigh thy days so soon were terminate,
Sith thou art settled in an everlasting state.

By nature trees do rot when they are grown,
And plums 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,
Is by His hand alone that guides nature and fate.

As I read the second stanza I found myself emphasizing the words of decay, pausing on rot, ripe, mown, and down.  She takes the entire stanza to set up the question – WHY, GOD -- and then answers it in a quick phrase.  What was in her heart?  Did the last line bring her any comfort, or was she speaking out of her anger or bewilderment? 

Celebrate Poetry Month -- read a poem OUT LOUD.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Quats

How many of you folks read poetry on a more-than-occasional basis?

When was the last time someone recommended a poet to you?

Likely we’d all be reading more of it if we lived in Anne Bradstreet’s time.  Metered lines were everywhere.  But they are now, too, in our pervasive modern music culture.  Yet our values as a culture run more to the  practical, the immediate, and the active, and our music shows it.  Poetry by itself is an acquired taste.

Or maybe I’m the odd one out in my lack of poetry reading.

But I’m writing about a seventeenth-century poet, a woman who sat at her rough kitchen table in the middle of the wilderness and wrote long epic works rich in classical and scientific allusion.  Sure, she wrote love poems too, but she spent years on her “quaternions” -- five poems of four sections each relating each topic of the poem (the four ages of man, for instance, or the four seasons) to four basic divisions in the universe (represented by hot, dry, cold, and moist).  And it’s ponderous stuff to my untrained ear:

When Spring had done, the Summer did begin,
With melted tauny face, and garments thin,
Resembling Fire, Choler, and Middle age,
As Spring did Air, Blood, Youth in's equipage.
Wiping the sweat from of her face that ran,
With hair all wet she puffing thus began;
Bright JuneJuly and August hot are mine,
In th' first Sol doth in crabbed Cancer shine.
                  (from Bradstreet’s Four Seasons)

You read the first three lines and skipped the rest, didn’t you?  If you take a trip through the quaternions, you’ll find thousands of lines of this -- academic, densely written, full of metaphors that sound strange on the ear.  But people liked this stuff, and read it for fun.

O good, O bad, O true, O traiterous eyes
What wonderments within your Balls there lyes,
Of all the Senses sight shall be the Queen;
Yet some may wish, O had mine eyes ne're seen.
Mine, likewise is the marrow, of the back,
Which runs through all the Spondles of the rack,
It is the substitute o'th royal brain,
All Nerves, except seven pair, to it retain.
                      (from Bradstreet’s Four Humours)

Well, maybe not for fun. This one is like a college lecture on human physiology (did you catch the part about seven nerves?) set to rhyme, and the lessons about the human experience that one might derive from that.  

I’ve picked up, sighed, and put down the quats many times so far, but as I go along in this project they make more sense to me.  I had a delightful experience yesterday.  After I taught a class I hit a Starbuck’s and sat there a spell with Anne’s volume.  At the beginning of her book are poems from her friends that were published alongside hers, there to praise her work and to reassure potential buyers to plunk down their money for it (like glowing quotes on back covers today, but all in rhyme).  One poem was by her brother-in-law.  It was as ponderous (to my ears) as the rest, but for the first time his affection for Anne shone through to me, and I even laughed out loud at something funny that he said that I finally got.  

We still snicker and call her “Spondle Girl” around my house, but I’m developing a taste for this long-dead style of poetry.  Maybe I’ll even -- like -- it someday.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

On The Dock

Replica of the Arbella, flagship of the Winthrop fleet.
Wouldn't you love to climb that rigging if you were
a kid stuck on this boat for weeks?
My writing goal was to get Anne Bradstreet to the dock by the end of April -- that is, to finish Part I, the set-in-England part of the story (in which we meet the characters and the groundwork for future themes and events are laid out) and to have her set out on the journey.  Yesterday -- the last day of MARCH, mind you -- I finished off Part I and am ready to fast-forward a year or so to where she and 1000 others are at the Isle of Wight, preparing to sail across the Atlantic.

I was going to skip the voyage because the thought of it bored me.  Yes, yes, seasickness, scary storms, bad water, hardship . . . ho hum.  But after talking to a literary consultant associate of mine (whom I am also married to by a happy coincidence), I'm getting engaged in telling some of those on-board stories.  I've been thinking about what it might have been like for the 8- to 14-year-old boys, stuck on this little tub of a ship for weeks and weeks.  What would you do if you were nine, on a ship and bored?  Climb on the rigging -- have a peeing contest off the back of the ship -- hang around the sailors and pick up some stories -- and generally drive everyone nuts.  Well, maybe not -- seventeenth-century boys were probably much better behaved than our boys, because discipline was much harsher.  But still, the olde saying is, "boys will be boys," and I love the peeing contest too much to leave it off.

There are too many interesting things about that voyage that are not generally known to skip it entirely.  The ladies cooked meals for their families right in their sleeping areas, for instance.  (Think about that one.)  Passengers had to pay fare for themselves and their goods, and the goods rate was by the TON.  (These folks were not packing all their worldly goods in a portmanteau; they brought their stuff.)  Whole families emigrated together -- parents, kids, aunts and uncles, brothers- and sisters-in-law -- sometimes even grandma and grandpa came.

Let's think about that last one for a minute.  Sailors commented on the number of "elderly" people -- in that age, in their 60s and maybe 70s -- who made the voyage.  Traveling to America would be the equivalent for us of traveling to the jungle and camping there while we built a house and developed a farm.  It seems that the best age to do that would be in one's teens or twenties.  But during the puritan migration, the average age was (as I recall, not bothering at this moment to drag out my notes) mid-30s, married with kids.  And then there's Granny.  Why does Granny go?  What's in it for her?  Sure, she'll miss her bunchkins if she stays, but is it really worth it for her to go and face the cold and discomfort in those first few months? Clearly, the answer was, "yes."  There was a wave forward, across the Atlantic, and it picked up a lot of people who seem to our eyes to be very unlikely immigrants.  Most Puritans stayed in England, but those who came brought community with them, and that is one of the reasons why their settlements were so successful.