American poetry of the seventeenth century as a reflection of a Puritan's character
From high school history textbooks we know that Puritans were a very religious group that managed to overcome the dangers of a strange land. But who really were those people? How did they live? What did they think and dream about?
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14 February 2006
American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century as a Reflection of Puritan's
An Analysis of “Upon Wedlock, and the Death of Children” by Edward Taylor and “Upon the Burning of Our House” by Anne Bradstreet
How much do we know about the first settlers? We know that they started to arrive in New England in the first part of the seventeenth century. We also know that many of them were Puritans. From high school history textbooks we know that Puritans were a very religious group that managed to overcome the dangers of a strange land. But who really were those people? How did they live? What did they think and dream about? What were the most important things in their lives? I think that works of seventeenth century Puritans' authors will help us to answer these questions. Let us take some poems of Ann Bradstreet and Edward Taylor as examples.
Edward Taylor, who for many years was a priest in a small frontier town, left behind many writings. I think that the poem Upon Wedlock and Death of Children shows the poet's character the best. The poem devoted to two the most important things in Taylor's life: his family and religion.
From the first lines of the poem we can see a deep love of the author for his wife. He compares their marriage to a “True- Love Knot, more sweet than spice, and set with all the flowers of Grace's dress” (356). The use of the phrase “more sweet than spice” is very touching, in my opinion, because it shows the Taylors as a normal, loving couple that time after time had some “spicy” moments in their live (356). Nevertheless, they love each other and the poet describes their marriage as a “Wedden's knot, that ne're can be untied: no Alexander's Sword can it divide (356).” Comparing the marriage with a “Gordian Knot,” Taylor shows the strength of the union between his wife and himself (356).
Further on in the poem, Taylor writes about his children. We can see a happiness of the father when the author compares himself with a plant whose “stock […] knotted and manly flower out brake” (357). This is how he describes the birth of his son. And later, “ my [Taylor's] branch again did knot, brought out another flower” this time the writer speaks about his daughter (357). Taylor sees himself as a plant, and his children are the most beautiful part of that plant: flowers. Moreover, they are one organism with their father, and the flowers cannot be separated from the stem without pain.
Nevertheless, some of his children die. This is how Taylor describes the death of his child: “at that unlooked for […] darksome hour […] a glorious hand […] did crop this flower” (357). The verb “crop” is used to show how roughly a “flower” was separated from the “stem”; it shows the pain of the father (357). The following lines demonstrate the agony of a parent watching his child dieing, “… oh, the tortures, Vomit, screeching, groans, and six weeks Fever would pierce hearts like stones” (357). We can see how much the poet loves his children.
However, there is something that Taylor values even more than his wife and kids: it is his religion. Taylor seems to believe that the Lord determines humans' destiny, and that God created his family. Taylor writes, “God made in paradise” that “True- Love knot, more sweet than spice (Taylor's marriage),” and “planted” Taylor himself “in that knot” (357). All people are no more than flowers in the garden of God in Taylor's mind. And it is up to Lord to decide whether he “get'st them green, or let them seed” (357).
There is no doubt that Taylor adores his kids, but let us take a look at these lines. While “cropping” the “flowers (children)” Christ “…having Choice, chose this my branch […] Lord take't. I thank Thee” (357). Does it not sound like Taylor is proud and happy that God took his children, and not somebody else's? The poet sincerely believes that his children are in a much better place than earth now. Furthermore, Taylor sees humans as the property of God. “Take [children], Lord, they're Thine,” the poet addresses to God (357). Nothing, even the death of loved ones, can shake the poet's faith.
Not everyone, however, was as orthodox as Taylor. Anne Bradstreet, a famous Puritan poetess, did not write as much about religion as Taylor. Many other things inspired her writing. Some critics even consider the poetess to be a ”disguised rebel” against Puritanism. This point of view is very reasonable. For example, after the death of her grandson, in her poem On My Dear Grandchild Simon Bradstreet, Bradstreet wrote, “such was His [god's] will, but why, let's not dispute” (268). Does not it sound like she did ask God “why”? To question the God! Can you imagine Taylor doing something like this? Let us examine one of Bradstreet's poems to find out if she really was a rebel or not.
When Bradstreet wrote her poem Upon the Burning of Our House, she was fifty-four, an old age at that time. She might have been a rebel when she was younger, but she definitely is not one at that time. Her belief in god is sincere. As soon as she realizes that her house is on fire, she asks the Lord “to strengthen me [Bradstreet] in my distress” (269). Later, when her house has burnt to the ground, Anne is not angry with God at all. On the contrary, she praises him. “I praised His name that gave and took […] it was his own, it was not mine,” the poetess says (270). Taylor uses almost the same words describing the death of his children. Everything belongs to God. The humans' existence on Earth is nothing but a preparation to eternal life. According to Puritans' belief there is no sense n being upset about the burned home because for everyone there is “a house on high erect, framed by that mighty Architect” (270).
The part of the poem describing Bradstreet's burned place is very emotional. I think only a woman could write it. “And here and there the places spy where oft I set and long did lie,” the poetess writes (270). “My pleasant things in ashes lie, and them behold no more shall I,” she also mentioned (270). It seems that the poetess worries more about her memories that were connected with the lost possessions, than about a real price of her belongings.
It is interesting how Bradstreet addresses to her house directly ”under thy roof no guest shall sit, nor at thy table eat a bit. Nor pleasant tale shall e'er be told […] No candle e'er shall shine in thee. No bridegroom's voice e'er heard shall be” (270). The poetess mourns the house like a living being who can no longer be a host. “In silence ever shall thou [house] lie” (270). These lines tell us quite a bit about an every day life of the pioneers. Families would spend their leisure time telling tales (270). A visit of a guest could be a big event in an isolated community (270). That is why the lost of the house for Bradstreet was like the lost of an old and welcoming friend.
The last two lines of the poem are difficult to interpret. “ The world no longer let me love, my hope and treasure lie above” she says (270). Probably, Bradstreet means that she does not have much left to live for, and nothing good is waiting for her in our world anymore. That is why her only “hope and treasure lie above” in the kingdom of God (270).
Anne Bradstreet's poetry broke the rules of the Puritans' world. She appreciates many earthly matters, not only religion. However, I do not think she is a rebel. She understands the limitations of Puritans' society, but I did not find any evidence in her poetry that she wanted to change anything. This is not a rebellion. I think that Bradstreet is a devoted Christian, and believes that everything is in hands of God.
These two poems picture the real life of the first settlers. Unexpectedly, we found out that pioneers were not so differ from us. They, worked, loved, and suffered when their loved ones died. Religion, however, was much more important for them than for modern people. I think that faith helped pioneers to survive in those hard conditions.
Bradstreet, Anne. “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Bayem, 6th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 269-270.
Taylor, Edward. “Upon Wedlock, and the Death of Children.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Byem,
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