Anne Bradstreet’s Approach to Exhibiting Gender Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jun 3rd, 2019

As “Contemplations” was written in the 1660s, it was not included in the first edition of The Tenth Muse, and it became known to the reader only in 1678, after the author’s death (Gatta 40). It is possible to suggest that Bradstreet did not publish the poem earlier because she was not ready to share her thoughts that were not only a private meditation exercise and a public declaration of the Puritan views but also her manifestation of gender.

Bradstreet did not use her opportunity to share personal ideas on gender and the woman’s role in the Puritan society earlier. However, the poem was written as thirty-three contemplations presented in seven-line stanzas, and that form of was allowable to be publicly represented in the Puritan society as a piece of the female poetry. Therefore, it is possible to state that the focus of “Contemplations” on the question of gender was too much provocative for the era.

Defending the Female Right for Knowing, Imagining, Thinking

“Contemplations” is an unusual poem in terms of being written by a woman and declaring the female desire and natural right for knowledge in the Puritan society. Bradstreet seems to defend the woman’s right to observe and learn as passionately as she defends the woman’s right to be a poet. In “Contemplations”, the author demonstrates a woman having an inquiring mind and being persistent in her desire to learn more.

The character wanders the wood paths, focuses on each tree and leaf, thinks of God’s glory, and finally presents her philosophical thoughts on the man’s role and fate in this life. Thus, Bradstreet starts from depicting the woman as being amazed because of the natural world’s perfectness (“Contemplations” 205-206). Then, she continues focusing on the man’s knowledge of God and world order, regardless of gender: “All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath” (“Contemplations” 207).

Lastly, in the seventeenth stanza, Bradstreet presents conclusions of her philosophical pursuit discussing the imperfectness of the man’s mind to live the full life and understand its deep sense. Thus, Bradstreet notes: “And though thus short, we shorten many wayes, / Living so little while we are alive; / In eating, drinking, sleeping, vain delight / So unawares comes on perpetual night, / And puts all pleasures vain unto eternal flight” (3-7).

These ideas were novel because Bradstreet declares that a woman in the male-dominated society can be not only a Puritan wife but also a female who craves for a right to know and deduce. In the Puritan society, women were restricted in their rights to obtain the wisdom necessary for the personal growth and development. In the seventeenth century, the Scripture and the priests’ sermons were the only sources of the knowledge for women to educate their children.

Bradstreet provides clear and unexpected examples where the woman’s inquiring mind can bring her in contemplations and fantasies. Still, from the Puritan view, such natural thoughts and ideas could be seen as threatening because of the power of imagination that was discussed as having a negative effect on a woman’s mind.

In the twenty-sixth stanza, Bradstreet reflects on her spiritual quest: “While musing thus with contemplation fed, / And thousand fancies buzzing in my brain, / The sweet-tongu’d Philomel percht ore my head” (1-3). Did the female in the Puritan society have the right to focus on “thousand fancies” occurring in her mind? The female author speaks about her fancies easily as they are natural results of her contemplations and thoughts.

However, these products of imagination were discussed as dangerous for female Puritans because fantasies could bring women to religiously wrong visions and conclusions. On the contrary, male Puritans had the right to express their fantasies in the poetic form. Emphasizing “thousand fancies” as a result of contemplations, Bradstreet seems to break the rule and states that women has the same rights to dream and imagine as men because imagination is natural for humans, and it cannot be controlled or forbidden.

In addition to the equality of a female and a male to learn and imagine, Bradstreet also states the equal opportunity of women and men to admire the excellence of this planet and receiving spiritual lessons. The female character accentuates her right to explore God’s world and His nature as similar to the man’s right: “I wist not what to wish, yet sure thought I, / If so much excellence abide below, / How excellent is he that dwells on high?” (“Contemplations” 205).

Demonstrating the personal spiritual journey of a woman to understanding the divine nature of the world, Bradstreet follows the distinctive Puritan worldview. However, she acknowledges the woman’s ability for a meditation to develop the soul and gain the certain spiritual knowledge that is similar to the man’s one.

In the first stanzas of the poem, Bradstreet reveals her personal meditations regardless of the gender because she assumes the role of any devoting Puritan. In turn, the author chooses to describe the Earth as of the female gender in the fifth stanza, stating, “The Earth reflects her glances in thy face” (“Contemplations” 205). Emphasizing the gender of Earth, Bradstreet seems to divide the roles between the Creator as the Father of the world and the Earth as the Mother of the natural life in the world.

Thus, Bradstreet provides the clear reference to God and his male gender, while stating, “Sure he is goodness, wisdom, glory, light, / That hath this under world so richly dight” (Contemplations” 206). This strict division of the poem’s imagery in genders is important to illustrate that the divine order is similar to the natural order and family relations, and God is close and understandable to a person in this case.

Nevertheless, Bradstreet not only accentuates that females are similar to males while being Puritans and equal in front of God, but she also emphasizes the equality in the poetic world while using a masculine tone to discuss complex religious issues. Speaking about people as creatures of God, Bradstreet is inclined to sound neutral regarding the gender, but there are lines when the author intends to emphasize the male gender while discussing the difference in the public’s attitude to males and females.

Thus, in the ninth stanza, the author refers to all creatures: “Shall creatures abject thus their voices raise?” (5). However, in the tenth stanza of the poem, Bradstreet refers to “men” as males in the second line, speaking about “men in being fancy those are dead” (2). Then, the author discusses a man at the end of the stanza: “It makes a man more aged in conceit, / Than was Methuselah or’s grand-sire great: / While of their persons and their acts his mind doth treat” (5-7).

This accentuation of the gender allows Bradstreet to emphasize that the society is used to discuss males as dominating, but in contemplating and exploring the world women and men are equal. Therefore, in the twentieth stanza the female character asks important spiritual questions equally to males: “Shall I then praise the heavens, the trees, the earth / Because their beauty and their strength last longer / Shall I wish there, or never to had birth, Because they’re bigger and their bodyes stronger?” (1-4).

Finally, having received the spiritual lesson, the author fearlessly concludes, “But man was made for endless immortality” (20). These lines are important to demonstrate that women are equal not only in terms of their religious duty, but they are also equal in their rights to see, think, and deduce.

Vindication of Eve

In her poem “Contemplations”, Bradstreet accentuates that a woman can perform many roles, including roles of a poet, believer, and thinker. One of the most significant roles, in this case, is the role of the Mother. Therefore, it is important for the poet to declare her position as a female Puritan who is aware of her duties as a woman.

Two important images of the Mother are described by Bradstreet in “Contemplations”: the Earth and Eve. In the fourteenth stanza, the female author discusses the Earth as “the virgin Earth,” associating it with the Virgin Mary (“Contemplations” 208). However, in the Puritan tradition, there was no Mariolatry as worshipping Christ’s Mother, and Bradstreet focuses on developing the image of Eve as the mother of all humanity who was sinful and seeking absolution.

The author attracts the reader’s attention to Eve in the twelfth stanza of “Contemplations” while stating, “Here sits our Grandame in retired place, / And in her lap her bloody Cain new born” (1-2). For the author, Eve is the embodiment of the female nature that is associated with the sin. Eve is represented being in “in retired place” now, but her son is “bloody” because of his mother’s sins (“Contemplations” 207-208).

Eve’s sin in the Puritan tradition is so significant that her son is not only “bloody” but, he is also presented as “Imp” or the evil creature, the son of Devil (“Contemplations” 207-208). Therefore, while discussing the image of Cain in the third line of the stanza, Bradstreet states: “The weeping Imp oft looks her in the face / Bewails his unknown hap and fate forlorn” (3-4). In this context, Eve is depicted as the mother responsible for Cain’s own sins.

Bradstreet seems to note that Eve shares Cain’s sins as other mothers attempt to share their children’s sins. Depicting Eve with her “new born”, the female author accentuates the gender of her female religious character and portrays her as not a wife of Adam, but primarily, as a mother of Cain (“Contemplations” 207).

From this point, Eve takes responsibility for Cain’s sins because his evil nature is a result of Eve’s own sin and violation of the divine laws. Therefore, in her poem, Bradstreet also tries to explain why Eve as a woman could sin while pursuing of the knowledge.

In this context, Bradstreet seems to ask her reader an important question: Can a woman in the Puritan world obtain the knowledge and wisdom without violating the divine laws? The important female role characteristic for Eve, and with references to which Bradstreet exhibits gender in her poem, is an inquiring woman.

Therefore, in spite of accentuating the evil nature of “bloody” Cain and emphasizing the guilt of Eve, Bradstreet also demonstrates Eve as a woman who has suffered because of seeking wisdom. In the fifth and sixth lines of the twelfth stanza in “Contemplations”, Bradstreet one more time refers to Eve as a Mother, but she also notes that Eve “sighs to think of Paradise, / And how she lost her bliss, to be more wise” (5-6).

It is possible to conclude that Bradstreet intends to represent a good reason for the female loss of her bliss and prudence. In the case of women in the Puritan society, this reason is the search for wisdom. However, this reason is not understandable for the males who share all wisdom in the patriarchal society.

Eve attempted to seek wisdom in spite of God’s prohibition, but the female author seems to defend Eve in her intention. The reason is that in the Puritan society, men, as well as Adam in Paradise, do not need to violate the norms of morality and betray their faith because it is evident that the knowledge is available to them naturally.

As a result, Bradstreet raises the provocative question of the good and bad sources of knowledge for women in the Puritan community. As a Puritan woman, Bradstreet sympathizes with Eve because in order to become “more wise”, Eve believed Devil, “Father of lyes,” as it is stated in the sixth and seventh lines of the stanza (“Contemplations” 208). In this context, if a woman wants to learn more, she can be discussed as led by the evil forces or, in contrast, by the divine forces.

However, in spite of understanding Eve’s guilt and sin, Bradstreet seems to be sympathetic toward her pursuit of knowledge. On the other hand, depicting Eve, Bradstreet does not rebel against the principles of Puritanism, but she seems to support them because of accentuating the punishment for any violation of the divine laws. Still, Bradstreet hopes for Eve’s restoration in Eden as important for a woman, and it is an example of the female author’s Puritanism associated with interpreting all actions through the lens of religion.

Moreover, defending Eve, Bradstreet demonstrates that the characters of Adam and Eve seem to share the common guilt for violating the divine laws. Starting the story about Adam, Bradstreet notes that the first “glorious” man was made of “all, Fancies the Apple, dangle on the Tree” (“Contemplations” 207).

However, in the eleventh stanza, Bradstreet states that Adam “like a miscreant’s driven from that place / To get his bread with pain and sweat of face: / A penalty impos’d on his backsliding Race” (5-7). From this perspective, Bradstreet avoids discussing only Eve as guilty for the main sin and for the exile from Eden.

In this context, Bradstreet advocates for Eve, who only made a mistake while “believing him that was, and is, Father of lyes” in her pursuit of knowledge (“Contemplations” 208). The author accentuates that the desire to seek for wisdom is as typical of women as of men, and there should not be any stigma on females because of the origin of Eve’s sin. It is possible to assume that Bradstreet emphasizes that the pursuit of knowledge is characteristic of all women, but this striving does not mean sinning.

Works Cited

“Contemplations”. The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Ed. Jeannine Hensley. Norton: Harvard University Press, 1967. 204-213. Print.

Gatta, John. Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

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