Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

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.


  1. Interesting. I don't see comfort---I read more bewilderment. And thanks for that word; I wouldn't have found it otherwise.

    As for nearly missing Poetry Month and Month of the Woman, don't worry about it. There are far too many of those things now. I reminds me of the quarter system in college, when you had just finished mid-terms when you had to start studying for finals. You never got a chance to simply BE.

  2. I love your blog. I am fascinated that she even wrote the poem; that she took the time to grieve; that she had invested her heart in the baby and would invest in the grieving. I have read a book twice, and will read it again: Motherhood In the Old South, by Sally G. McMillen. It covers only the 1700's and 1800's. Many things were brought over from England, so I would think some of this might apply to Anne's period. Most families didn't name a baby until it was 5. Most babies died by age 2 or 3. Often, as in England during plagues, they would send babies off to the country to live with a Mammy for as long as possible. Four or five years later, when it was unlikely the child would die, they would meet the baby and take him/her home. Although a shocking percentage of women died in childbirth, the ones who didn't might give birth 12 times and have 1 or 2 surviving children. Women were depressed! Women were discouraged from bonding with babies. This poem is unusual, since her grandchild was less than 2. For me, the last line strikes me as the obedient Calvinist, Anglo approach to loss, which is: This hurt. It makes no sense. I cannot wrestle with God. I will bury it all now, and be useful. Ultimately, capping off the poem so suddenly, and putting things away, leave them numb, and more able to "Not Feel," the next loss, and to help others by minimizing their loss. Nonetheless, the fact that she wrote the poem at all, is striking.