How nice, on a sunny morning, to roll away from Lawrence in disgust and find unexpected pleasure. Mistress Bradstreet takes possession first by rhythms, the most elusive element of literature, most resistant to analysis and discussion. Reading “Contemplations,” there are anticipations of Wordsworth, echoes of Herbert: “Here sits our Grandame in retired place” or “When I behold the heavens as in their prime” (“Behold the child among his new-born blisses”); “A lonely place, with pleasures dignified” (“A wasted place, but sometimes rich.”). Coincidences, will-o-wisps dangerous to pursue too eagerly, but the vivacity of the rhythms, the variety and mastery over them, is inseparable from the vivacity of the verse; what a surprise to find, though her name rings out in the work of friends, that her poetry still is alive today, even for a reader far from the early American scene.
Neither Wordsworth nor Herbert are beside the point, either: the latter because of a sanely steadying devotion, the former because of the faith in the life of things, greater than the things themselves—and like Wordsworth, more than her century-peers , she is sensitive always to the long stretch of time across lives, and in a life, attending to it in the poetry as more than proof for the vanity of the world and worldliness, but because she seems to want to take the measure and pace of time itself, feeling how weird it is in the way it moves. The expression of it might be taken for granted, and perhaps I am exaggerating its effect, but I think it rattles around, for instance, in the poem, “Upon the Burning of our House, July 10, 1666“:
He might of All justly bereft,
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the Ruines oft I past,
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast,
And here and there the places spye
Where oft I sate, and long did lye.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest;
There lay that store I counted best:
My pleasant things in ashes lye,
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sitt,
Nor at thy Table eat a bitt.
No pleasant tale shall ‘ere be told,
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle ‘ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom’s voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lye;
Adieu, Adeiu; All’s vanity.
Then streight I gin my heart to chide,
And didst thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the skye
That dunghill mists away may flie.
The thrust of accusation in the rhythm of the final stanza is brutal. But she’s not really mourning the stuff at all; she’s mourning the shape that a place gives to time. “No things recounted done of old”–this is a different sort of “things” from the possessions she has lost. The material of the world might be vanity, and she might deny their inherent worth, but the implication is that they have worth in having shared the time of her life; the wealth doesn’t abide on earth, but she has been formed as a self inseparably from the objects in time. It’s a bit Speak, Memory, though the furniture wouldn’t have been as pretty.
The obviously great poem is “Contemplations.” In it, she plays with language with most confident liberation, to greatest effect, so that we come across such detailing in rhymes as:
The “Vain/Pain” coupling returns, and with it “vexation,” inescapable for man and woman. Then there is the descent “from foes, from friends, from dearest, near’st Relation,” which at once looks back to the story of Cain and Abel, already alluded to, and glances to the private life that is the matter of her other poems; the “troubles” from relations need not be exempt because of a loving marriage, and the line finds space for biblical tragedy and domestic comedy, for horror and also poignancy–similarly to Clare’s great line in “I Am”: “Even the dearest that I loved the best | Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.”
But the poem’s strength is measured across its stanzas, on a larger scale. Its conceit is that she need not praise the natural world, but ought to praise God; but the lessons are contained repeatedly in the natural world, and so she must praise it without over-praising it, in order to find her own proper value. She is reminded by it of her own shortcomings, and so in this is not as good as it is, and yet she holds out for the prospect of eternity, and so is greater than it. The poem, really, is an instance of what Empson calls “the Orpheus idea, that by delight in Nature when terrible man comes to control it”; delighting in it, she nonetheless knows herself to be greater than it, master of it in this sense. The other great poems in the tradition are Christopher Smart’s “Song to David” and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; each is Christian, each reworks pagan attitudes and accommodates them, and each innovates in stanza form.
Her poetry is set apart from theirs–not only in “Contemplations,” but elsewhere—by her returns to time, the long time of Biblical prophecy, the erosive time of the world, and the creative and destructive time of memory. Probably I am exaggerating in my mind, but of the anthologized pieces I’ve come across online and in print, she does, more than many of her contemporaries in Britain, seem to write poems that are not only occasional, but that are about the time of an occasion, about what happens to time on some occasions, and about how these are set against other measures of time. “By Night when Others Soundly Slept” for instance opens on the wakeful night–there’s the faint Biblical ring of Isaiah’s watchman vigilant day and night–but there is also the enforced sense of constricted and constricting worldly time from which human devotion of the eternal blooms, so that the final stanza arrives with a balance of the worldly and the eternal, in lines that would not be out of place in a poem by Blake:
Her love for him must extend to Eternity, because he is eternal; her love will be the best part of her and remain after her death, still loving him; she cannot love him properly on earth, while she lives, because he remains distant and eternal, her earthly love the wrong sort, and so she will love him only in Eternity; “to” because Eternity is not a place, as “in” implies, but a destination that can never be reached, so that her love is infinite, but not because of the strength of her own heart (hubris), but instead because of what His eternal state permits; she will serve and love him until she too reaches the eternity of heaven, and when there she will love him further still; and so on, all set against the fragility of “whilst I shall.”
Her rhythms and meter are relevant here; they are ways in which poets take command of, and submit to, (they represent different sides of the same thing, like the freedom found in necessity) time. She is not ostentatiously versatile in either—not like Ben Jonson even—but she can make her preferred tetrameter move nimbly, and she can achieve subtle effects, as in the closing couplet:
The final rhymes are feminine, the last unstressed syllable not counting in scansion–so they are accord to the pattern, but they also extend the line in time, with the promise of eternity. Elsewhere, the final rough alexandrine line of the seven-line stanza in “Contemplations” has a very strange effect on the spine, difficult to put into words: the life of each stanza lingers, sustains itself, longer than we feel it should, a purchase of additional time, or an allowance, or burden, and this in a poem that looks back at inherited sins from the past, that envies and pities the fish for lacking hope and regret…
Because of her familiar style, she begs comparison to Herbert or Rossetti; but she does not renounce as they do; she shows herself willing and able always to embrace and absorb all of the world, and does so, before affirming herself stronger than she would be if she were foolish enough to value it overmuch; it’s the remarkable individualism that Empson admires in Shakespeare’s great characters, in rogues, in those who can afford, on faith in their own merits, to stand apart, to sweep forth and stride over, as her verses do.