Hope in the face of death seems to be an impossible concept to adequately convey to a reader. After all, death itself seems to be the epitome of hopelessness and despair. However, Anne Bradstreet conveys in her poetry this very idea. Bradstreet lived in a Puritan community in America where people lived very hard lives and struggled greatly. In such conditions, death was a possibility that loomed over people on a daily basis. As such, it is a topic that Bradstreet chose for many of her poems. She endeavors to bring hope to her fellow settlers, even in the face of death, by widening their field of vision to include eternity that is promised to them by God. In her poems “Contemplations,” “Before the Birth of One of her Children,” and “As Weary Pilgrim,” Bradstreet uses nature to illustrate where to keep one’s focus in life and shows how to remain hopeful when death is an inevitable and ever-present fact of life.
While Bradstreet praises nature in her poetry, she acknowledges its insufficiency while using it for a higher purpose. In her poem “Contemplations,” she speaks highly of nature and the beauty it possesses. She praises nature’s ability for rejuvenation in the eighteenth stanza by saying, “If winter come and greenness then do fade, / A spring returns, and they more youthful made” (Bradstreet 124-125). She seems envious of this trait and reveres it. She then observes that man falls short in these terms: “But man grows old, lies down, remains where once he’s laid” (Bradstreet 126). Man falls victim to time and age without the ability to regenerate. With this realization, she is addressing a subject that would have been very prevalent in her time: death. Life in America was hard for people in the communities in which Bradstreet found herself, and these harsh conditions led to very high death rates. This accounts for Bradstreet’s admiration for nature’s regenerative powers and takes it a step further by asking a question: “Shall I then praise the heavens, the trees, the earth / Because their beauty and their strength last longer?” (Bradstreet 134-135). She quickly silences this thought by observing that, despite the longevity of trees, the earth, and all other forms in nature, these things will eventually die and “man was made for endless immortality” (Bradstreet 140). She is showing that despite the places where man falls short, namely in strength and longevity, he will receive his reward in the eternal world and because of that, man is superior. This would have been a message of hope for the people of Bradstreet’s time that were struggling. This idea that they would be rewarded in the next life was a comforting notion and one that was rooted in Puritan beliefs. However, rendering nature insignificant seems to be contradictory to the rest of the poem, which spends a good amount of time praising nature.
Despite her seemingly contradictory statements about nature’s worthiness of adulation, she is justified in her use of nature as her focus and her praise of nature’s beauty and superior appearance because she speaks about nature as a reflection and illustration of religious ideals. She opens the poem with praise for the beauty of the trees during autumn. She takes it a step further in stating, “If so much excellence abide below, / How excellent is He that dwells on high…” (Bradstreet 9-10). She sees nature as a reflection of God himself. Not only is it a reflection; Bradstreet also proves that observations of nature can be used to illustrate religious concepts. For example, she observes a fish swimming and infers that he is striving for the goal of reaching the ocean. As she did with her previous description of nature, she takes the illustration further and relates it to something of greater value. In the same way the fish is struggling, a person struggles through the hardships of life with the promise of eternal life at the end of the journey. Nature alone is not worthy of worship, but when viewed as God’s creation and a reflection of him, it is to be revered because it is meant to point to him. She is conveying the importance of keeping the focus on God in all things and to strive for the ultimate goal of eternity throughout life rather than earthly goals. In the words of Kopacz, she is saying, “Earthly achievement and status, memorials and records, are meaningless in the perspective of eternity. Only salvation can triumph over time” (Kopacz). As she refocuses her audience, she is telling them through her use of nature that God and salvation in him should be focused on in life because it is the only thing that lasts throughout eternity.
She recognizes the difficulty of keeping one’s eyes on God and illustrates this struggle in her poem entitled “Before the Birth of One of her Children.” This poem was written upon the impending birth of one of Bradstreet’s children, and in it, she recognizes the possibility of dying in childbirth. She observes in the poems the far-reaching power of death by stating, “No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet, / But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet” (Bradstreet 3-4). With this statement and the previous examples of Bradstreet’s poetry, one would expect mention of the eternal life that waits after death. However, as Dempsey points out, “the speaker does not soften death’s reality with pious words about an expectation of heaven or by a repentance for sin” (Dempsey). The poem is void of any such promise. Instead, she laments leaving behind her husband and begs that he cherish her children if she should perish. She even goes on to say, “And if I see not half my days that’s due…” (Bradstreet 13). In other words, she is saying that if something does happen to her, she will have been cheated out of time on this earth. This is not the voice of someone who is looking toward the eternal life promised after death. This is a realistic and natural attitude to have, and she is illustrating here the difficulty when facing death to keep one’s eyes on such things. When faced with the possibility of leaving all that one has known, she shows that worrisome thoughts set in and fall upon those you will leave behind. This gives the poem a desperate tone that is devoid of hope. However, this is not the only view of death that Bradstreet gives. In her poem entitled “As Weary Pilgrim,” she talks about the toils of life and the relief and comfort to be found in life after death and states, “Such lasting joys shall there behold… Lord make me ready for that day / Then come, dear Bridegroom, come away” (Bradstreet 41-44). In her poetry, she illustrates the desperate struggle with one’s own death while showing the reader that relief can be found when focuses on the eternal life God promises.
Anne Bradstreet’s religious beliefs are strongly rooted in her poetry, and the poetry itself seeks to help people on their own spiritual journeys. She shows how man is superior to nature because of the promise of eternal life. Although it may seem in this life that nature itself is stronger and more majestic than man, it is of no value because man will receive his reward in the next life. Therefore, to understand this, one must always remain focused on God and the ultimate goal of eternity with him. She illustrates that very concept by connecting everything she sees in nature back to religious ideas. However, as Bradstreet realized, this is not always an easy to do. Her feelings about the possibility of her own death are also in her poetry, and they evoke a sense of hopelessness. She shows her own despair that occurs when she lets her eyes fall from God to earthly things alone, and in illustrating that struggle, she makes her message of hope even stronger. Her charge to keeps one’s eyes on God, and the illustration of her own struggle to do so in her poetry shows that there is hope to be found in the end, even for those, like herself, who may struggle to keep their eyes on that which is eternal.
Bradstreet, Anne. “Anne Bradstreet.” Beginnings to 1820, edited by Nina Baym, 8th ed., W. W. Norton and Company, 2012, pp. 207-38. 2 vols.
Dempsey, Francine. “Before The Birth Of One Of Her Children.” Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition (2002): 1-3. Literary Reference Center. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.
Kopacz, Paula. “Contemplations.” Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition (2002): 1-3. Literary Reference Center. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.