Assignment 3:

A good place to begin your study of Bradstreet is with her "spiritual autobiography," written in the form of a letter, "To My Dear Children" (pages 280-83). A common literary form of the period, the spiritual autobiography does not focus on the facts of genealogy, birth, and growth which ordinarily form the "plot" of the autobiography per se. Instead the spiritual autobiography, like the "testimony" offered by a Protestant believer, seeks to define essential patterns of the individual's relationship with the divinity. Thus in its very essentiality, which is to say the commonality of its subject for all like-minded believers, the spiritual autobiography seeks, not the individual and temporal details of a life, but the universal and eternal truths of all lives. Most surviving examples of this form are brief, like Bradstreet's. Like her poetry, it provides a strikingly personal glimpse of 17th century domestic life generally excluded from the writings of Smith, Winthrop, and Bradford.

Reading Assignment

  1. Anne Bradstreet, poetry and prose (pages 246-283).
Writing Assignment

  1. What is the rhythm Bradstreet finds in her life, and what are the principal questions for which she seeks answers?

  2. How do answers come to her; or, put differently, what form do the answers take?

Next, turn to Bradstreet's poetry. Read first of all her "Prologue" (pages 247-48), the first poem of her first book, The Tenth Muse, published in England (without her knowing it) in 1650. It focuses on the problem of being a woman writer in male-dominated culture, where, even though a woman like Elizabeth I might rule England, women writers were scarcely ever published. Now, answer the following question:

  1. Identify and illustrate (with reference to words of the poem) the main tactic Bradstreet uses to rationalize, and even legitimize, her role as a woman writer; and show how she further uses that tactic to disarm (in advance) those who might be critical of her verse.

Now, read the remainder of Bradstreet's poems, exclusive of her long poem, "Contemplations" (which we'll save for last), and respond to the following:

  1. Reading Bradstreet's shorter poems--poems to her husband or children, poems about births and deaths in her family, about the burning of her house or severe illness--notice how they are often quests for answers to spiritual problems. Select any one of those poems and, in several well written paragraphs, discuss both the specific problem it takes up and how it answers that problem.

Now read and study the long poem, "Contemplations" (pages 262-68), written in 33 seven-line stanzas or cantos. A complex statement of the Puritan's relationship to nature, and certainly Bradstreet's most deeply considered work. To begin with, consider her title. As your dictionary should explain, the verb "contemplate" stems from the Latin, contemplare, a verb meaning "to observe in order to meditate upon," and from the Latin contemplum, signifying a space marked out for the observation of auguries--that is, omens (in the form of natural phenomena) which can be interpreted in the attempt to divine the future. In English usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it dates to the 12th century, and from then through the time of Bradstreet's poem it was used to signify a religious meditation or devout musing, generally taking place in a natural setting. Certainly these are the meanings that Bradstreet brings to the work, which is in the broadest sense a meditative poem on Man, "This lump of wretchedness," as she phrases it in line 205. Bradstreet, in short, defines Man as her Puritan elders also would: as depraved, born into Nature in a state of sin. But if so, then what good is Nature? What can Nature possibly teach Man?

"Contemplations" tackles that problem. It does so in a poetic form that owes much to traditional English poetry. Bradstreet's poem uses a variation of "rhyme royal," a seven lined stanza used by Chaucer, in which the first and third, the second and fourth and fifth, and the sixth and seventh lines rhyme, like this: ababbcc. Bradstreet's variation has the fifth through seventh lines rhyming, like this: ababccc. (That last triplet is a difficult task, by the way.) Bradstreet's poem also owes to Renaissance verse the technique of using allusions to Classical (Greek and Roman) literature, for example in referring to the sun as "Phoebus" (in line 2) or to the nightingale as "Philomel" (in line 178, and an odd reference because the nightingale was a European and not an American specie of bird-- evidence, perhaps, of how Bradstreet saw American Nature through the lens of European verse).

Keeping in mind these aspects of the poem--its intent, signified by the title, and its traditional English form--answer the following questions:

  1. What is the occasion, that is, the approximate date, time, place, and activity of the poem? (Hint: read the opening stanzas carefully, and you'll be able to situate the poem's speaker in time, and from the later stanzas say what the speaker is doing.)

  2. Now, in a paragraph, speculate why those details of question #5 are significant in the poem.

  3. What are the main divisions of the poem, into subtopics? You may answer this question by a brief outline, with reference to stanza numbers.

  4. Finally, according to Anne Bradstreet, what does Nature teach the mortal human being? How? With what? Illustrate your answer by discussing one or two key examples that she uses.