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“Contemplations” on a Massachusetts Poet: A Neo-Platonic Quest
Posted By Micah Towery On January 9, 2013 @ 5:30 am In Poetry and Poetics | No Comments
The assertion that “Contemplations” is primarily concerned with the ascension of the soul may bump against prevailing notions. Some critics have said Bradstreet was more in love with the earth than heaven since the lines that directly address the idea of heaven often fall short: “too often merely traditionally rendered passages pale before some of the more deeply felt lyrical passages in praise of Phoebus and the things of earth”. Indeed, the poem begins with the rapture of the poet as she views nature: her gaze begins with the autumn leaves, then moves upward toward the sun:
Thou as a bridegroom from thy chamber rushes,
And as a strong man, joys to run a race;
The morn doth usher thee with smiles and blushes;
The Earth reflects her glances in thy face.
Birds, insects, animals with vegative,
Thy heat from death and dullness doth revive,
And in the darksome womb of fruitful nature dive.
“More heaven than earth was here [on earth]” Bradstreet says. In fact, stanza 8, which immediately follows a four stanza paean to the sun, seems to contain Bradstreet’s inadvertent admission that she cannot express genuine feelings about God, as opposed to her clearly inspired stanzas about nature:
Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I led my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.
My great Creator I would magnify,
That nature had thus decked liberally;
But Ah, and Ah, again, my imbecility!
Bradstreet is clearly not describing nature anymore any more than she is bushwacking “pathless paths” through the forest. She is traveling an inward landscape now. This stanza and the ones that follow are a flock of neo-Platonist images. Gazing toward the (inward) sky, her Muse thinks it appropriate to inspire song. And yet, divine though the Muse may be, Bradstreet is unable to perform. Is it because Bradstreet harbors the unspoken belief her ecstatic paean to the secular cannot match what she is able to say about the sacred? To me this interpretation only resonates if you harbor the assumption that the one need crowd out the other. But in Hopkins, for example, the ecstasies of the “secular” are sacred. Think how seamlessly Hopkins moves from the image of the dawn to the Holy Spirit and back to nature again in “God’s Grandeur” (another poem that shares many affinities with “Contemplations”):
And through the last lights off the black West went
_____Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
_____World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Hopkins is testing the sundered connection between the natural and divine. “Contemplations” does indeed have several passionately felt stanzas dedicated to the sun; yet this is hardly crypto-pagan nature worship. More to the point, though, those who engage in this reading of “Contemplations” are missing the clear neo-Platonic overtones of the whole poem (thankfully, not all critics have missed this; this particular essay makes some similar arguments as mine, but with different concerns).
[Two side-notes for picky readers:
1. For those familiar with Puritan doctrine, it might seem a little strange to connect Bradstreet with the mysticism of Plato, especially inasmuch as it sounds dangerously close to the analogy of being and/or similar ideas which protestants general eschew. This is an impossibly complicated topic to argue here, but I'm hoping to show that the neo-Platonic reading just makes sense. For those who want more of the historical scaffolding, you can return to the aforelinked essay at the end of the previous paragraph, which argues Bradstreet inherited her neo-Platonism from other poets, or you can jump down this rabbit hole, which argues that Jonathan Edwards--that arch-Puritan--more or less bought into the analogy of being.
2. For those who think I'm being sloppy with my use of the term neo-Platonism, you're probably right.]
Other critics have read this passage (along with others in the poem) as Bradstreet conforming to Puritan expectations of feminine weakness. I don’t doubt that patriarchy played some role in shaping this line, but the link to neo-Platonism really helps us see that something else is happening here. Bradstreet’s admission of imbecility is certainly tribute to Bradstreet’s Puritan modesty; but it’s deeper than that: the modesty is also neo-Platonic. Such imbecility is the stupidity of ecstasy. Bradstreet is unable to speak not because she is a woman or because she secretly loves nature more than God, but because one literally cannot speak about these things.
Nevertheless, femininity is an important theme in this poem. The relationship between femininity and ascesis is complex. One sees similar sentiments throughout Interior Castle, in which Theresa constantly chastises her “feminine” inability to be articulate. On the one hand, it is true that such modesty befit the social expectations of femininity in that time; but it is important to note (without denying the marginalizing influence of such expectations) that these expectations contain a subversive corollary: it is only the feminine soul that reaches the heights of ecstasy. According to Theresa, only by not desiring divine gifts can one receive them, can one pass from speech into that deeper eternally spoken Word. That is, only the unassuming, “feminine” soul is actually able to ascend. On a related note, it is no accident that in the very next stanza speaks of crickets and grasshoppers, insects whose classical associations are that of phoenix-like beings entranced by divine song. Bradstreet notes that creatures praise by “their little art” while she remains imbecilic. Bradstreet’s wit here has actually fooled many critics, who assume that on some level she really believes “warbl[ing] forth no higher lays” is a weakness. In fact, this should probably be read as an ironic reproach to the masculine drive to build towers of babble.
But we’re ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to where Bradstreet begins her poem–personal contemplation, a poet called forth into song by the enrapturing beauty of autumn leaves (anyone who has seen the Massachusetts in Fall knows what Bradstreet is talking about):
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true,
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue;
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.
I’ve never taken shrooms, but I’m told they make color “more real,” as if a veil is lifted and one experiences the sensual uninhibited, unmediated. Similarly, Bradstreet sees the colors that seem “painted,” enhanced as if by artifice, and yet they are confoundingly “true.” This vision stirs up the passions within Bradstreet, the appetites. The appetites and their desire to consume completely is unattainable, however. This inability of the human person to fully sate a desire creates a fundamental confusion because the existence of desire implies its object. This confusion is one object of Bradstreet’s contemplations, one focus of her attempt to come to deeper knowledge of being. Therefore, the next stanza begins
I wist not what to wish, yet sure thought I,
If so much excellence abide below,
How excellent is He that dwells on high,
If such desires cannot be sated by the earthly, certainly there is a richness that transcends earthly riches where there can be no barren “winter and no night.” Bradstreet’s gaze then moves upward, from leaves, to sky, to sun, treating each with due reverence. Undoubtedly, Bradstreet is riffing on Augustine’s Confessions:
And what is the object of my love? I asked the earth and it said: ‘It is not I.’ I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession. I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: ‘We are not your God, look beyond us.’ I asked the breezes which blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said: ‘Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.’ I asked heaven, sun, moon and stars; they said: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek,’ And I said to all these things in my external environment: ‘Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.’ And with a great voice they cried out: ‘He made us’. My question was the attention I gave them, and their response was their beauty. (X.vi.9)
Having begun in such contemplation, Bradstreet moves backwards to the story of Eden. She does so by means of that contemplation:
When present times look back to ages past,
And men in being fancy those are dead,
It makes things gone perpetually to last,
And calls back months and years that long since fled.
It makes a man more aged in conceit
Than was Methuselah, Or’s grandsire great,
While of their persons and their acts his mind doth treat.
Again, Bradstreet mirrors Augustine: memory–both personal and historical–is the primary means of introspection and ascension toward the divine. In returning to the palaces of memory, one finds truths that actually transcend the personal, that impart a wisdom preceding one’s individual being (Plato thought the human ability to recognize truth was actually remembering what was forgotten from the previous life of the soul). However, while Augustine travels back to the creation narrative, Bradstreet returns to a time just after creation: Cain and Abel.
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