Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

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.

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