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massachusetts writers

Massachusetts writers hold a great position of influence in American writing. Some of this is just a matter of timing: Massachusetts had a kind of head start in fostering talent, and such advantages inevitably become influence (“whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance”). But perhaps it’s better not to speak of “influence”; instead, I would claim that Bradstreet divined in the landscape images and structures of being that other American writers would discover and explore.

After pondering the act of contemplation, Bradstreet retells the first murder. Cain is depicted as the definitively anti-Christ figure, a cursed newborn enthroned in the lap of Eve (contra images of the theotokos):

Here sits our grandame in retired place,
And in her lap her bloody Cain new-born;
The weeping imp oft looks her in the face,
Bewails his unknown hap and fate forlorn;

Stanza 15 tells the story of Abel’s murder:

There Abel keeps his sheep, no ill he thinks;
His brother comes, then acts his fratricide;
The virgin Earth of blood her first draught drinks,
But since that time she often hath been cloyed.
The wretch with ghastly face and dreadful mind
Thinks each he sees will serve him in his kind,
Though none on earth but kindred near then could he find.

This is the bloody inevitability that Frost explored in poems like “Design.” But in addition to her distinctly Massachusetts sensibilities, one can find a propensity toward that broader, particularly American expression of the doctrine of original sin: the social outcast set adrift in a vast and bleak landscape. Stanza 16 describes Cain’s punishment:

His face like death, his heart with horror fraught,
Nor malefactor ever felt like war,
When deep despair with wish of life hath fought,
Branded with guilt and crushed with treble woes,
A vagabond to Land of Nod he goes.
A city builds, that walls might him secure from foes.

Cain is literally branded by God–a marked man, harried by his curse. He is a builder of defensive cities in the wildernes. He cannot farm fruitfully (the ground that drank the blood he spilled refuses him). He lives in constant fear of attack. It is notable that when Bradstreet contemplates sin (something that must be confronted when asceding to God), she does not identify with Adam and Eve, the traditional figures of original sin but with their cursed child. It is easy to forget that there are two events of ‘casting out’ in the first three chapters of Genesis: first, Adam and Eve, cast out for the “spiritual murder” of humankind, and second, Cain, cast out for the literal murder of his brother Abel.

While the marked outcast has been a perennial theme of literature (e.g., The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.), it has found particular resonance in American literature, particularly American literature of the West. My point is not that Bradstreet established the theme of Cain and Abel that later American writers picked up. I suppose it’s possible, but I think it’s much more interesting to say that there’s something in the American landscape and founding psyche, a kind of inverse of the “city on the hill.”

The story of Cain is built into the founding mythos of America, whose people were cast out of Europe to violently master “uncivilized” land (as de Tocqueville observes, “the happy and the powerful do not go into exile”). Consider Moby-Dick, which, despite being set on the ocean, is arguably a story of the proto-modernization of the American west. Like the descendants of Cain, who first use bronze and iron, whaling ships are mini-factories that subdue and process the raw materials of industrialization. A more recent book that memorably retells the myth of Cain in the American context is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. McCarthy’s Kid, born with an appetite for blood, “a mindless taste for violence,” is the quintessential marked outcast, “branded with guilt” and pursued by the Judge (a kind of Nietzschen Satan).

Bradstreet’s poem also gestures toward another notable American obsession: Armageddon.

 

THE FLESH LUSTETH AGAINST THE SPIRIT

This move to the story of the fall and the first murder are necessary for Bradstreet. Being on the edge of what she knew as civilization, Bradstreet had many chances to reflect upon and enjoy the sights of nature. But one who enjoys nature as she does inevitably confronts the ontological fear of death, the finality that nature itself circumscribes. Human persons are driven by appetites, the “delectable view[s]” that enrapture the senses: these passions are primal, the defining experience of embodied beings–we associate them with life, with vitality itself. But they are also fickle, insatiable in any ultimate sense (“Hell hath no limits nor is circumscrib’d”), and, as both ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy realized, the “untutored” pursuit of the passions enslaves us because it places us in a dimension of constant reflexivity, never resting. This is one of the themes of stanza 17:

And though thus short, we shorten many ways,
Living so little while we are alive;
In eating, drinking, sleeping, vain delight.
So unawares comes on perpetual night.
And puts all pleasures vain into eternal flight.

Human life, already a flash, is lessened by pursuit of life. Night comes and satisfaction recedes into its “eternal flight.” In a manner worthy of Solomon, stanza 17 treats of the vanities of human action and pursuits. And also like Ecclesiastes, this recognition moves the poet to consider how the man’s fleeting pursuits contrasts with the seeming inexhaustability of nature (“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”). The result of this is stanza 18, which, for my money, is one of the more beautiful articulations of the mystery of death in English:

When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
And then the earth (though old) still clad in green,
The stones and trees, insensible of time,
Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen;
If winter come and greenness then do fade,
A spring returns, and they more youthful made;
But man grows old, lies down, remains where once he’s laid.

There are possible echoes of Milton here, but the poem undoubtedly ends with Job:

For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant. But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?

In both Ecclesiastes and Job, as well as in Bradstreet, humanity’s ambition to sate its appetites by nature manifests the limits of human persons, exposing the meaninglessness of such pursuits (“the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.”). The depthless void of man’s appetites cannot be filled, even by nature’s unending renewal: this is the sum of ancient wisdom literature. The pain of this realization, profound as the insight is, cannot lead to Bradstreet’s deep “groan in that divine translation” (the piercing and painful sweetness of holy ecstasy). Such a conundrum forces the question: if man cannot be sated by nature, what can possibly fill him? The obvious answer is God–but Bradstreet does not go there quite yet.

Rather than turning to God, she moves to the undoubtedly zen image of the river: as Siddhartha perfectly demonstrates, the river is an image of the emptiness of Nirvana; it is present at its beginning, middle, and end, and, confounding time, is thus outside of time. It has escaped the vicissitudes of life and therefore can be said to be unchanging, without desire, passionless. Bradstreet addresses the river as “Thou emblem true of what I count the best.” In the river, Bradstreet observes, fish naturally do what they should: “So nature taught, and yet you know not why, / You wat’ry folk that know not your felicity.” The fish is zen; I’m reminded here of Chuang Tzu’s poem, which Merton translated as “The Joy of Fishes.” But, of course, the fish is doubly symbolic as it was the symbol of early Christians. Inasmuch as Christians participate in the life of God, they share the joy of fishes, living in “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.”

All ascetics must go “through the river,” so to speak. Having pierced the wisdom of the river, Bradstreet’s soul is now ready for its final ascension:

While musing thus with contemplation fed
And thousand fancies buzzing in my brain,
The sweet-tongued Philomel perched o’er my head
And chanted forth a most melodious strain
Which rapt me so with wonder and delight,
I judged my hearing better than my sight,
And wished me wings with her a while to take my flight.

For Augustine, sight is the sense of sensual perception (“the lust of the eyes”). Hearing, however, is the sense of faith. Christ told doubting Thomas “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” And Paul says “and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” In Bradstreet’s Christian tradition, God is not made perceptible through sensual perception (“Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”), but only through the testimony of others, through hearing. Bradstreet has been seeing this whole time, observing nature and pondering its sights: this has prepared her heart for what comes by another sense: her soul in the proper state, having reached a sort of Nirvana by the river, can now clearly hear the call of her master’s voice and follow that voice “into a better region, / Where winter’s never felt by that sweet air legion”.

Bradstreet ends the poem, appropriately enough, with an image from Revelation: “he whose name is graved in the white stone / Shall last and shine when all of these are gone.” This is appropriate not simply because it is the end of the poem, the unveiling of all things, but because it channels the apocalyptic geist that has been with America since its inception. The vast and final regions of the United States opened before man a final panorama over which to play out his desire to consume nature. This forces mankind as a whole, like the author of Ecclesiastes, to the “overwhelming question”: “Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new?“ Or, in other words, what possible thing after this? In the narrative of growth and exploration, America is–in a sense–the last step before that narrative ends or must reinvent itself.

When I was 4 or 5, my grandmother loved to ask me where I was from: “Pittsfield, Massachewits” I’d say. Like a sneeze. She took a special delight in my inability to grasp and order all the necessary phonemes. We moved from Massachusetts before I turned 10, before I really appreciated the important literary contributions that state had made to American literature. I do remember visiting Herman Melville’s estate and finding, appropriately enough, an arrowhead half-buried in the ground. Presumably another child lost it after buying it from the gift shop, but that object must’ve buried itself deeply in my psyche because I’ve felt compelled to recover my heritage. There’s Frost and Dickinson, of course; Moby-Dick is becoming a psychic and artistic anchor for me. And more recently, I am growing into deeper relationship with the “small triumphs” of Robert Francis.

It’s part of this Massachusetts ressourcement, I suppose, that I have discovered Anne Bradstreet for myself–a poet with few advocates these days. In my cursory and rather sloppy overview of critical opinion about her, I discovered that she’s read by different critics as proto-Romantic yet also derivative bibliophile, as subversive proto-feminist yet also conformist American Puritan. The contradictory interpretations are to be expected since Bradstreet is an outlier of most received literary groupings. I suspect this is also a reason why–perhaps Berryman aside–she has few advocates. I’m sure all these debates are important in their own ways. But there is one literary grouping–a personal one–of which Bradstreet is definitely a member: she’s a Massachusetts poet.

There’s an ‘essentialist’ definition we can use: the presence of themes and qualities that she shares with other notable Massachusetts writers. Consider the opening stanza of her long poem “Contemplations,” which most critics consider her finest work:

Some time now past in the autumnal tide
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed
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.

Yes, she loves and writes nature in a Romantic manner parallel to Wordsworth, but she also demonstrates a penchant for naturalistic observation more akin to Francis or Frost: meditating on nature as an emblem of the mystery of being. Nature is not romanticized as a means of insight; rather, in the moment of perception, nature is caught up, as it were, in the larger schema of what is. The human eye becomes the means of transfiguration. Bradstreet fuses this tendency with the extended metaphysical conceits–similar to Donne, of course, but also similar those Dickinson was so fond of using. For example,

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.

Like Dickinson’s, Bradstreet’s psyche becomes a space in which the author roams and encounters thinking as a series of events along the journey.

There’s also a less essentialist definition to this term: “Massachusetts poet” can loosely gesture toward the in-betweenness of Bradstreet, in the same way that Massachusetts was at the intersection of two empires. Bradstreet was steeped in classical education, yet she lived on the frontier–almost beyond the reaches of the civilization that shaped classical sensibility. In this space, readers can recognize that Bradstreet works with themes and images that come to fruition in later American literature.

In this series of posts, I want to do a reading of Bradstreet’s poem “Contemplations” and trace these two aspects of Bradstreet’s “Massachusetts”-ness in order to achieve a few broad goals:

1. Interpret Bradstreet as an intersection point between a more classical and modern poetics, between old and new world. Doing this may help modern readers appreciate where we are in contemporary poetics as well as where we’ve been.
2. Help readers appreciate how Bradstreet foresaw many future American literary impulses.

THE FORM & ITS FUNCTION

I think one hurdle for modern readers is that Bradstreet’s thematic interests and method of exploring those interests has more in common with pre-modern sensibilities. This is a really broad statement, but it’s mostly accurate if you squint your eyes right. The way we moderns conceive of the self is entirely different. Read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self if you’re interested in more of this. I’m more interested in how this understanding of self affects contemporary poetics. Here’s how I see these shifts affecting contemporary readers: modern readers prefer speakers with highly individualized voices, because moderns have a more privatized sense of inner life, of the irreproducability of individual experience; we associate highly individualized voices with “genuine” feeling. 

Not so much for the pre-moderns. I’d argue that this sensibility is still evident in folk music. The speaker could easily be you or me; the singer may inhabit a voice and the performance makes it individualized, but a different performance is a different individual. The words and themes are a bit like generalized grooves into which singers pour the real individualized feeling. This isn’t to say that Bradstreet’s poem is “pre-modern” in the sense I describe above, only that it shares some of those sensibilities. One area where this understanding is important is when exploring the form of Bradstreet’s “Contemplations” because it helps readers see the poem on its own expectations.

“Contemplations” is composed of 33 individually numbered seven-line stanzas, each a sort of self-contained half-sonnet or modified rime royal. The stanza is composed of a quatrain of alternating rhyme pattern (ABAB) followed by a fully-rhymed tercet (CCC). Generally, the quatrain seems to pose an emblematic idea or image to ponder, and the tercet, with its triadic finality, deepens one’s perception of the image by drawing some conclusion or responding to it. In this pattern the form is indeed similar to the sonnet, yet this stanza simply does not have the room to sustain the intellectual acrobatics (read: the stamp of individualism) of traditional sonnets. Moreover, the sense of conclusion is more final and mysterious than, say, the standard Shakespearean couplet, which often feels provisional at best (that’s a feature, not a weakness). Also notable is that while the first six lines are iambic pentameter, the 7th line is alexandrine.

The lines are incredibly well-wrought in places, her voice working within but also freely moving across her form. The language is so formally satisfying at times that one can float right by the wonderful strangeness of some lines: “All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath.” That line, in addition to its strong intimations of Dickinson, suggests perhaps that Bradstreet’s feelings have yet to dissociate from sensibility, a rupture that Eliot pins on Milton, an almost contemporary of Bradstreet. There are, indeed, moments when Bradstreet, like the metaphysical poets, feels her thinking.

But unlike the Metaphysicals, Bradstreet’s “feeling knowledge” is not focused on the almost sensual pleasures of thought–and it is here here we must temper our modern expectations. I would argue that the goal of this form is geared less toward solving problems and more toward contemplation (surprise!): of an emblem, an icon, a mystery. That is to say, each individual poem-stanza does not achieve resolution, does not try to rectify infinite paradoxes within the vanishing point of the individual. The form extends beyond the insight-inducing koan, but is less focused on the act of thought than a sonnet: thus a critic could rightly call this form “contemplation.” I’ll use this name for it, since I haven’t been able to find any name for the form itself. If Bradstreet did not coin this form, its name seems obscured by time. The only other use of this exact form I’ve been able to locate (and only then after consulting some of the most knowledgeable poets I know on Facebook) is “The Purple Island” by Phineas Fletcher (an obscure find if there ever was one, Joe Weil!). I suppose there is a chance Bradstreet would have known this poem, since she was deeply read and seems to share Fletcher’s affection for didactic poetry. Moreover, the two poems are also works of natural theology, both attempting to come to understanding of the divine through nature and life experience.

The mention of theology brings us to another hurdle for modern appreciation of Bradstreet, but it gives us a chance to see how understanding the form helps overcome this hurdle. Despite her fondness for the natural world, Bradstreet seems to privilege divine revelation. Because of this privileging, critics accuse Bradstreet of a restrictive piety: that her religious convictions bind her to fall back on and rehash the establishment line when the paradoxes of the world become fraught. But I suspect such critics fail to appreciate, on some level, the sense of devotion that Bradstreet was likely to possess. Here an appreciation of the classical influences helps. In this sense, dogma is not merely a code for following, but itself an object worth contemplating, something to be entered into, to have written on one’s heart. If my read on the form of the poem is correct, then we should not approach these as similar to Milton’s attempts to “justify the ways of God to men.” Instead, the end of each stanza is a lot more like the “selah” of the Psalms, a pause inviting reflection rather than demanding an intellectual choice.

Let’s take a specific example and see how this works out. In stanza 31 Bradstreet describes how a sailor that fancies himself himself lord of the seas is forced by a sudden storm to tuck tail between legs and make for port. It’s an image of the sudden and ugly turn of nature. To most readers today, the stanza that follows lands with a pious thud, a theocratic spike in the end zone:

So he that saileth in this world of pleasure,
Feeding on sweets, that never bit of th’ sour,
That’s full of friends, of honour, and of treasure,
Fond fool, he takes this earth ev’n for heav’n’s bower.
But sad affliction comes and makes him see
Here’s neither honour, wealth, nor safety;
Only above is found all with security.

It would be easier to forgive Bradstreet that last bit if were the result of an lyrically compelling passage in which mere force of will somehow wrestled this insight from the nihilistic abyss (as Herbert does in “The Collar,” for example). This preference is a modern bias because of our latent preference for the logical (or at least lyrical) virtuosity of individuals. I think this desire is related to the importance of (what Charles Taylor terms)  ‘moral sentiments’ for modern individuals. In short, an account of reality (in this case a poetic one) must appeal to and satisfy our sense of, say, inner religious longing.

This is not to say that pre-moderns didn’t feel inner longing in the sense that we term it today (in fact, this sensibility is probably found in embryonic form in Augustine, that first modern). But they understood it differently. The source of those sentiments arose from a direct ontological connection. For moderns, this connection is impossible, so the source of sentiments is completely subjective. This is a crucial point because it should change even our subjective expectations of what is poetically ‘satisfying’ in a sympathetic reading of poetry.

Given the icon-like nature of Bradstreet’s poem, it seems then that she should not be judged by how well she navigates these images or marshals them toward a conclusion that satisfies our moral sentiments.  Now we may realize that this stanza is an invocation of a well-tread theme, one she does not try to overcome or even lyrically transcend: it’s about the opposition of the law of nature, with its chthonic demands of ritual sacrifice, to the law of grace and its ability to bestow a peace that passes understanding. We must also note that this poem is not a rejection of life’s pleasures. These pleasures receive a powerful treatment in the poem. We know without a doubt that Bradstreet loved to feast on the “sweet” of life as much as the next poet–if not more (“Rapt were my senses at this delectable view”). If we moderns insist on a glimpse into the world of the writer, we can imagine how bittersweet the final statement is for Bradstreet to affirm: indeed, readers must imagine because that is what the form asks of us: contemplation of that mystery. The force of truth does not come from within but exists in an objective order. One does not believe in that order; one can only recognize it.

In this series, each “contemplation” gathers, one on top of another, like a pile of inscrutable stones. Bradstreet, of course, threads themes and stories across the contemplations; once or twice she even puts the stanzas into direct conversation with one another. But moving through “Contemplations” is more akin to strolling through an ancient church that is full of mosaics or gazing upon an iconostasis. This is the classical bent manifesting itself in Bradstreet. This is not to say the stanza-poem remains in stasis. In fact, the movement of a narrative does emerge: it is the story of the soul’s ascesis (ascent to the divine) through the deepening perception of each stanza.