For this exercise on Anne Bradstreet and her work, I’ve chosen to look at one of her earliest poems, “Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno 1632”, written when the poet was just 19 years of age.

This poem exhibits some of the disquietude experienced by devout Puritans like Anne; transience of life, inevitability of death and desire for eternal salvation.

“Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno 1632”

“Twice ten years old not fully told

since nature gave me breath,

My race is run, my thread spun,

lo, here is fatal death.

All men must die, and so must I;

this cannot be revoked.

For Adam’s sake this word God spake

when he so high provoked.

Yet live I shall, this life’s but small,

in place of highest bliss,

Where I shall have all I can crave,

no life is like to this.

For what’s this but care and strife

since first we came from womb?

Our strength doth waste, our time doth haste,

and then we go to th’ tomb.

O bubble blast, how long can’st last?

that always art a breaking,

No sooner blown, but dead and gone,

ev’n as a word that’s speaking.

O whilst I live this grace me give,

I doing good may be,

Then death’s arrest I shall count best,

because it’s Thy decree;

Bestow much cost there’s nothing lost,

to make salvation sure,

O great’s the gain, though got with pain,

comes by profession pure.

The race is run, the field is won,

the victory’s mine I see;

Forever known, thou envious foe,

the foil belongs to thee.”

Anne Bradstreet Portrait

Firstly, some background.

Anne Bradstreet was born in Northampton, England on 20th March, 1612, into comfortable surroundings.  The daughter of an ardent lover of books, and, in the spirit of the Elizabethan tradition, Anne was well (home) tutored in the classics.  Married at sixteen to Simon Bradstreet, the couple along with her parents, left England as part of a fleet of Puritan emigrants in 1630, arriving in New England in June 1630.

Shortly after their arrival into this stark, sparse new world, Anne’s father, Thomas Dudley wrote in a letter to England:-

“We found the colony in a sad and unexpected condition, above eighty of them being dead the winter before; and many of those alive weak and sick; all the corn and bread amongst them all hardly sufficient to feed them a fortnight”.

These are the same conditions then, in which we find the poet in 1632.

Here we have a young woman, who having come from a well to do background, now finds herself and her family, trying to cope with the new and unfamiliar struggles of sickness, hunger and lack of basic comforts.

Almost hymnal, “Upon a Fit of Sickness” reflects what was to be a major theme in Bradstreet’s work – religion, life, death, eternity and the human battle with tolerance, denial and submission to achieve the greater end.  Undoubtedly pious and diligent, Bradstreet is still not beyond questioning her faith, or, expressing her love for this earthly world versus her desire for a place in the eternal kingdom.  Existence battles faith, penance over creature comforts, the ambivalent tussle is constant.

The bones of the poet’s intent – to highlight the brevity of life, inevitability of death and dream of salvation, are summed up in these lines:-

“O bubble blast, how long can’st last?

that always art a breaking,

No sooner blown, but dead and gone,

ev’n as a word that’s speaking.

O whilst I live this grace me give,

I doing good may be,

Then death’s arrest I shall count best,

because it’s Thy decree;”

We feel the strife between body and soul, hear the plea to give this young woman the strength to overcome the will and weakness of the flesh, in order to carry out God’s will.  Bradstreet was to continue with, and mature this theme throughout her life, probably reaching poetic climax in the acclaimed “Contemplations” (33 majestic stanzas full of the glory of God and nature.  Of man’s fall from grace, his subservient place on earth, and in facing certain death, his finally giving himself over to God’s will, in the hope of redemption and a place in the everlasting).

.

“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.”

from  “Contemplations” – Anne Bradstreet.

.

As with Adam in “Upon a Fit of Sickness..”, neither Kings in all their finery, nor “sumptuous monuments” can escape decay and death.  In the end, only God and his glory remain.
.
Written in the more melodic “ballad meter” (four iambic lines), this poem’s alternate rhyming gives it a freer, more conversational flow.  Bradstreet’s language is striking in it’s honest simplicity.  Here is a woman, who for want of a better term, doesn’t mince her words.
.
“O great’s the gain, though got with pain”.
 .
Bradstreet was a woman, wife, mother, Puritan and poet.  Her view of life is honest and arresting, challenging yet suppliant.
Her poetry like her life is filled with intelligent questioning, inner strength, consideration of failings, a strong but not unerring faith, and above all, love and perseverance.  It is not hard to understand how she has been deemed the “foundational spirit of American poetry”

 

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