Scholars have speculated about the shift in Anne Bradstreet’s style between the publication of The Tenth Muse and that of her later poetry, including “Contemplations.” I argue that this stylistic shift reflects the ongoing negotiation of how language functioned in Puritan theory and practice. Specifically, Bradstreet’s poetry is influenced by the Bay Psalm Book’s negotiation of spoken and written language. In seventeenth-century American Puritanism, language was thought to have two major aspects: one fixed, associated with authority, transcription, and the written word, and the other contextual and phenomenal, associated with spiritual inspiration and aurality. Bradstreet’s later poetry suggests that fixed human language is particularly fallen and decayed, and that the divine Word can be best accessed through aural language, just as the Bay Psalm Book guards the most spontaneous, phenomenal aspect of the psalms, the music, by refusing to fix it in print.
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For three decades scholars of Anne Bradstreet have come to focus on her famous stylistic shift—from an erudite, classical style in her early quaternions to a tightly-written, short form style in her later works—and what caused it. Louisa Hall summarizes this trend when noting that “an impressive mass of critics…are united in their respect for the stylistic merit of Bradstreet’s late, domestic poetry…” and are “arguing that she developed a simple but vibrant style that is expressive in its terse revelation” (Hall 1-2). This “mass of critics,” which includes Adrienne Rich, Eavan Boland, Ivy Schweitzer, Timothy Sweet, and Rosamond Rosenmeier agree that Bradstreet moves from a style heavily influenced by Renaissance convention to a “simple but vibrant style” in her later poetry. Scholars nonetheless differ in their interpretation and in their arguments about why Bradstreet’s stylistic change took place. Perspectives range from Eavan Bolan’s assertion that Bradstreet emerges from a “heavy Spenserian shadow” as she leaves her father’s house, to Ivy Schweitzer’s and Adrienne Rich’s argument that Bradstreet “breaks with masculinist conventions of Renaissance poetry by writing ‘homespun’ verse about intimate, domestic scenes and asserting a female subjectivity that yearns to free itself from the chains of early modern verse” (Hall 2). Critics Karen Rowe, Rosamond Rosenmeier, Ivy Schweitzer, Robert Hilliker, and Allison Giffen emphasize the role of gender in the stylistic shift, noting, as well, the emergence of Bradstreet’s individual subjectivity in her later poetry.
Kenneth A. Requa’s influential article “Anne Bradstreet’s Poetic Voices” makes this narrative of emerging female subjectivity clear. Bradstreet’s early poetry is “public” and heavily influenced by her mentor Guillaume de Saulluste Du Bartas, by her father (for example, her early quaternions written in reply to his), and by the culture of the highly educated Puritan clergy (Requa 4-5). In writing within established conventions, Bradstreet struggles to “find her voice,” for “The public voice is imitative, the private voice original” (Requa 2, 4). Her later poetry is “private”—concerned with self-expression, private emotion, more subversive themes (such as questioning God’s sovereign goodness)—and is thus more involved with individual subjectivity and less with cultural or social context. However, as Jeffery Hammond has shown, the problematic assumption in Requa’s narrative is the disavowed projection of post-Romantic poetic standards onto texts that resist an individualistic, art-for-art’s-sake ideology (Hammond 60). Projecting this aesthetic meta-narrative onto Puritan poetry obscures the text itself; Bradstreet’s particular texts recede into progressive visions of American poetry and become means to “validate who we are or how we do things” (Hammond 2).
Yet while these interpretations of Bradstreet’s stylistic change are problematic and, I think, incomplete, they correctly identify the contours of this change. Bradstreet’s poetry does change in a way that moves away from conventions of English poetry, and in such a dramatic fashion as to invite speculation. I argue that the shift is guided by a hitherto unconsidered context: the aural culture of the meetinghouse, and specifically the metrical psalms of the Bay Psalm Book. I will examine how the aural culture of the meetinghouse, which is “the controlling logic of all Puritan literature,” shaped Bradstreet’s conceptualization of language and form (Neuman 5). Using scholarship on Puritan aural and print culture by Amy M.E. Morris, Jeffrey Hammond, Meredith Neuman, and Matthew P. Brown, I will briefly describe the Bay Psalm Book’s aesthetic, and explain how its metrical psalms figured in the aural culture and ongoing theological debate over the function of language. I will then offer close readings of three of Bradstreet’s poems: “Of the four Humours in Mans Constitution” (1650), “Meditation July 8th, 1656,” and “Contemplations” (1678), and examine how the Bay Psalm Book’s text and context shape Bradstreet’s use of language.
The Bay Psalm Book and Musical Form
The Bay Psalm Book is widely known by two distinguishing features: its bibliographic history as the first book printed in British North America, and the rough quality of the translated psalms. A 1954 LIFE article on the Bay Psalm Book laments, “The poetry was terrible; what they did to the 23rd Psalm will forever stand as a warning that Puritans should keep their bony fingers out of literature” (Wallace 99). The 23rd Psalm of the Bay Psalm Book is filled with broken syntax, as even the most rudimentary rules of English grammar are cast aside to accommodate the “true and proper sense of Davids words in the hebrew verses” (“Introduction,” Bay Psalm Book). The first stanza, which corresponds to verses 1 and 2a of the psalm, reads:
The Lord to me a shepherd is
Want therefore I shall not
He in the folds of tender grass
Doth make me down to lie (Bay Psalm Book).
The traditional syntax is indefinite and altered so that certain lines cannot be read continuously with the preceding or following lines, but also cannot make grammatical sense alone. For example, the first line, “The Lord to me a shepherd is” leads to the convoluted “Want therefore I shall not.” The rhyme scheme is shaky, and the dual commitment to preserving the semantic content of lines from the Bible and strict conformity to common meter turns the psalm into metrical doggerel. By contrast, the King James Bible reads: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…” (KJV). The Geneva Bible, more popular among the Puritans, reads: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shal not want. He maketh to rest in grene pastures…” (Geneva Bible). The most widely circulated psalter before the Bay Psalm Book, the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, translates the verses over two stanzas:
The Lord is only my support,
And He that doth me feed;
How can I then lack any thing,
Whereof I stand in need?
In pastures green he feedeth me,
Where I do safely lie, … (Sternhold and Hopkins)
Clearly, the Bay Psalm Book’s translation is rough even by seventeenth-century Puritan standards. And while the introduction to the Bay Psalm Book confidently, almost boastfully, calls the psalter’s poetry “unpolished” and “rough,” literary and musical critics have long had other words to describe the texture, namely poor and inferior (Crawford and Hamberlin 27-28). Sadly, LIFE’s assessment has become tacitly assumed in Bay Psalm Book scholarship from 1950 to 1990. It is problematic because it distances the reader from the Bay Psalm Book and the readers who found it meaningful; as Hugh Amory points out, measuring the Bay Psalm Book by a post-Romantic aesthetic standard turns it into an artifact that “in some real sense, we are forbidden to read” (Amory 8).
While the Bay Psalm Book resists a conventional literary assessment, it was wildly popular among both the laymen and cultured religious elite of Puritan New England. For this reason, it is more profitable to use an anthropological-literary methodology to examine the Bay Psalm Book. Jeffrey Hammond’s influential introduction to The American Puritan Elegy: A Literary and Cultural Study lays the groundwork for such an approach to Puritan texts, arguing for a renunciation of popular and academic stereotypes about the Puritans. Hammond describes the mid-twentieth century tendency to place the Puritans in a progressive narrative of American literary quality; he suggests the need to re-examine the historical, theological, and cultural contexts of Puritan writing to understand how it functioned within those contexts (Hammond 44). As Amy M.E. Morris points out, modern critics of Puritan New England poetry “have used the reconstruction of context to demonstrate ways in which the poetry could have been understood and appreciated by the Puritan reader….[T]heir critical approaches have broken down the larger question of aesthetics into focused studies on the function of particular aspects of poetic style” (Morris 31). The driving questions of this anthropological-literary methodology involve form and function. What does the text claim to do, and how is this claim borne out? And how was the text used in its original context?
Two recent scholars, Amy M.E. Morris and Meredith Neuman, have emphasized the theological contexts and function of the Bay Psalm Book, particularly the first- and second-generation Puritan theory and practice of language. Morris locates the Bay Psalm Book within the theological debate over conformity to church practice and the role of linguistic, performative, and artistic forms that resulted in the Halfway Covenant of 1662. New England ministers struggled to resolve two theological emphases: unforced and personal inspiration leading to salvation, and the daily practice and performance of piety, including conformity to the colonial church (Morris 34). The Halfway Covenant allowed the children of baptized but non-communicant members to be baptized after a rite of “owning the covenant,” in which they would formally “affirm their intent to live under church discipline in the hope of receiving further light and grace” (Morris 34). The halfway member was understood to have conformed to a prescribed form of words and to be “patiently and obediently awaiting a conversion experience,” which would be the genuine source of salvation (Morris 35). Submission to the “power and government of Christ in his church,” as the Roxbury church put it, would prepare the heart of the member for the genuine, spontaneous, and salvific experience (Morris 35-36). After receiving personal salvation, halfway members would cement their place in the church—and, by implication, in the predestined elect—by writing and reading aloud a conversion relation. The personal, non-formal, and (seemingly) unscripted words of conversion relation replaced and surpassed the formal and dangerously liturgical wording of the Halfway Covenant. The Halfway Covenant’s two axes of scripted, formal “works” and spontaneous “grace” reflect the ways in which language was imagined and used in Puritan culture—and thus inform the composition of the Bay Psalm Book.
The language of the ordinances, particularly the sermon but also the metrical psalms sung at the beginning and close of the service, reflected the influence of several attitudes to language and to linguistic “set forms” within this framework of preparation and inspiration (Morris 38). John Cotton, the influential first-generation minister of the Boston church, considered the metrical Psalm a “unique, divinely ordained ‘set form,’” “a kind of holy Poetry” that required literary skill to be correctly translated into verse. Cotton nonetheless remained wary of creating and potentially enforcing a single form, which would amount to liturgy (Morris 78, Cotton, Singing of Psalmes 15). He argued that “any private Christian, who hath a gift to frame a spirituall Song, may both frame it, and sing it privately, for his own private comfort” but should not “limit himselfe to those words, seeing that he knoweth not what farther occasion may be given him of inlarging his Petitions.” Cotton thereby effectively positions the private creation of poetry and song (the two were frequently synonymous) in accord with the personal experience inherent in the conversion relation (Cotton, Singing of Psalmes 15 and A Modest and Cleare Answer 4, 37). This similarity suggests an alignment among the two public “set forms” of owning the covenant, then living in conformity with the Puritan church, and correctly translating metrical Psalms sung in public. John Cotton’s condemnation of the “‘empty form’ and scripted words that ‘limit’ the Holy Spirit” underpinned his rejection of the prayer book—a rejection heartily resounded by his contemporaries (Morris 40). A particularly emphatic example is Thomas Shepard’s complaint that the prayer book had “stunk above ground twice 40 yeeres, in the nostrills of many godly, who breathed in the pure ayre of the holy Scriptures” (Shephard 37). However, Cotton’s injunction encourages creative poetic production, at least in private, thereby affirming artistic endeavor. A second strain of thought—supported by Richard and Increase Mather; by Cotton, in his later sermons, and by George Wither—repudiated or devalued formal artistry as both a dangerous distraction (the beautiful “dressing” out-shining the content) and a having “set form” compete with the divinely ordained form of the Psalm—ultimately a conflict between a competing word and the metatextual Word (Morris 82-84).
It was this second approach to language and literature that informed the creation of the Bay Psalm Book. The preface to the Bay Psalm Book, which is anonymous but widely thought to be the work of Richard Mather, rejects poetic ideals of “sweet[ness],” “smoothness,” and “pollishings” in the final paragraph:
If therefore the verses are not alwayes so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that Gods Altar needs not our pollishings: Ex 20. for wee have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verse with the sweetnes of any paraphrase, and soe have attended Conscience rather than Elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the hebrew words into english language, and Davids poetry into english meetre; that soe wee may sing in Sion the Lords songs of prayse according to his own will; until hee take us from hence, and wipe away all our teares & bid us enter into our masters joye to sing eternall Halleluiahs (“Introduction,” Bay Psalm Book).
The preface here boasts of the text’s roughness and lack of poetry, for the unpolished texture is a sign of “fidelity” and authenticity. Moreover, the citation of Exodus 20 suggests an association with true obedience—and true “translation” of the powerful Word—an artistic form. In Exodus 20, God instructs the Israelites how to build proper altars and carry out sacrifices. Exodus 20:25 commands, “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone; for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it” (KJV). The Bay Psalm Book as “Gods Altar [that] needs not our pollishings” thus implies that the Bay Psalm Book is not simply “an adequate form, but as precisely the form God required” (Morris 89). Morris reads “Gods Altar” as connoting not only the unpolished altar of Exodus 20, but George Herbert’s “The Altar,” as the final paragraph of the preface imitates the contour of Herbert’s shaped poem (Morris 88-89).
Casting the Bay Psalm Book as the unpolished altar also recalls the unpolished and water-soaked altar of 1 Kings 18. There, the prophet Elijah demonstrates Yahweh’s superiority to the Canaanite god Baal by building a rough altar near the ceremonial temple of Baal on Mount Carmel and challenging the priests to have Baal call down fire from heaven. The priests invoke Baal with liturgical chanting and dancing but fail to summon fire, while Elijah’s rough-hewn altar is doused with water and Yahweh sends down fire which "consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water” (1 Kings 18:38, KJV). In the story, the water works as an accelerant, rather than as a deterrent, for the holy fire, while the dressed altars of Baal fail to elicit any divine response. Similarly, the Bay Psalm Book’s roughness functions as a paradoxical intensifier for the salvific experience which, according to Richard Mather and John Cotton, cannot be simulated by human artifice. It may also function as a strategy for testing the righteous, similar to the deliberate, formulaic resignation of the elegy as described by Jeffrey Hammond. Hammond argues that for the elegy in particular and Puritan poetry generally, “there was… a sense in which the reader was being judged by the poem” (Hammond 60). The experience of poetry could either be “damning” if the reader or hearer became distracted by rhetoric or private emotion, or a confirmation of the reader’s faith if his or her heart was sufficiently prepared by the poem to receive inspiration (Hammond 60). Similarly, the unpolished altar provides a way of testing for evidence of faith because it eliminates the distractions of poetry and depicted personal experience, eliminating the “hindrances” to the test of faith in previous psalters (Bay Psalm Book).
The preface also emphasizes the superiority of the Bay Psalm Book to competing psalters, for the Bay Psalm Book’s rough translation, it claims, is closer to the original psalms in Hebrew, while other psalters sacrifice verity for artistry. The preface contrasts the Bay Psalm Book’s “new edition of the psalms” with “Ainsworth’s tunes” (Bay Psalm Book). The 1612 Ainsworth Psalter was the primary psalter used by the Puritans and Separatists in Holland and England, and traveled to the colonies in 1620. The preface condemns the Ainsworth Psalter for its “detractions from the word, additions to the word” which are “very frequent and many times needless,” whereas the Bay Psalm Book presents the Scripture in its “native purity” (Bay Psalm Book). The preface not only claims that the Bay Psalm Book presents the most faithful translation of the psalms—though it painstakingly describes and defends its translation methods as recapturing the sense as well as the meaning of the Hebrew poetry—it contends that the Bay Psalm Book safeguarded the “right forms of worship… not simply as an adequate form, but as precisely the form God required” (Morris 89). Only the unpolished, unpolluted translation of the psalms in the Bay Psalm Book offers the form of worship demanded by God as a means of searching one’s heart for evidences of salvation. In short, the preface Bay Psalm Book fully recognizes the aesthetic and affective losses in its unpolished style and affirms these losses as artistic gain, advancing instead a “true spiritual aesthetics” of text (Morris 90). Implicitly, this “true spiritual aesthetics” supports or enables the spoken, phenomenal, or performative word—the part of the word associated with the spontaneous Holy Spirit. The performative, aural aspect of the Bay Psalm Book’s psalms, the music, is not transcribed, for writing it would fix it and reduce it to a “mere” artistic form. By refusing to fix the psalm-tune, it also affirms the aural culture of congregational improvisation on the tune, as discussed below.
The text of the Bay Psalm Book is only one half of the psalter’s functional content. The psalm-tunes, the music, are not transcribed or included. Other major psalters in use, including the 1549 Crowley Psalter (The Psalter of Dauid), the 1612 Ainsworth Psalter (The Book of Psalmes, Englished Both in Prose and Metre), the 1621 Ravenscroft Psalter (The Whole Booke of Psalmes), and the 1562 Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter (The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Collected into English Meter), were split on the inclusion of notated music. The Crowley Psalter and Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter include music but, like many sixteenth- and seventeenth- century psalters, do not assign a separate tune to each psalm. The psalm-tunes are transcribed at the beginning of the book and assigned a number or brief name (“Amanda,” “Hallel,” “Norton”). Each psalm then receives a recommendation, such as the Scottish Psalter of 1635’s “Psalm LXXII: To be sung to DURHAME TUNE” (Scottish Psalter). Psalm-tunes were matched to textual psalms based on meter. The three dominant meters include long meter (four lines of eight syllables, or 18.104.22.168), common meter (alternating lines of eight syllables and six syllables, or 22.214.171.124), and short meter (two lines of six syllables, a line of eight syllables, and a line of six syllables, or 126.96.36.199). Any psalm written in long meter could be sung to any long-meter tune, and any tune in long meter could be (and frequently was) altered to accommodate a long-meter psalm. Indeed, the Regular Singing controversy of the 1720’s and 30’s underscores the congregational innovations on psalm-tunes. In 1720, Reverend Thomas Symmes of Essex published a controversial sermon entitled The Reasonableness of Regular Singing, or Singing by Note, arguing for a return to “the true and ancient mode of singing psalm-tunes according to the pattern of our New England psalmbooks, the Knowledge and practice of which, is greatly decayed in most congregations” (Symmes). Symmes lamented the “decomposition” of well-known psalm tunes in rural congregations, finding that they had frequently evolved beyond recognition. His sermon sparked a rousing and at times bitter debate among second- and third-generation New England divines, including (among others) both Increase and Cotton Mather. The practice of assigning tunes by name or meter became known as the Old Way, while Symmes’ recommendation that psalm-tunes be regularly transcribed and systematized became known as Regular Singing. Crucially, the Old Way enabled a communal creation of new psalm-tunes and modification of existing psalm-tunes to fit the text. It ensured that each church member would be familiar with the metrical forms of the psalm meters and with the practice of allowing creative variations in the performance of the text. The Bay Psalm Book enables this aural culture by refusing to fix the psalm-tune, just as it refuses to trust the fallen “fixed” artistic form. The Puritan suspicion of human language as decayed or corrupted imitations of the Logos pervades the Bay Psalm Book. If the psalms must be written, they will be written in a rough manner that paradoxically guards the purity of the divine text, and the aural aspect of the language (the spoken or sung word) will not be written at all, safeguarding it from human attempts to limit the divine.
Anne Bradstreet’s Language
Of the four Humours of Mans Constitution. Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, like the Bay Psalm Book, reflects the American Puritan cultural debate over language’s function and form. In this section, I will examine three of her poems, emphasizing how Bradstreet’s conceptualization of language influences her use of it. The first poem, “Of the four Humours of Mans Constitution,” appears in The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) as the second of Bradstreet’s four quaternions. The work is a long poem in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter, in which the four Humours (Choler, Blood, Melancholy, and Phlegm) acknowledge they are daughters of the four elements (Fire, Air, Water, Earth) and argue amongst themselves as to “Which of the four should have predominance” (“Humours” 12). Like the other quaternions, “Of the four Humours” contains many of the Renaissance stylistic conventions found in Joshua Sylvester’s translation of Du Bartas’ Divine Weeks and Works, including pastoral eulogy, classical allusions, historical and political references, and self-conscious acknowledgment of an author (Stanford 29). For example, Choler both references the fall of Henry VI and praises him in eulogistic fashion during her boast:
But one of you, would make a worthy King
Like our sixth Henry (that same virtuous thing)
That when a Varlet struck him o’re the side,
Forsooth you are to blame, he grave reply’d.
Take Choler from a Prince, what is he more
Than a dead Lion, by Beasts triumphed o’re. (“Humours,” 142-149)
The reference to English history doubles as an engagement with the transatlantic politics of Bradstreet’s day, as Bradstreet supports Henry VI as “our king” and presents him as a virtuous, valorous monarch struck down by a “Varlet,” a “Lion, by Beasts triumphed o’re” – powerful images during the first year of the English Civil War.
Another common Renaissance convention that appears in “Of the four Humours” is the disavowal of skill or artistry. While this the second quaternion does not contain any of Bradstreet’s famous laments of her poor poet’s skill or stammering tongue, a typical strategy of English Protestant poets and particularly Du Bartas’ pupils, Bradstreet emphasizes her lack of knowledge and erudition while simultaneously demonstrating it (Stanford 31). Melancholy, speaking with the author, claims that her in portion of the poem
To play Philosopher I have no list,
Nor yet Physitian, nor Anatomist,
For acting these, I have no will nor Art,
Yet shall with Equity, give thee thy part. (“Humours” 241-244)
Melancholy’s reply to Choler is rife with references to philosophy, medicine, and anatomy. Specifically, Bradstreet heavily relies on the philosophical-medical theories of Helkiah Crooke (Mikrokosmographia, or a Description of the Body of Man, 1615) and Phineas Fletcher (The Purple Island, or the Isle of Man, 1633) (Arsic 1009). Choler boastfully explain that she is preeminent, since her heat refines vital spirits and “through the arteries sends it o’re the frame,” supporting the conventional hierarchy of humors in seventeenth-century medical discourse (“Humours,” 95-96). Melancholy corrects Choler by versifying Crooke’s argument that the soul-supporting body is an irreducible complexity in which no one part, organ, or humor can exist in its unadulterated form, but all members “partake” of each other[i] (Arsic 1021). Melancholy points out that:
Thy choler is but rage when tis most pure,
But usefull when a mixture can endure
Whilst us for thine associates thou tak’st,
A Souldier most compleat in all points mak’st
But such thouh never art when all alone,
Yet such when we all four are joyn’d in one.
And when such though art, even such are we,
The friendly Coadjutors still of thee. (“Humours”, 207-208, 213-214, 235-238)
Melancholy’s insistence on an underlying physical unity among the four sisters is forgotten as she, like Choler, argues for her pre-eminence, but the theme of anatomical co-dependence and co-being is expanded by Melancholy, fully developed by Phlegm, and results in the four humors joining hands in “A golden Ring, the Posey VNITY” that all may “admire our perfect Amity Nor be discern’d, here’s water, earth, air, fire,/ But here a compact body, whole intire” (“Humours” 609, 611-612).
The form of “Of the four Humours” likewise reflects the conventions of English poetry. Throughout the poem, Bradstreet remains committed to heroic couplets, though the prosody occasionally strays from iambic pentameter in lines such as “When in Batalia my foes I face” and “Where opposition is Diametrical” (“Humours” 381, 503). The poem is divided into four sections: the first, a framing narrative, contains only twenty-six lines and links “Of the four Humours” to the preceding quaternion “The Four Elements.” The context in which Bradstreet envisions the poem to be experienced is thus one continuous with the other dialogic quaternions, either in print format or read aloud to an educated audience. The ideas of the poem are largely drawn from classical and Renaissance philosophy and anatomy, and to a lesser extent from Puritan theology and philosophy. For example, the Ramist commitment to sincerity, clarity, and the doctrine of contraries can be seen in Choler’s assertion that “Nor is’t my pleasure thus to blur [Blood’s] name/ Only to raise my honour to Skies/ As objects best appear by contraries” (“Humours” 133-135). And Phlegm “wins” the debate over how the four humors should be envisioned in relation to each other through self-abasement, patience, and submission, admitting that the other humors are right and she is independently the weakest and lowliest of the four; she then convinces the other four of their “coinherence” (“Humours” 496-510). In her role as humble peacemaker, Phlegm is elevated above the other four (in virtue if not degree): “This loving counsel pleas’d them all so well/ That flegm was judg’d for kindness to excell” (“Humours” 615-616). Bradstreet’s poetic tone is therefore more detached and humorous at the beginning of the poem and gradually becomes more serious and invested in the latter half of the poem, and especially in Phlegm’s discourse on the body.
Shortly after writing the poems that appear in The Tenth Muse, Bradstreet moved with her family from Ipswich to Andover (Stanford 77). At the time, Ipswich was the second largest settlement in the colony and was accessible to the Atlantic Ocean via the Agawame River (Stanford 77). Andover, by contrast, was in the process of expanding from an inland plantation; interestingly, the addition of a meeting-house (where Bradstreet’s husband would take the pulpit) was key in marking Andover as a town (Stanford 78). As a township, Andover was much smaller and much more scattered than Ipswich; both Edward Johnson’s 1650 letter and Timothy Dwight’s description of Andover in 1810 emphasize the “mere collection” of houses which can be barely called a village (Stanford 78). As Anne Stanford suggests, Bradstreet’s location and thus her intended audience underwent “a physical and social change. She was placed in an environment even more rural than that of Ipswich. She was farther from the political and commercial center of the colony” and was placed within a less educated and less cohesive culture (Stanford 78). Johnson’s letter describes the “remoteness of the place” from other towns and within itself, discouraging gatherings beyond business (trading crops or goods with other settlers), midwifery, and of course the Sunday meetinghouse (Stanford 78-79). The meetinghouse already stood at the heart of Puritan culture, but its importance and influence would have been especially strong in rural Ipswich. The culture of the meetinghouse included congregational performance of psalms from the Bay Psalm Book. Within this new physical and social context, Bradstreet’s poetry changes much as it might be expected to: religious themes take on a new importance, as nature and its relationship to the divine become a major theme, and as the erudite conventions of English poetry fade from Bradstreet’s verse. Of particular interest is the shift in poetic forms. After 1650, Bradstreet moves away from long poems like the dialogic and didactic quaternions, and experiments with meter and syntax, particularly with the three most common ballad meters. I argue that the metrical psalms, and specifically those of the Bay Psalm Book, play a major part in this change.
Meditation. The poetic section of “Meditation July 8th, 1656 (What God is like to Him I serve?)” is heavily influenced by the metrical psalm in meter and form. It is written in common meter (188.8.131.52.) with six distinct stanzas, suggesting the strophic tune that would accompany a sung psalm. Not surprisingly, the poem has been set to music several times, most famously by Ezra Sims in 1958. Reading the poem as one of the “spirituall Songs” John Cotton claimed could be framed in private suggests that Bradstreet treated the set form (poetic and/or musical) as the fullest expression of, rather than being opposed to, her spiritual response. The meditation can thus be read as a single gesture, beginning with an unscripted personal narrative like the conversion relation and spontaneously moving to prayer and then hymn. Moreover, the fullest expression of Bradstreet’s experience is one of phenomenal transmission. She writes that she may recapture the spiritual state, and that she may transmit this state to others (if they have the right sort of minds/hearts).
The poem is prefaced by a long paragraph that moves from a journaling of personal experience to a prayer addressed to God:
I had a sore fit of fainting, which lasted 2 or 3 days… but my God, who never failed me… graciously manifested His love to me, which I dare not pass by without remembrance, that it may be a support to me when I shall have occasion to read this hereafter and to others that shall read it when I shall posses that I now hope for… O Lord, let me never forget Thy goodness, nor question Thy faithfulness to me… strengthen my faith in Thee till I shall attain the end of my hopes, even the salvation of my soul. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly [the poetry follows immediately afterwards]. (“Meditation July 8th”).
The prefatory paragraph is illuminating in three respects. First, it indicates Bradstreet’s audience: her future self, “reading hereafter,” and other Puritans who will read the meditation after Bradstreet’s death. This suggests Bradstreet is already thinking about publication, and defending her decision to record her personal experience as a means to capture and later re-create a spiritual action much like Mary Rowlandson’s assertion that she published her experiences as a captive “for the benefit of the afflicted” (Rowlandson 9). Second, Bradstreet’s experience while writing is as much the object of the description as the spiritual experience she had after fainting, and in both cases this ecstatic state is represented as authentic and unscripted. The first sentence is a sprawling run-on sentence with multiple subordinate clauses taking up the better half of the paragraph. It causes Bradstreet’s experience of fainting (in past tense) to flow into God’s comfort of her, then (in past tense) to Bradstreet’s reception of grace and decision to write (present tense). God manifested His love to her and she is receiving it as she writes. This spontaneous spiritual experience is authentic and unscripted, leading from reflection to prose prayer to a poem in psalm meter.
Third, Bradstreet’s salvation is dynamic; she speaks of attaining in the future “the end of my hopes, even the salvation of my soul” (“Meditation July 8th”). The juxtaposition of a poem written in a psalm meter with Bradstreet’s implicit claim that she has not yet achieved salvation, or is still testing herself for evidences of salvation, supports both Amy M.E. Morris’ analysis of the poetic (and musical) form’s importance in the Halfway Covenant, and Meredith Neuman’s reading of poetry as part of an ongoing negotiation of how divine and human language function. According to Neuman, the driving questions of late seventeenth-century New England involve an opposition of spoken word/hearing (and spontaneous grace) and of written word/reading (and adherence to the church’s forms): “Is it faith alone [that will save you], a phenomenon that, after all, is an extratextual, likely passive, and possibly predetermined event? Or is your salvation textual, based on your reading of the Bible, with all the vagaries of its contingent wordiness?” (Neuman 16). The metrical psalm and sermon were a key part of this debate, as the preacher sought a balance between the pre-planned sermon form and the ex tempore style that could open his words to God’s spontaneous “speaking through” him (Neuman 17). The metrical psalm likewise occupied an uneasy position of formality and spontaneity, as the psalm meter and form suggested a fixed, human creation while the performed psalm offered a space for genuine, unprompted spiritual experience. Bradstreet’s meditation is clearly involved in this question, for it not only suggests the difficulties of knowing when one has attained salvation, it moves immediately into poem in psalm-meter, psalm form. Bradstreet’s ordering of the meditation reverses the salvific logic of the Halfway Covenant, which treated preparatory works (forms) as a precondition to spontaneous grace (experience). But Bradstreet places the formal after the experiential, implying that the form of the ballad-meter poem is somehow a more spontaneous form of language than the formless prose. This reflects the deep influence of the Bay Psalm Book’s text and practice. The introduction casts the metrical psalm as precisely the form of worship God required, the simple form which elicited divine fire, while the practice of congregational singing and innovation within that form affirmed the believer’s right to create spontaneously within that form, to add to the altar without polluting it. The association of the metrical psalm form with the unfixed, spontaneous aural experience of music thus transforms the psalm-meter into a marker for spontaneous, spiritually inspired language.
Contemplations. Additionally, the influence of the Bay Psalm Book is felt more subtly, but more deeply, in “Contemplations,” a long poem published in 1678. Unlike “Meditation July 8th, 1656,” “Contemplations” does not adhere to verse form. “Contemplations” features thirty-three stanzas with the rhyme scheme ABABCCC. The first six lines are iambic pentameter, while the last line contains six feet and is generally but not always iambic. The effect of reading is a more scripted, iambic form in the first six lines leading to a freer utterance in the last line, thereby completing or complicating the idea of the preceding lines. For example, the first six lines of the first stanza are statements about the beauty of what Bradstreet observes, while she breaks out of strict rhythm to describe her experience: “Rapt were my senses at this delectable view” (“Contemplations” 7). Throughout “Contemplations,” Bradstreet considers questions of beauty and language from the perspective of the natural and the divine. The poem can roughly be divided into three sections. In the first, stanzas 1-9, Bradstreet observes the beauty of nature with her senses:
Their leaves, and fruits seem’d painted but was true
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue,
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view. (“Contemplations” 5-7)
This observation of natural beauty is conceptualized as divine artistry that must lead the viewer either to worship the image, as in stanza six (“Hail Creature, full of sweetness, beauty, and delight”) or to worship God, as in stanza seven (“How full of glory must thy Creator be?...Admir’d, ador’d for ever be that Majesty”) (“Contemplations” 42, 47, 49). The effect on the reader takes the form of a wish to join nature’s dynamic representation, which Bradstreet imagines as an ongoing song. This effect is twice represented by creaturely song that at once draws participatory response from other creatures. First, the grasshopper’s song inspires the cricket to “bear a second part,” which then sounds and resounds among the other insects, stirring them all into song (“Contemplations” 57-63). Later, in the third part, the nightingale’s song “sets hundred notes unto thy feathered crew,” drawing other creatures into a dynamic song that represents spiritual life (movement towards eternity) (“Contemplations” 191). Bradstreet herself desires “To sing some Song my mazed Muse thought meet,” but finds she is trapped by “imbecility” (“Contemplations” 53, 56). Yet while she is unable to frame appropriate words, she deems the natural soundscape a “little Art” that can both sound and resound the “maker’s praise” despite her “muteness” (“Contemplations” 60-63).
In the second part of “Contemplations,” stanzas 10-19, Bradstreet steps back from her experience in nature and considers human history, focusing on man’s sinfulness. She briefly narrates the events of the Fall and Cain’s murder of Abel, associating Cain’s guilty state with the sorry condition of mankind by moving from “the Fathers ages. / Their long descent” to “Our Life[span]”—as compared to their “length of days” (“Contemplations” 106-107, 113). However, Bradstreet suggests that the effects of the Fall are less severe for the natural world. The “heavens” remains “as in their prime,” and stones and trees remain “insensible of time,” being renewed to a “youthfull” condition every spring while only “Man grows old, lies down, remains where once he’s laid,” “in oblivion to the final day remain” (“Contemplations” 120-126, 133). Bradstreet thus privileges the dynamic, wordless record of nature over artificial human language in imagining how men’s names fade and decay into “oblivion” after death, even when men try to inscribe their names on the land: “Nor youth, nor strength, nor wisdom spring again / Nor habitations long their names retain” (“Contemplations” 131-132). By contrast, the “beauty and… strength” of the “heavens, the tress, the earth” “last longer” than human memory (“Contemplations” 134-145). The third part of “Contemplations” attempts to synthesize Bradstreet’s experience of nature and her Calvinist conception of man and human language as fallen and disrupted. In the twentieth stanza, she moves against the “idolatry” suggested by an enduring nature, affirming that the natural world “shall darken, perish, fade and dye” while “man was made for endless immortality” (“Contemplations” 138). She then returns to the moment of experience in which the poem began, sitting under a stately tree near a “goodly Rivers side” (“Contemplations” 141-142).
Bradstreet readjusts her contemplation on Nature in two crucial ways. First, she privileges the river, which she reads as a dynamic process towards a greater end (the ocean), over the “stately Oak,” which she formerly praised for its enduring qualities, its fixity and strength: “I once that lov’d the shady woods so well/ Now thought the rivers did the trees excel” (“Contemplations” 144-145). The two models of strength Bradstreet reads into nature closely resemble the models of the Puritan spiritual state described by Matthew Brown. The first, the “pilgrim” model, emphasized the believer’s linear movement through time towards an eternal goal, a journey made possible through unmerited (and unmeritable) grace (Brown 30). The second, the “bee” model, emphasized the believer’s salvific uncertainty and need to prepare his or her heart through ritual forms such as meditation and attending church in an essentially cyclical and static spiritual state (Brown 30). The “bee” model is associated with form, and particularly memorization or devotional aids that rely on visible, printed language, such as the Bay Psalm Book’s alphabetic organization of Psalm 119 (Brown 40-41). However, in “Contemplations,” Bradstreet emphasis the “pilgrim” model as she imagines man’s individual and collective life as an ongoing journey toward eternity. She emphasizes the river’s ungovernable (unpredictable) dynamism and its collective composition:
I markt, nor crooks, nor rubs that there did lye
Could hinder ought but still augment its force
O happy Flood, quoth I, that holds thy race
Nor is’t enough that thou alone may’st slide,
But hundred brooks in thy cleer waves do meet
O could I lead my Rivolets to rest,
So may we press to that vast mansion, ever blest. (“Contemplations” 150-152, 155-156, 161)
The river’s effect on Bradstreet is also one of spontaneity and movement, as she finds a “thousand fancies buzzing in my brain” (“Contemplations” 177). This leads Bradstreet to the second readjustment of her interaction with Nature: she privileges hearing over sight. The nightingale’s song “rapt me so with wonder and delight / I judg’d my hearing better than my sight” (“Contemplations” 181). Much like her initial valorization of the oak, to be replaced with the river, Bradstreet first experiences nature through sight (describing the beauty of the trees and sky) and moves to experiencing it through sound after her spiritual meditation. Like the praise of the river, Bradstreet’s praise of the nightingale’s song emphasizes its temporal movement and ability to create or engage communities:
So each one [hearer] tunes his pretty instrument,
And warbling out the old, begin anew
And thus they pass their youth in summer season,
Then follow thee into a better Region,
Where winter’s never felt by that sweet airy legion. (“Contemplations” 192-196)
This recalls Bradstreet’s focus on the singing crickets at the end of the first third of the poem, where she contrast her imbecility with the insects’ ability to sound and resound, creating beauty and eliciting participatory responses of beauty from hearers. Here, the nightingale’s “melodious strain” warbles out the old song, the crickets’ song of natural beauty, by leading all singers into a “better Region” where winter (death) is never felt.
At the same time, the final section of “Contemplations” affirms the eternal over the temporal, the divine over the natural. Returning to her description of flowing water as spontaneous movement, Bradstreet spins an extended allegory of the “Mariner” who thinks he has “command of wind and tide” but is suddenly overturned by a storm (“Contemplations” 211-217). The Mariner is a “Fond fool” who “takes this earth ev’n for heav’ns bower,” while, Bradstreet assures us, “Here’s neither honour, wealth, nor safety;/ Only above is found all with security” (“Contemplations” 221, 223-224). Crucially, the Mariner-fool errs in attributing security and fixity to the natural world, which is, like the flowing river and the nightingale’s song, a dynamic, unpredictable journey toward a spiritual end. In the final stanza, Bradstreet links this view of the natural to language, recalling and expanding her previous statement that time erases human writing:
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,
But he whose name is grav’d in the white stone
Shall last and shine when all of these are gone (“Contemplations” 225-228, 231-232).
Here, Bradstreet presents a vision of language closely aligned with that of the Bay Psalm Book: human language cannot be fixed through writing (or printing) and can never achieve the enduring status of the divine Word. Moreover, the spoken word is a closer analogue to the divine Word, for it synthesizes the beauty of the natural and temporal with a movement toward the divine end, the divine Word. The spoken word, like the river, moves the believer toward eternity in a movement of spontaneous grace, and, like the nightingale’s song, incorporates the believer into an aural community. By contrast, the written (human) word, like the oak, is a fixed form ultimately inferior for its static fixity—and this fixity of form, when attributed to oak and sun, drew Bradstreet dangerously close to idolatry: “No wonder some made thee a Deity: / Had I not better known (alas) the same had I” (“Contemplations” 27-28). Here, the Bay Psalm Book’s distrust of liturgy, and particularly any fixed linguistic form, is strongly felt. More interesting, however, is the influence of the aural community created by the community of singers who performed the Bay Psalm Book’s language every week. The performance of the psalms, which were frequently outlined in a responsorial practice like the nightingale’s song to its fellows, provides Bradstreet with the model for temporal community. Bradstreet suggests that fixed human language is particularly fallen and decayed, and that the divine Word can be best accessed through aural language, just as the Bay Psalm Book guards the most spontaneous, phenomenal aspect of the psalms, the music, by refusing to fix it in print.
In conclusion, Bradstreet’s stylistic shift is influenced by the seventeenth-century Puritan negotiation of language, specifically the way this negotiation is presented in the Bay Psalm Book. Understanding Bradstreet’s stylistic development as a participation in how language is thought and used within Puritan culture requires a re-analysis of her later work and a sacrifice of long-held stereotypes about her culture. Ultimately, this approach can move us past metanarratives of emerging female subjectivities or development of modern aesthetics to a less historically anachronistic understanding of Bradstreet’s work and how it functioned for seventeenth-century readers. A more thorough understanding of the nexus between sound, text, spirituality, and community in Puritan discourse will also illuminate the Bay Psalm Book’s verse, making it less of an enigma for modern readers. If this project accomplishes anything, I hope it is to generate new awareness and appreciation of Bradstreet’s work, to remove her poems from various progressive narratives, and to prove a certain distance and difference between Puritan aesthetics and ours. Only in admitting this difference can we move toward a historically-based understanding of Bradstreet’s poetry, and only in understanding this difference can we appreciate the poems as they functioned in their original context.
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[i] In a later section, Phlegm expands on Melancholy’s idea of mutual dependence between humors and organs. Phlegm agrees that the brain is “the noblest member all allow” and is probably the seat of the soul, but “That Divine Ofspring the immortal Soul” is “it in all, and every part be whole,” echoing Crooke’s introduction to Mikrokosmographia (“Humours” 540, 545). At the end of her discourse on anatomy, Phlegm tells the reader that her account is incomplete, but “Some curious learned Crooke, may these reveal/ But modesty, hath charg’d me to conceal” (“Humours,” 578-579).