Bradstreet Among the Moderns: Comparing Visions of Love
In ‘A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment’ by Anne Bradstreet and ‘Love Poem’ by John Frederick Nims, there are three possible ideas that could be gleaned from the texts. Such ideas could be the power of love overcoming faults and distance, marriage, and thoughts of death. Within Bradstreet’s poem, there is an autobiographical outlook that explores the feeling of loss when a married couple is separated, whereas Nim’s autobiographical viewpoint alternates between humorously expressed criticisms and appreciated virtues. Bradstreet’s poem was published during the 17th century, when she had emigrated to America with her husband and parents. The term metaphysical can be applied to poets who wrote in the 17th century due to intellectual ingenuity and literary allusion. Such intellectual ingenuity can be seen in Bradstreet’s poem, as she uses metaphors of astrology and nature to support her genuine devotion towards her husband. It should also be noted that while there were female writers during the 17th century, it was uncommon for a woman poet to be published. Unlike Bradstreet’s work, Nim’s poem was written during the post-modernist epoch. Therefore, a contemporary assessment might note that the humorous aspect of Nim’s poem reinforces how the speaker is devoted to his wife, regardless of her gauche qualities.
Both texts feature the idea that love is overpowering; however, Bradstreet suggests love overpowers physical distance whereas Nims implies that love overpowers character disparities. Bradstreet uses astrological imagery and metaphors in order to show how her love extends beyond physical entities, thus demonstrating the greatness of it. ‘I, like the Earth this season, mourn in black, My sun is gone so far in’s zodiac.’ By using an extended metaphor to present her husband as the sun, Bradstreet suggests that her spouse is the source of all life. The addition of a pathetic fallacy also allows the poet to construct meaning, as the reader is able to envisage the magnitude of the speaker’s love. A feminist perspective might suggest the speaker is presenting her husband as more important than herself by portraying him as the sun. However, this may not be an issue of equality, but rather a compliment issued by the speaker. Nims also uses astrology when describing the power his love; however, instead of presenting his spouse as the sun, he uses a more sincere and comical description by describing her as a ‘wrench.’ While this mode of reference may appear insulting on the surface, the comical quality might add sincerity because Nims is extending beyond convention. Nims bypasses sickly sweetness and instead uses honesty to prove the strength of his relationship with his wife, as the satire that encompasses his poem underlines his affection. A similar use of satire by Wendy Cope in ‘Strugnell’s Bargain,’ published in 1945 (post-modern period), creates an analogous effect. The mockery of ‘My true-love hath my heart and I have his’ by Sir Philip Sydney in ‘Strugnell’s Bargain,’ unveils a new side to love poems. It seems that love in ‘Strugnell’s Bargain’ does not overcome the complication of the English language, unlike love overpowering distance in ‘A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment.’ There is confusion between the speaker and their partner about who has which body part. The use of taboo language in ‘Strugnell’s Bargain,’ like ‘Oh piss off, Jake!’ creates a vast contrast to typical love poems, however some post-modern critics might argue that this is a more realistic form of love, as relationships are complex and involve a variety of emotions rather than straightforward adoration. This idea could apply to ‘Love Poem’ by Nims, as the repetition of ‘dear’ coupled with jarring insults insinuates Nims loves his wife, despite her faults. However, the historical contexts that surround these poems allow these poets to challenge the conventional conception of love, as post-modern society is more lenient in contrast to the time Bradstreet was writing in.
The way marriage is interpreted differs in each poem; nonetheless, love is the underlying component in each relationship. The way Bradstreet expresses her marriage offers an immense contrast to the tactics of Frederick Nims, as she uses a lexical field of nature and body and extended metaphors to show how great her love is: ‘Head, eyes, flesh, bone,’ and ‘frigid, cold, storm, frost, warmth, melt.’ This marriage is presented as a co-dependent relationship and Bradstreet portrays her husband as an individual who brings warmth. But, when they are separated, she is violated with coldness due to his absence. This shows the reader how reliant she is upon their love and by relating it to other entities; Bradstreet demonstrates that their love is not contained but extensive. In one of her poems, Wendy Cope also uses a lexical field of body organs, ‘heart, liver, and kidney.’ This might create a more humorous effect due to the listing technique Cope employs. The rhyming couplet that follows cements the satire Cope uses. ‘Therefore do I revoke my opening line: My love can keep her heart and I’ll have mine.’ This parody crystalises the humorous tone of Cope’s poem, and demonstrates that the speaker is adapting to realistic standards. However, another interpretation might suggest that the satire relieves the harshness of pragmatism in the poem. Due to Cope writing in the post-modern era, she is able to explore alternative aspects of love. However, a feminist perspective might suggest that Bradstreet was limited, as a patriarchal society might have frowned upon a woman exploring anything that existed outside love in a marriage. This interpretation could also be applied to “Rapture” by Carol Ann Duffy (1955-). As Duffy is writing in the post-modern era, she is able to subvert the traditional English sonnet with ease. This underlines the immeasurability of the speaker’s love, as the structure of the poem could be used as a metaphor to suggest that it is not confined, similar to Bradstreet’s love. Nims uses structure in ‘Love Poem’ contrarily, as the equal length lines could offer calm reassurance to the speaker’s object of affection. ‘Whose palms are bulls in china, burs in linen, and have no cunning with any soft thing.’ The enjambment allows this stanza to flow onto the next; therefore the ideas are not separated. This could suggest that Nims’ love is ongoing; furthermore, the alliteration and juxtaposition reiterate this point but also emphasises the speaker’s love is not affected by such tribulations.
In both poems, there is an element of death that lingers behind the speaker’s words. Bradstreet uses repetition and the imagery of bodies in order to describe the event of death. ‘Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone, I here, thou there, yet both but one.’ While some readers may be shocked at the reality of death following Bradstreet’s depiction of love, as the contrast between the two is hard hitting, the mention of death might add sincerity to the poem for some critics. This is because the repetition and alliteration may soften the bleakness of death and show that even love is affected by nature. However, the speaker might have used this imagery to show the reader that they’re unafraid of death due to experiencing a fulfilling, endless love. Nims employs a similar technique to Bradstreet, however he uses a metaphor in order to soften the starkness of demise. ‘For should your hands drop white and empty All the toys of the world would break.’ The alliteration and description of physical objects as ‘toys’, shows that even though the speaker’s partner is clumsy, in comparison to her, the speaker believes objects she breaks are worthless. Love reducing the threat of death is also evident in Rapture, as the speaker uses a rhetorical question to stimulate thought regarding impending demise: ‘How does it happen that our lives can drift far from our selves, while we stay trapped in time, queuing for death?’ The idea of stagnation, which is emphasised by alliteration, juxtaposes the greatness of love mentioned later. The Volta, which is ‘then love comes, like a sudden flight of birds’, creates the concept that love can free individuals who are trapped in time, as loveless lives ensure individuals are ensnared in their own private penitentiary. Death is mentioned halfway through Rapture, however this is not the case in ‘Love Poem’ or ‘A Letter to Her Husband…’. This may be because the speakers in Bradstreet and Nim’s poems consistently assure the reader of their love, however only later does the speaker in ‘Rapture’ vehemently declare their love.
Bradstreet and Nims each discuss the power of love, marriage and death. However, unlike Nims, Bradstreet uses compliments and praise to underline the extent of her love, whereas the speaker in ‘Love Poem’ openly discusses a partner’s faults. Yet, the contrast between terms of endearment and descriptions of a partner’s errors emphasises the authentic aspect of the speaker’s love in Nim’s poem. Furthermore, it exposes a realistic side to a modern relationship and shows that love is not restricted by truthful characteristics.
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In ‘A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment’ by Anne Bradstreet and ‘Love Poem’ by John Frederick Nims, there are three possible ideas that could be gleaned from […]