Anne Bradstreet's "Contemplations"
Introduction and Excerpt from Poem
Anne Bradstreet's "Contemplations," a meditative discourse of great spiritual import, is composed of 33 stanzas. Stanzas 1 through 32 consist of seven lines each with a rime scheme ABABCCC. Stanza 33 varies a bit with its composition of 8 lines in 4 rimed couplets.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
The speaker creates a drama filled with her musings as she keenly observes and "contemplates" her environment. Her descriptions of what might seem mundane, ordinary things such as trees, seasons, the sun, and the sky are informed by a deep and abiding love for the Creator of all those phenomena. Her many biblical, as well as classical mythological allusions, enrich the reporting of this simple yet profound discourse.
(Please note: Because of the length of this poem, I am offering here only an excerpt of the first three stanzas. You can read the poem in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation Web site.)
Excerpt from "Contemplations"
Sometime now past in the Autumnal Tide,
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed,
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’re by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seem’d painted but was true
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hew,
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.
I wist not what to wish, yet sure thought I,
If so much excellence abide below,
How excellent is he that dwells on high?
Whose power and beauty by his works we know.
Sure he is goodness, wisdom, glory, light,
That hath this under world so richly dight.
More Heaven than Earth was here, no winter and no night.
Then on a stately Oak I cast mine Eye,
Whose ruffling top the Clouds seem’d to aspire;
How long since thou wast in thine Infancy?
Thy strength and stature, more thy years admire,
Hath hundred winters past since thou wast born?
Or thousand since thou brakest thy shell of horn,
If so, all these as nought, Eternity doth scorn. . . .
Reading of "Contemplations"
In her meditative, spiritual masterpiece, "Contemplations," Anne Bradstreet, a deeply devout poet, concentrates on the intertwining of nature, humanity, and the Divine Reality.
Stanzas 1-3: The Beauty of Autumn
In the first stanza, the speaker describes the beauty of autumn: "Their leaves and fruits seem'd painted but was true / Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hew, / Rapt were my senses at this delectable view."
Then the speaker, in the second stanza, intimates that she was so touched by such beauty that she did not know what to think, but she naturally felt the impulse of wonder: "If so much excellence abide below, / How excellent is he that dwells on high?" Referring the Divine, she says that we know "his power and beauty by his works" and that he is "goodness, wisdom, glory, light."
Such effusions will drive the atheist and agnostic to apoplexy, but Anne Bradstreet's sincerity and precision of art and craft should hail all to, at least, give a look and a thought before making ignominious effusions against her.
In the third stanza, the speaker's eye catches sight of the "stately Oak" and addressing the tree, she asks, "How long since thou wast in thine Infancy?" She then muses that the answer might be a hundred or even a thousand years, since it first broke forth from the acorn.
Stanzas 4-7: The Glory of the Sun
In stanzas 4-7, the speaker contemplate that great planet, the sun, stating that the sun is without doubt an awe-inspiring entity: "The more I looked, the more I grew amaz'd / And softly said, what glory's like to thee?"
The speaker's amazement leads her to understand how some civilizations have considered the sun a god: "Soul of this world, this Universe's Eye, / No wonder some made thee a Deity." Then the speaker likens the sun to a Bridegroom leaving his chamber every morning, and she muses on how the heat from the sun gives life to the earth, insects, animals, and vegetation.
The speaker portrays the sun as the prime mover of the seasons, and once again, she focuses on the fact that the majesty of the sun is just one more poignant example of the majesty of the Divine Creator. She then muses, "How full of glory then must thy Creator be! / Who gave this bright light luster unto thee."
Stanzas 8-10: The Glory of the Sky
In the eighth stanza, the speaker looks to the sky and muses about what song she could sing to offer glory to her Maker, but she feels dumbfounded at the prospect of adding any glory to such a powerful Spirit.
Stanza nine finds her listening to crickets and grasshoppers and chiding herself for remaining mute, while these lowly creatures are singing to their Beloved. The speaker muses about the efficacy of looking back to past generations.
Stanzas 11-20: Philosophical Reckoning
In stanzas 11-20, the speaker muses about biblical events from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel and the Land of Nod, to which Cain was banished after he slew Abel. She concludes that our lives are often lived too mechanically: "And though thus short, we shorten many ways, / Living so little while we are alive."
The speaker becomes philosophical as she questions: "Shall I then praise the heavens, the trees, the earth, / Because their beauty and their strength last longer?"
Finally, the speaker asserts, "But man was made for endless immortality." So she cannot condemn this life even though down through the years from biblical times humans have behaved as if they were not a spark of the Divine.
Stanzas 21-32: As Rivers Meander to the Ocean
Now the speaker recounts how while sitting by a river she was reminded that the river is ever seeking out and ever meandering to the ocean. Stanzas 20 through 26 find the speaker contemplating the creatures in the ocean, how they look and how they fulfill their own destiny.
Then the speaker is brought back from the watery depths by a bird singing overhead; thus, she contemplates the "feathery" world, until she is brought back to focus on mankind: "Man at the best a creature frail and vain, / In knowledge ignorant, in strength but weak."
And in stanzas 29 to 33, the speaker reports about the common behavior of mankind—that it will drift cheerily along until slapped by a calamity, that is, mugged by reality: "Fond fool, he takes this earth ev'n for heav'ns bower, / But sad affliction comes and makes him see / Here's neither honour, wealth, or safety. / Only above is found all with security."
Stanza 33: A New Name on a White Stone
The speaker's final summation is declared in eight rimed couplets, the theme of which is that time is the enemy on the earthly level: "O Time the fatal wrack of mortal things / That draws oblivion's curtains over kings." Nothing on earth escapes Time's wreckage, except the individual who has realized his soul unity with the Divine: "But he whose name is graved in the white stone / Shall last and shine when all of these are gone."
The speaker metaphorically likens God-union to having one's name engraved on a white stone, an allusion to Revelation 2:17: "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written."
Life Sketch of Anne Bradstreet
Anne Dudley was born in Northampton, England, in 1612. At age 16, she married Simon Bradstreet and the two produced eight children. In July 1630, Anne, her husband, and parents emigrated from England to America, where all of her children were born. While raising that large family, Anne wrote poetry.
Although Anne did not attend school, she acquired a fine education from her father, Thomas Dudley, who tutored her in history and literary studies, as well as French, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.
Anne's first publication. The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, by a Gentlewoman of those Parts, came out in London, England, in 1650. She holds the enviable distinction of being the first woman poet to have work published in both the USA and England. While she was greatly influenced by the French poet, Guillaume du Bartas, her poetry also shows influence of the Elizabethan tradition.
The American poet John Berryman helped bring Anne's work to attention in 1956, when he wrote a tribute to her in his “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.” In the 20th century, this poet came into her own, as her work continued to gather readers, critics, and scholars focusing on her talent.
According to Poetry Foundation: "Certainly, Anne Bradstreet's poetry has continued to receive a positive response for more than three centuries, and she has earned her place as one of the most important American women poets."
On September 16, 1672, at the age of 60 years, Anne Bradstreet died in North Andover, MA. She is likely buried in Old North Parish Burying Ground, in North Andover. But apparently there exists a controversy about the exact location of her burial.
A note on the Web site, Find a Grave, explains:
Some people think she was buried in Salem, Massachusetts, but many historians believe she was buried in the cemetery est. in 1660 in Andover, Massachusetts. She died 25 years before her husband, and they both lived in Andover.
© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes