A New Source for Anne Bradstreet’s “Contemplations”

Posted By on September 18, 2010

This is a revision of the first paper I wrote in graduate school. It concerns Anne Bradstreet, the first poet who wrote European-style poetry on American soil. I sent an earlier versions of it to several academic journals, but they all rejected it. One told me to revise it and send it back, but told me I should bring it in line with ‘more current’ thought. I thought they had missed my larger point, so I never did. But I always liked this paper, so, it being (two days after) the anniversary of her death (listed on this website as Anne Bradstreet Day) I thought I’d publish it on my blog.

This paper had a lot to do with the development of my subsequent philosophical positions. As I said, it written in the fall of 1988 during my first semester of graduate school. I hadn’t even decided what I wanted to study yet. The most important thing for me was Bradstreet’s shift from ontology to epistemology in her allegory. This played an enormous role in my choice of dissertation topics after I had decided on medieval studies. Within medieval studies I basically decided to rewrite allegory from it classic ontological orientation–especially works like D. W. Robertson Jr,’s A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives (I can’t believve this book is no longer in print; 20 years ago, it was the cat’s meow in medieval studies, and I actually had one of my fellow grad students ‘in my face’ when I ytold him that I thought the book had things wrong (Who am I? right?); how things change)–to an epistemological organized based in my study of Aristotle.

My thought was then to turn over the Platonic worldview based in metaphysics for a scientific worldview derived from Aristotle. It was a radical position at the time (in academia; no one cared on the ‘outside’). I have since abandoned this position as equally untenable. I have shifted my position to a free ground without a solid foundation in mind or in being. The mind grasps after the fact (a posteriori) for ‘the truth’ of things and always stops before getting to the final solution.

One final note: this paper is a reworking of a paper I have actually submitted for publication. I have gotten rid of most of footnotes in favor of hypertext citations. Although I give the reader hypertext references to all the poems that I could find on the Internet, I have left the page numbers to many of Bradstreet’s poems in place for the simple reason that hypertext versions change and with them their line numbers sometimes change. The reference for the cited work is as follows:

Bradstreet, Anne. The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Jeannine Hensley, ed. with a forward by Adrienne Rich. The John Harvard Library. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981.

Copyright © 1986-2010.

Anne Bradstreet was the first European poet to write on American soil. Being the first poet, her career has held a special place in the mind of American authors ever since. Being a woman, her poetic career has been of special interest to feminist writers, as well. But her early work is derivative of a handful of male European authors. The most important of these was the French metaphysical poet Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, whose Divine Weekes, though forgotten now, was the model for the greatest works of English poetry by Edmund Spenser and John Milton. In her early poetry, she often compares herself unfavorably to Du Bartas.

Early in the 20th century, to save her dignity, Samuel Eliot Morison divided Anne Bradstreet’s poetic career into two distinct parts. During the first part of her career, Bradstreet had been trying to imitate male European authors, and Morison notes her expression of frustration at her inability to imitate male authors (particularly Du Bartas) well. But in Morison’s mind, the early Bradstreet is a private poet working in a public mode. After the publication of her The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in 1650, Morison assures us that she was “completely cured her of the Du Bartas disease, and of writing imitative poetry” (331). She achieves poetic independence from her imitation of Du Bartas only when she turns away from the public poetry of The Tenth Muse and concentrates on a more private, personal, domestically-oriented poetry. This second phase of her career culminates in the lyrical and meditative “Contemplations,” her most famous poem.

Two generations of scholars shared Morison’s disapproval of Bradstreet’s imitative period and accepted Morison’s judgment that by shifting away from Du Bartas Bradstreet had achieved personal and creative independence. It came as a shock, therefore, when, in 1970, Kenneth Requa showed that “Contemplations,” which had been seen as the crown jewel of Bradstreet’s intensely personal second-phase poetry, owed a profound and unmistakable debt to Du Bartas’ Divine Weekes. The revelation threatened not only to break the neat two-part division by which scholars had understood Bradstreet’s career, but might ironically seem to suggest that she had reverted to “the Du Bartas disease” in exactly that poem where critics were apt to celebrate her poetic autonomy.

Given the use of Du Bartas as a source in “Contemplations,” the poem is difficult to account for if we continue to accept Morison’s absolute division of Bradstreet’s career in two phases that are distinguished by Bradstreet’s achieving creative liberation by forsaking Du Bartas. Under that model, the return to Du Bartas appears to be a reversion to the sort of poetry she wrote when she so often declared her lack of creative self-confidence, though the poem appears to show Bradstreet at the height of her powers.

If we modify our understanding of the shape of Bradstreet’s intellectual career, however, it is possible to place “Contemplations” within the course of Bradstreet’s poetic career, despite its reliance on Du Bartas’ Divine Weekes, while still recognizing that it is the work of a mature poet who retains a masterful control of her pen. We may do this by recognizing that in “Contemplations,” Bradstreet quotes not only Du Bartas, but also key moments from her own poetry. The poem should be read as a self-conscious reflection and commentary on the shape of her own poetic career. Read as such, we see the poet as critics have not. Rather than a career divided into two parts, Bradstreet treats her poetic career as the resolution of the problem of how to write a philosophically acceptable poetry. During the course of her quest to find a way to write appropriate poetry, she emerges as a far stronger personality and thinker than she has appeared in the writing of many critics.

Du Bartas’ Perfect World

One of the chief reasons for dividing Bradstreet’s career into two parts is the fact that as soon as she stops imitating Du Bartas she stops making statements of her own poetic inadequacy. But it should be noted that these statements are not only the protestations of a young poet faced with the prospect of imitating a master. They also reflect the fact that from the very beginning of her career Bradstreet expresses a real difference of opinion about the possibility of writing “divine” poetry. To understand Bradstreet’s reservations about imitating Du Bartas’ poetry, it will be helpful to review the metaphysics that underlie it.

The first book of the Divine Weekes traces God’s creation of the material of the world. This creation is linguistic: when God utters the Word, an ambiguous “forme-less Forme” is engendered. We are told that “This was not then the World, ’twas but the matter” (I i 285). Mere linguistic creation is paradoxical and therefore insufficient. God’s linguistic creation receives univocal “meaning” when the sun is created. “No sooner said he, Be their [sic] Light, but lo/ The forme-less Lump to perfect Forme gan grow” (I i 521-22). The sun becomes a sort of demiurgic presence in the world, performing further creative work by imparting form to the formless mass.

The sun’s importance in this creation myth leads to what appears to be a form of solar worship, which pervades the Divine Weekes. Du Bartas writes:

As th’Iron toucht by th’Adamants effect
To the North Pole doth ever point direct:
So the Soule toucht once by the secret power
Of the true lively Faith, lookes every hower
To the bright Lampe which serves for Cynosure
To sail upon this sea obscure. (I vii 569-74)

As a result, the sun becomes Du Bartas’ muse. He announces that he will not be too bold in reaching for a high muse too close to God, nor one too low:

My heedful Muse, trayned in true Religion,
Devinely-humane keepes the middle Region:
Least, if she should too-high a pitch presume,
Heav’ns glowing flame should melt her waxen plume;
Or, if too-low (neare Earth or Sea) she flagge,
Laden with mists her moistened wings do lagge. (I i 135-40)

Du Bartas’ focus on the “Devinely-humane” solar muse reflects the structure of Du Bartas’ world and demonstrates the role of the poet in that world. The divine Word creates only a formless and equivocal world. The divine itself cannot be communicated, being shrouded in paradox. The world receives unequivocal form and meaning by the introduction of the light of the sun. Therefore, the poet does not reach so high as to attempt to explain the divine itself, for this lies beyond the power of language. Instead, Du Bartas will glorify God’s creation by glorifying the created world that is illuminated by the sun. As the sun gives form to Nature, he will give form to his creation, and Du Bartas presents himself as a demiurgic figure.

Bradstreet’s Pale Imitations

Bradstreet never follows Du Bartas in this view of the office of the poet. Bradstreet’s muse is not half-divine but all-too-human, and it does not soar as does Du Bartas’. Thus we may account for some of the ways she changes Du Bartas’ imagery as she uses it. She writes:

My dazled sight of late, review’d thy lines,
Where Art, and more then Art in Nature shines,
Reflection from their beaming altitude,
Did thaw my frozen hearts ingratitude;
Which Rayes, darting upon some richer ground,
Had caused flowers, and fruits, soone to abound (p. 153)

in Du Bartas we read:

Pardon me (Reader) if thy ravisht Eyes
Have seen To-Day too great varieties
Of Trees, of Flowers, of Fruits, of Hearbs, of Graines,
In these my Groves, Meads, Orchards, Gardens, Plaines…. (I iii 837-40)

We find that Bradstreet has conflated sources here. Du Bartas himself refers to created things as being in his own gardens and groves, indicating some confusion in the poem between the poetic creation and the natural world, a confusion that is exacerbated by the linguistic nature of God’s very creation. Moreover, in Du Bartas the words “So bright a sun dazzles my tender sight” (I i 115) refer to looking directly upon the divine sun, emblem-presence of God, not the mere works of another poet! We may observe that, though she quotes him directly, Bradstreet stands in different relation to the world of nature and the world of God. Bradstreet’s philosophy denies her the ability to read the book of Nature as he had, and it seems that she substitutes the book of Du Bartas in her own thought in the place of the Du Bartas’ Book of Nature.

Such a figure may be found in Du Bartas, who follows the allegorical convention of the world as a book where we read the lessons of God:

But, as young Trewants, toying in the Schooles,
In steed of Learning, learn to play the fooles:
We gaze but on the Babies and the Cover,
The gawdie Flowers, and Edges guilded over;
And never farther for our Lesson looke
Within the Volume of this various Booke…. (I i 177-82)

For Bradstreet, Du Bartas’ book becomes a substitute for immanent nature, “Where Art, and more than Art in nature shines.” As creator of that book, Du Bartas has taken on, in her eyes, the character of the sun, his own emblem of the demiurgic impulse.

Every one of Bradstreet’s declarations of poetic inadequacy in relation to Du Bartas in her pre-1650 work shares this refusal to acknowledge that she has the sort of contact with the divine that Du Bartas ascribes to himself. Du Bartas asks, in invoking the muse, “that soaring neere the skie,/ Among our Authors Egle-like I flie” (II ii 31-32). In her poem addressed to Thomas Dudley, she echoes these lines to directly contrast herself to Du Bartas, saying, “To climbe their Climes / I have no strength nor skill / To mount so high requires an Eagles quill” (p. 5).

She directly compares herself to Du Bartas in the Prologue to the Quaternions, saying “A Bartas can do what a Bartas will/ But simple I according to my skill.” In “In Honour of Du Bartas,” she ascribes divine powers to Du Bartas, denying them to herself, saying that she would be able to write better “Had I an Angel’s voice, or Bartas pen” (p. 154). When she says that the influence of Du Bartas’ muse does not reach her “senseless senses,” she is borrowing Du Bartas image of the reader who does not receive his divine message.

In each case, Bradstreet is consciously rewriting a passage from Du Bartas to reflect her difference with him on the metaphysical possibilities of her own poetry. In each case, she refuses to take on Du Bartas’ easy conversation with the divine and speaks of her own poetic gift as being the result merely of “skill.”

These imitations of Du Bartas reveals the great conflict of her early poetry. She clearly believes a poet should have contact with the divine, but she nevertheless continues to refuse to imitate Du Bartas in this. This is most likely not simply the result of her belief that she is a poetic novice who believes she will eventually feel the spark of divine poetic afflatus. Instead, she is more likely expressing the reservation of a New England Puritan, for whom too much familiarity with the divine denoted excessive pride. Instead, Bradstreet’s imitations of Du Bartas show that she eliminates the vatic content from her own poetry when she imitates him. The Calvinistic problem of an unknowable God becomes in Bradstreet’s early poetry the problem of a vatic poet who cannot be imitated. Thus she writes of Du Bartas’ work: “Thy sacred works are not for imitation, / But monuments for future admiration (p. 154).

The Consistency of Anne Bradstreet’s Poetic Career

Her difference with Du Bartas remains consistent throughout her poetic career and does not support the idea that her career should be divided up into two sections. From the very beginning, she attempts to forge her own poetry on terms that are acceptable to her. For instance, in contrast to Du Bartas’ poem, nothing is at stake in the “contest” (p. 8) that rages between the elements in “The Four Elements,” whereas the specifically verbal “debate” of the “self-jarring masse” threatens to “discreate all” in Du Bartas (I ii 308). Du Bartas’ debate contains the resonant possibility of the collapse of the linguistically-based universe. Without God all would return to the chaos of the jumbled elements of the beginning.

Bradstreet reworks the debate and adds doubt to Du Bartas’ image, saying that “All looked like a Chaos or new birth” ([italics mine] p. 15) This is not the primordial chaos, it merely “seems” so to the senses. In contrast to Du Bartas’ elements, Bradstreet’s elements preexist the poem’s writing, as does the calm. Hers is not a creation myth. The conflict between the elements arises out of nothing more than the pride of the contestants and never threatens the creation. Even at this early date we can see the “originality” in her “imitation” of Du Bartas.

Another example of Bradstreet’s unique philosophy is that Air wins her contest (p. 18). For Du Bartas, of course, fire, “the World’s best Element” (I ii 966), wins the debate, as is fitting for the emblem of the divine in the world. He speaks of it as:

Fountaine of life, Smith, Founder, Purifier,
Cooke, Surgian, Soldier, Gunner, Alchimist,
The source of Motion, briefely, what not is’t? (I ii 968-970).

Bradstreet’s debt to this passage is manifest as she expands her own professional catalog in “The Four Elements.” Yet, she differs from Du Bartas, while still associating fire with creation. Fire asks:

Come first ye Artists, and declare your minde.
What toole was ever fram’d, but by my might? (p. 8).

Fire is associated with the arts, but this is not Du Bartas’ divine inspiration. Fire seem to be merely mechanical, performing a type of action that may be performed by “well skill’d Mechaniks” (p. 8). Again, her art is associated with “skill” and yields only tools, not transcendence. Fire asks:

And you Philosophers, if ere you made
A transmutation, it was through mine aide. (p. 9)

Here, fire is the element of worldly change in the dubious science of alchemy, a science which seeks to usurp the functions of God. The passage indicates some hesitation on her part to believe that such a transmutation ever occurred. Whereas Du Bartas’ fire is represented as a first cause, the “source of Motion,” Bradstreet has reduced fire to an efficient cause and adds doubt that such lowly arts ever yielded anything higher. While Du Bartas’ Fire achieves preeminence because it is the “best Element,” Bradstreet’s fire speaks first because it is the “most impatient Element” (p. 8).

We also read of the diminished capacity of fire as a divine vehicle in the following passage:

Of old, when Sacrifices were divine,
I of acceptance was the holy signe. (p. 10)

Of course, this is an age that is past: Anne Bradstreet lives in a postlapsarian world in which there are few miracles, and the same symbols that once emblematized divinity may no longer do so. In a world where God cannot be known and the divine does not indwell Anne Bradstreet retains Du Bartas’ interpretation of the meaning of fire, but transforms it. Fire is not central as it is in Du Bartas.

Bradstreet’s Use of Du Bartas in Her Later Career

Fire is recognized as the agent of God in the “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House,” where she writes, “That fearful sovnd of fire and fire,/ Let no man know is my desire” (p. 236). To desire fire is an error, for, unlike Du Bartas’ “best Element,” Bradstreet’s fire destroys worldly things rather than infusing them with God’s immanence; and the event inaugurates her turning away from the world. She writes,

Farewell my pelf, farewell my Store.
The world no longer let me Love
My hope, and Treasure lyes above. (p. 237)

Part of this “Store” of worldly things is her husband, who is described as “my Magazine of earthly store” in “To Her Husband, absent on Publick employment,” p. 181). Wishing to exalt him above all worldly things, Bradstreet employs the image of the sun.

I like the earth this season, mourn in black,
My sun is gone so far in’s Zodiak…. (p. 181)

In this image, Du Bartas’ sun has been lowered to the level of the worldly and no longer represents God but the highest achievement possible in this life: the object of love.

In abandoning the worldly, Bradstreet leaves the worldly sun behind. “The Flesh and the Spirit” explores the opposition of this world to the next. When the allegorical character Spirit transcends the worldly sphere, she leaves the sun behind. She says,

Mine Eye doth pierce the heavens, and see
What is Invisible to thee.
My garments are not silk nor gold,
Nor such like trash which Earth doth hold,
But Royal Robes I shall have on,
More glorious than the glistering Sun…. (p. 176-77)

Bradstreet paraphrases Revelation 21:31 to explain the exclusion of the sun from heaven.

Nor Sun nor Moon they have no need
For glory doth from God proceed:
No Candle there, nor yet Torch light
For there shall be some darksome night. (p. 177)

In the same poem, Flesh suggests that Spirit is a fool to look for things beyond the sensible world, for they only lead to empty worlds of thought and imagination and nothing higher.

Doth Contemplation feed thee so
Regardlessly to let earth goe?
Can Speculation satisfy
Notion without Reality?
Dost dream of things beyond the Moon
And dost thou hope to dwell there soon?
Hast treasures there laid up in store
That all in th’world thou count’st but poor?
Art fancy sick, or turn’d a Sot
To catch at shadows which are not? (p. 175)

But Spirit answers

My thoughts do yeild me more content
Then can thy hours in pleasure spent.
Nor are they shadows which I catch,
Nor fancies vain at which I snatch,
But reach at things that are so high,
Beyond thy dull Capacity…. (p. 176)

In these lines, Bradstreet redefines the earthly sphere as shadows and the heavenly sphere as the truer reality. In another of her religious poems, “Of the Vanity of All Worldly Creatures,” Bradstreet writes:

Where shall I climbe, sound, seek, search or find,
That summum Bonum which may stay my mind?
There is a path, no vultures eye hath seen….(p. 160)

The eagle, whose climb Bradstreet had said she could not follow, is now changed to the image of a vulture, a bird associated with death, who flies very high but sees only the physical world. She tells us that the truth is not to be found in the physical world, for “Its hid from eyes of men” (p. 160). In this, Bradstreet replaces the poetic sun at the center of his universe with “darksome night” at the center of her own.


In “The Flesh and the Spirit,” the faculty of “contemplation” is able to penetrate to this higher reality. The poem called “Contemplations” explores this process in greater detail. We might expect a poem which concerns itself with turning from the worldly to the spiritual to abandon Du Bartas, whose poem she once substituted for the natural world; but no later Bradstreet poem is so heavily indebted to Du Bartas. “Contemplations” is perhaps Bradstreet’s most important and difficult poem. Often seen as evidence that Bradstreet is a poet of experience, Du Bartas’ “traditional” material has sometimes been seen as a poetic weakness in an early Pre-Romantic poet of nature. The a priori assumption that traditional images are mere ciphers accounts for the failure of many critics to understand that “Contemplations” transforms the traditional material in the manner we have explored above.

We may see that Bradstreet never really abandoned the themes that concerned her in her early work. “Contemplations” marks a return to the use of the worldly poet whom she once so desired to imitate and learned at last to transcend. The return to worldly themes and images signals Bradstreet’s final reconciliation of the place of her own transient poetry in the transient world.

The Poem’s Opening

The poem opens with a meditation on a rapture into which she had once fallen. The fact that she is not presently captivated by such a reverie is often overlooked. The speeches were speeches made “Sometime now past” (p. 167), and they recall her past experiences as a poet. Nevertheless,
Du Bartas’ book and the world of Nature seem to be intermingled in the poem.

Looking upon the trees “gilded o’re” (p. 167) by the sun, in stanza 4 she recalls that she fell into a rapture and writes “The more I look’d, the more I grew amaz’d” (p. 168). If the trees are beautiful, she seems to argue, then the “glistering Sun” which gives them luster is even more worthy of her attention. Her vision is gradually climbing to higher and higher natural objects and finally settles on the sun.

We have already seen that she rejects the worship of the sun in “The Flesh and the Spirit,” where she referred to the “glistering sun” (p. 177), the very words which she echoes here. We recognize her explicit rejection of Du Bartas’ solar worship in this poem when she writes “No wonder, some made thee a Diety:/Had I not better known, (alas) the same had I” (p. 168). Du Bartas made the sun a poetic diety, and we have seen that Bradstreet resisted this temptation. Therefore, when in stanza 8 she remembers her attempts to glorify God through His creation, she recalls her failure. Her muse is “mazed” in Stanza 8: she is deceived. The diction once again recalls her wonder at Du Bartas’ work. In “In honour of Du Bartas” she had been “mazed” by his work (p. 152).

The sun is the power of this world and is cyclical, and she notes that the sun causes day and night and that it revives creatures from sleep. In noting that the sun revives the seasons from winter, she says that “Quaternal seasons [were] caused by thy might.” We should not ignore the reference to the title of her Quaternions, which were written when she understood poetry as a false solar worship. ‘Contemplations” has a number of echoes from her own poetry. These, combined with the references to the muse and her former attempts to write poetry, indicate that one subject of this poem is a consideration of her lifelong attempts to write poetry.

Distinctions in Bradstreet’s Work

Having heard the “merry grasshopper” and the “black clad Cricket” sing beautiful songs in Stanza 9, she contrasts her own poetic powers to the powers of the natural creatures to sing.

Shall Creatures abject, thus their voices raise?
And in their kind resound their makers praise:
Whilst I as mute, can warble forth no higher layes? (p. 169)

This is a deliberate and unmistakable borrowing from Du Bartas, who asks at the very beginning of his work:

O Father, graunt I sweetly warble forth
Unto our seed the Worlds renowned Birth (I i 7-8)

We may clearly see that she is distinguishing her own poetry from Du Bartas’ in this image, recalling the grasshopper, who is often associated with the foolishness of poetry. In the Phaedrus, Phaedrus asks Socrates “What motive has a man to live if not for the pleasure of discourse?” Socrates tells the story of the grasshoppers:

[They] are said to have been human beings in an age before the Muses. And when the Muses came and song appeared, they were ravished with delight; and singing always, never thought of eating and drinking, until at last they forgot and died. And now they live again in the grasshoppers…

Socrates then tells how the grasshoppers may perhaps give them some divine wisdom if they continue talking rather than remaining silent.

By collating a reference to Du Bartas with her citation of Plato’s Phaedrus, Bradstreet sets her own poetic powers in relation to the achievement of Du Bartas when she dissociates herself from the ability to sing like the grasshopper. Du Bartas’ grasshopper-like poetry is immanent, but also has the sense of being a worldly distraction from what is important. The Anacreontic grasshopper sings all summer, does not save for hard times, and dies. “Life is no longer than thy mirth,” translates Cowley. This sense will recur in Bradstreet’s use of the nightingale, who “neither toyles nor hoards up in thy barn” (Stanza 28). In this poem, Bradstreet extends her consideration past the span of this life to include eternity and limits the domain of poetry to this world. By the end of the poem, she will thus congratulate herself for having failed to write like Du Bartas.

Bradstreet now associates herself with Eve and her poetry with Cain. Cain, like the cricket, is “black clad.” He is referred to as “Cloath’d all in his black sinful Livery” in stanza 16 (p. 171). The section on Eden is often read as an Old Testament type with an antitype of modern mankind; but the strength of Anne Bradstreet’s work is in her personal poetry, and in this strong personal poem it does not seem unlikely that she would have a more personal antitype. The reference to Cain, too, may be seen as a reference to her own poetry. When the Granddame (Du Bartas’ word for Eve II ii 206 and elsewhere) holds Cain in her lap, we are reminded that in her poem on Du Bartas Bradstreet had written “My muse unto a Child, I fitly may compare” (p. 153). Bradstreet also refers to Melancholy as the “black swarthe childe” of Earth” (p. 30). Thus, by reading through her collation of analogies, we find that she is talking about her early poetry as the result the contemplation of the natural earth, not the spiritual, world. She emphasizes the error of this approach to poetry by associating her poetry with “black clad” Cain. More that than simple melancholy, she associates her poetry with the first post-lapsarian sin.

When Cain and Abel make their sacrifices in stanza 13, fire, symbol of the divine, does not descend from the skies to take up Cain’s offering, as the divine did not touch her early poetry. When we noted that in “Fire” Bradstreet doubts that fire ever descended from the skies, we accounted for the fact by suggesting that it was because she feels she lives in a post-lapsarian world. We should now note that the portrait of Eve, with whom Bradstreet associates herself, is drawn from her post-lapsarian experience, as well.

The Fall in Du Bartas and Bradstreet

It might be tempting to argue that Bradstreet is rejecting Du Bartas as an influence in “Contemplations,” using images from the Divine Weekes only to dismiss them as vain and foolish. Such a reading does not take into consideration the fact that she owes a debt to Du Bartas for the language with which she discusses the effects of the Fall. Such borrowing is possible, because Du Bartas’ poem restricts its philosophy of immanence to the period before the Fall. The Fall, the incident which begins the second week, takes God out of the creation, and Du Bartas’ muse fails. The book entitled “The Imposture,” in which the Fall occurs, begins by asking “Who shall direct my pen to paint the story/ Of wretched mans forbidden-bit-lost glory?” (II ii 15-16). The answer is forthcoming.

Ah, thou, my God, even thou (my soule refining
In holy faiths pure furnace, cleerly shining)
Shalt make my hap far to surmount my hope (II ii 25-27)

But the book following the Fall begins:

This’s not the World: O whither am I brought?
This Earth I tread, this hollow-hanging Vaulte,
Which daies reducing and renuing nightes.
Renews the grief of mine afflicted sprights;
This sea I saile, this troubled ayre I sip,
Are not The First-Weekes glorious workmanship:
This wretched Round is not the goodlie Globe
Th’Eternal trimmed in so various robe;
‘Tis but a dungeon and a dreadful Cave,
Of that first World the miserable grave. (II iii 1-10)

After the Fall, Du Bartas no longer invokes the inaccessible solar muse, and portrays the earth as robbed of its immanence. Thus he begins to lament the loss of Eden’s “heavenly bowers” (II i 233). Bradstreet echoes this passage in speaking of the fool who “takes this earth ev’n for heav’ns bower” (Stanza 32). She appears to be saying that her early poetry was a failed attempt to infuse the fallen world with pre-lapsarian immanence.

“Contemplations” is characterized by her return to Biblical themes. Therefore, in stanza 21 she sits down by the biblical river of life drawn from Revelation 22. The biblical passage reads:

Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city; also, on either side of the river [was] the tree of life …. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it…. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign forever and ever. (Rev. 22:1-5)

We heard echoes of this passage earlier in “The Flesh and the Spirit,” when we saw that she used it to reject love of this world for love of the next by rejecting the worldly sun for God’s “darksome night.” Here, however, she sits beneath the temporal sun which that poem rejected. There appears to be a blending of the locale of the Phaedrus with this biblical image, allowing Bradstreet to work with images at once both worldly and spiritual.

Bradstreet’s Resolution of Her Poetic Career At the End of “Contemplations”

Although the presence of the sun here has led some scholars to see the end of the poem as an acceptance of an immanent God through His creation, her previous use of this biblical passage seems to preclude the validity of such a solar image as a symbol for the divine. Instead, Bradstreet is commenting on the new role that she has found for poetry, though as a worldly and transitory occupation. As we see with the “black clad Cricket” and the “merry grasshopper,” poetry is a merry pastime, to be put aside when the time comes for more serious pursuits. The proper role of humanity is to live in eternity, which neither poetry nor the temporal fame she had sought in her youth afford.

But, despite her rejection of poetry as a substitute for eternity, she still remains a poet. When she writes in stanza 21 “I once that lov’d the shady woods so well,/ Now thought the rivers did the trees excel” (p. 172), she is writing of her change of subject material from the “shady” and transitory to the eternal. This involves a shift from a vertical to a horizontal subject. She does not seek higher and higher themes, but remains focused exclusively on the world of Nature. The office of poet is an earthly role, yet we know she retained it after her religious conversion. She now finds a way to fit the worldly activity of poetry into her metaphysical scheme, saying that she would perform it “if ever the sun would shine.” But the sun is not central to creation, as the biblical passage has shown, and will not shine forever; she has another destiny. Poetry plays a part only in her worldly existence.

Bradstreet next turns her attention to the fish of the river. The fish have been variously interpreted, but appear to be figural representations of mankind who are taught by nature and therefore not by God. In order to make it clear that she has a religious purpose in this passage, she alludes to another of her poems. The river’s movement toward the “long’d for Ocean” (p. 172) reminds us of the title of the poem “Longing for Heaven.” These fish, having been taught by nature, try to escape their natural element, diving deep and trying to jump up into the air. Nature cannot teach them that their destiny is in heaven, “where all imbrace and greet” (p. 172). The fish “know not their felicity” in stanza 24: they are destined to live forever. Calling them “wantons” (Stanza 25) recalls Du Bartas’ use of that very adjective to describe immoral poets (I ii 2, 6, and 31). She now completely rejects both the elements of fire (Du Bartas’ triumphal element) and air (the triumphal element in Bradstreet’s early work), substituting water, the element which quenches fire.

Next Bradstreet turns to a consideration of the nightingale. Du Bartas associates the Nightingale with rhetoric and wishes to find in the nightingale a model of poetry. We read

But all this’s nothing to the Nightingale,
Breathing so sweetly from a brest so small,
So many Tunes, whose Harmonie excells
Our Voice, our Violls, and all Musicke els.
Good Lord! how oft in a green Oken Grove.
In the coole shadow I have stood, and strove
To marrie mine immortal Layes to theirs,
Rapt with delight of their delicious Aiers? (I v 667-74)

Bradstreet specifically rejects the temptation to marry her songs to the “Aiers” of the nightingale. In Du Bartas, the Fall occurs when the “Grandame” is deceived by the “glozing Rhetorike” of the serpent (II ii 213). Where Du Bartas had used rhetoric divinely, rhetoric is also the agent of the fall. It would be odd if the song of the nightingale were now, following Bradstreet’s change in poetic subject matter, to be praised unequivocally. It is not. Bradstreet reminds us of the transitory nature of the bird’s song by citing Luke 12:18, writing of the nightingale as a bird that “neither toyles nor hoards up in thy barn” (Stanza 28). Such frivolity is also characteristic of the Anacreontic grasshopper. The message is clear: poetry is pleasurable, but humanity is not meant, like the grasshopper and the nightingale, to have such transitory pleasures as the ends of their existence. We may also remember that she used the image of the barn in her elegy on her father, whom God “in a celestial barn has housed him high” (p. 166).

Bradstreet now distinguishes the cyclical realm of nature from the linear destiny of humanity. She has carefully set the poem against the cycle of the seasons and the day. The song of the nightingale is also cyclical in “warbling out the old, begin anew” in stanza 28 (p. 173). The bird’s songs make Bradstreet want to take flight with the bird, and she is momentarily “rapt” again (Stanza 26). This does not mean that she falls into the same error as in her youth. There is great significance to Bradstreet’s assertion that the nightingale “feels no sad thoughts nor cruciating cares” in stanza 27, as Bradstreet makes it clear in stanza 29 that humanity must feel.

“Cruciating” ought to remind us of the crucifixion. The nightingale’s happiness means the loss of salvation. These raptures remind her that poetry can make her forget what she is, but this does not happen this time, as it did in her youth. Since it flies from her, she has only a transitory acquaintance with the bird and its song. In contrast to her youthful experience with poetry, she does not involve herself in the cyclical and deceptive aspects of poetry and rhetoric which involve a loss of the linear, but ultimately more satisfying, conception of life and death. This time, she can enjoy the song of the bird without vainly attempting to following it where a linear human being cannot go: into the eternal cycle of the seasons. She is now able to distinguish her linear human lot from the cyclical order of nature.

Although she associates cyclical rhetoric and nature with religious error, they are still capable of yielding allegorical meaning, if read correctly. In the Christian scheme of things, there is only one warbling out of the old and one warbling in of the new, since there is only a single Old Testament and a single New. The nightingale’s power to “prevent” the dawn in stanza 28 (p. 173) has the two-fold meaning of delaying as well as that of the Psalm 19 sense of announcing the dawn. Thus, if we read these events allegorically and abandon the temptation to view them as cyclical distractions from our final destiny, they announce religious themes. As ends unto themselves, they actually “prevent” our salvation.

On the literal level, the song of the nightingale is a distraction. They may be read allegorically, however, and as allegorical symbols, they herald the coming of a new cycle, a new day. Bradstreet has found a means of reading the natural world allegorically. The sun is setting at the beginning of the poem. In the new allegorical reading, its rising at the end shall signify the new faith that she has found while living in a temporal and transient world. It has been remade as a new symbol. Bradstreet has deliberately used Du Bartas’ images of poetry to establish the nature of the pleasure which have tempted her and which she now corrects.

Accepting Death (Not Poetry) as the End of Life

When the flood covers Du Bartas’ world, Noah apostrophizes: “O worlds decay! ô universall wracke!” (II iv 770). The same book opens recounting the vain song of victorious men of war who hope that the names of kings might live on eternally in memory (II iv 29-34), an idea that has tempted her, as we have seen. Bradstreet ends her poem by drawing these two Bartasian images together to form her Christian elegy which rejects the poetic fame she had sought in her youth for the new Christian vision she now accepts.

O Time the fatal wrack of mortal things,
That draws oblivions 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. (p. 174)

In “Contemplations,” Anne Bradstreet recognizes that she had misplaced her hopes in her youth, referring to her earlier poetic endeavors as “pathless paths” which replaced a hope of an everlasting life in the lap of God with a prideful hope of a lasting worldly fame. When she finds God, the poetic expression of what she finds, “that divine Translation” of stanza 30 (p. 174), follows a concerted effort to redefine the Bartasian poetic model. She has finally bridged the poetic gap between the natural and the divine.

The Bible has been widely seen as the second important intertextual source for the poem. In “Contemplations,” there is a third source which can be observed, and it is perhaps the most important of the three. Despite conventional borrowings, “Contemplations” achieves its own independence of source and influence. This is largely due to the fact that her own poetic work provides a third source of intertextual material, which she now reworks as skillfully as she does those of the other two sources. Spenser and Milton, working in the same allegorical mode and upon the same problems, also find it necessary to rework the poetry of Du Bartas, who influences them. In the best poetry, convention, far from a derivative weakness, is a driving part of the experience of the poet. The recognition that Du Bartas plays a large role in the process of Anne Bradstreet’s poetic growth only serves to highlight her achievement against those other poets who have achieved great independent works through the consideration of a source.

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One Response to “A New Source for Anne Bradstreet’s “Contemplations””

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