In Memory of My Dear Grandchild: A Guest Post by Janice Miller Potter

  • This essay was written by Janice Miller Potter and accompanies my own review of her book, Meanwell. Enjoy.

Anne Bradstreet in Winter
By Janice Miller Potter

Deep into a New England winter, I am constantly alert to possible shortages of food and water, wood and oil, batteries and blankets. Over my mouselike housewivery, the cosmic diminishment of sunlight and of time itself Works of Anne Bradstreetpresides relentlessly, impersonally. The specter of death trespasses through the snowy woods behind my house; and in acknowledgment I pause briefly in my tracks. There is nothing I can do about it.

In moods like this, I reach for my blue-covered volume of Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). I find a comfort, or at least a compatriot, in our first housewife-poet. In her best poems, I discover, again and again, an unpretentious woman dealing honestly with the harsh realities of her life and faith. This meditative woman, who had no time during the day for writing, let alone dreaming, was intimate with the brutal shortness of life that winter reenacts, in the human mind, like an elegy.

Elegy informs Bradstreet’s poems because death was a constant specter in seventeenth-century New England. As she personally witnessed, many children failed to survive childhood, due to the effects of disease, famine, cold, fire, primitive medicine, and the many accidents that lurk in a wilderness. Childbirth, both desired and feared by Bradstreet who gave birth eight times, claimed a shocking number of lives with the deaths of mothers and infants. Add to these calamities the regular threats of Indian attacks and Puritan witch-purges. At best, a long life in the New England colonies must have seemed the inexpicable grace of God. (Bradstreet’s “dear and loving husband,” Simon, survived her by twenty-five years and remarried.)

Enduring cold comforts in life and a view of death as Salvation for God’s elect, I’ve wondered: could these Puritans have been inured to the deaths of so many children, or even personally welcomed death?

My reading of Anne Bradstreet’s poems suggests that, to this loving Puritan woman, life was a precious, personal gift of God. Moreover, it was a gift that she had very grave difficulty in relinquishing to the Giver. As a good Puritan, she was bound to consider death the channel to Salvation, or eternal bliss. Particularly in closing, her poems repeatedly obligate her to this vision of bliss. But at the same time, her language glistens with very human puritan_mother_childtears. One senses a cloaked perception of unfairness on the part of an “Indian-giver” Creator. Certainly Anne Bradstreet was not inured to the many deaths in her beloved family. One senses that she never got used to writing elegies.

As a young woman, soon to give birth, Bradstreet had written “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” an elegiac poem in which she recognizes the strong chance that she may not survive the ordeal. Even so, her deepest concern is for the future welfare of her small children. She clings to the beauty of earthly life, through them and their future lives. As an older woman, crippled and in physical pain, she was plunged into a series of elegies, for her beloved daughter-in-law Mercy and for several grandchildren, during the catastrophic year of 1669. The most anguished of these elegies is for her own toddler-namesake:

In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet Who Deceased June 20, 1669, Being Three Years and Seven Months Old

With troubled heart and trembling hand I write,
The heavens have changed to sorrow my delight.
How oft with disappointment have I met,
When I on fading things my hopes have set.
Experience might ‘fore this have made me wise,
To value things according to their price.
Was ever stable joy yet found below?
Or perfect bliss without mixture of woe?
I knew she was but as a withering flower,
That’s here today, perhaps gone in an hour;
Like as a bubble, or the brittle glass,
Or like a shadow turning as it was.
More fool then I to look on that was lent
As if mine own, when thus impermanent.
Farewell dear child, thou ne’er shall come to me,
But yet a little while, and I shall go to thee;
Mean time my throbbing heart’s cheered up with this:
Thou with thy Saviour art in endless bliss.

In our day, little Anne would have been nursery school age, nearly a kindergärtner, when she died. Late in 2012, just before Christmas, I attended a musical program at the elementary school in Shoreham, Vermont. When the kindergarteners filed in to sing their carefully rehearsed piece, beaming and waving to their parents, my heart melted. They were chubby little stubs, merry and mischievous, believing in Santa Claus and singing about flying reindeer. A few days later, twenty such little children were shot down by a madman with an assault weapon in Newtown, Connecticut. Buds, dashed in a twinkling. Why? Winter clutched the heart of a nation.

Although the month was June, Anne Bradstreet must have felt winter in her soul when she began this poem for her namesake, her small “delight”: “With troubled heart and trembling hand I write.” She quickly identifies the cause of her trouble; the “heavens” are responsible for changing her delight to sorrow. God has predestined the child’s death; and He has known all along what Bradstreet, with her fragile human vision, could not foresee. To us, if not to Bradstreet, there seems more than a little cruelty in this premeditation.

As she cannot directly challenge God, Bradstreet levels a series of bitterly ironic accusations at herself in the body of the poem: “How oft with disappointment have I met”; “Experience might ‘fore this have made me wise”; “I knew she was but as a withering flower”; “More fool then I to look on that was lent / As if mine own.” Winter, according to Northrop Frye in The Anatomy of Criticism, is the season of irony. Even so, how like us Bradstreet is in her response to disaster. How often have we all said in retrospect that we should have known, that we should have been prepared for some event? We all know about death; ironically, we rarely expect it. In her hand-wringing misery, Bradstreet shows how cruelly God has battered her heart. We are drawn into her loss, empathizing and siding with this doting grandmother who in no way deserves this blow.

Death's Head © Sorsillo

Bradstreet’s self-accusations are interspersed equally with allusions to the slippery temporal world that God has created. It is a world of “fading things,” where humans bank their dearest hopes. It is a place where no “stable joy” is possible, where there exists no “perfect bliss without mixture of woe.” For me, Bradstreet’s most poignant recognition occurs in lines 9-12:

I knew she was but as a withering flower,
That’s here today, perhaps gone in an hour;
Like as a bubble, or the brittle glass,
Or like a shadow turning as it was.

One easily imagines the child’s laughter, an overheard joy followed by stunning silence. Bradstreet makes a statement of “fact”: God has created a flower that withers, a bubble that vanishes in air, a glass that shatters, a shadow that returns into its own immateriality. But the statement implicitly questions. Why? What is the meaning of this wondrous Creation if the goal is simply to be deconstruction, or destruction? Ultimately the appalling impermanence of God’s earthly creatures, especially of those who love one another (mirroring God’s love?), moves Bradstreet, ironically, to reject her own perception of impermanence, or final loss. She bids little Anne farewell, but only until her own death reunites her with the child in an eternal life.

Considering the overt pain and the implicit anger in this poem, the final couplet seems too tame a conclusion, but perhaps only to us in the twenty-first century. Perhaps Bradstreet’s conclusion betrays her consciousness of the Puritan censors at her shoulder. Still, one cannot imagine her really wishing to say otherwise. In spite of disappointment, anger, or even doubt, she would not cross the line into heresy. And so, she declares rather blithely that “Mean time my throbbing heart’s cheered up with this: / Thou with thy Saviour art in endless bliss.”

Cheered up! In Bradstreet time, the phrase probably didn’t ring so hollowly as it does now. She uses the phrase in other poems as well. To me, it sounds like a mother’s chirp to a child who is squalling over a scraped knee. Cheer up. Stop bawling. It will get better. However, Bradstreet’s reference to her still “throbbing heart” implies that her feelings are in conflict with the platitudinous prescription. At the end of the poem, her “throbbing heart” correlates with the emotions of her “troubled heart” at the outset. Through the irrational conundrums of life, death, and faith, Bradstreet’s mind has moved full circle. In this case, her reasoning cannot supply a satisfactory answer to the question—why? The shortness of little Anne’s earthly life continues to pain her.

Anne Bradstreet is loved as a poet because she genuinely loved others: her parents, her husband, her eight children—those “eight birds hatched in one nest”—her grandchildren, her young daughter-in-law. With her time Puritan familyrunning out, she loved her children enough to write a death-bed letter, “To My Dear Children.” The letter is a confession of the difficulty she has had in keeping her religious faith. Her confession of doubt is startling. She writes: “I have often been perplexed that I have not found that constant joy in my pilgrimage and refreshing which I supposed most of the servants of God have.”

Written in a state of weakness and pain, her letter describes her past mental torment, predicated on a conflict that she has felt between God’s willingness to love her and her own ability to receive that love: “Yea, oft have I thought were I in hell itself and could there find the love of God toward me, it would be a heaven. And could I have been in heaven without the love of God, it would have been a hell to me, for in truth it is the absence and presence of God that makes heaven or hell.” Her words are reminiscent of Milton’s summation of the tortured mind in Book I of Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”

Bradstreet’s letter to her children continues: “Many times hath Satan troubled me concerning the verity of the Scriptures, many times by atheism how I could know whether there was a God.” To the end, it troubles her that she has never seen any miracles to confirm God’s existence. She seems temporarily to have forgotten the miracle of birth and survival. Certainly God had not intervened to save her three-year-old granddaughter from untimely death. Finally, Bradstreet concludes that it is reason—not faith—that has confirmed her belief in God: “That there is a God my reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see, the vast frame of the heaven and puritan mother & childthe earth, the order of all things, night and day, summer and winter, spring and autumn, the daily providing for this great household upon the earth, the preserving and directing of all to its proper end.” Her mind has made a heaven of what could easily be perceived as a hell.

Now, in this wintry season, the rhythmic passages of time resemble the progress of Anne Bradstreet’s “throbbing heart.” They guide us through both painful and blissful events, both life and death, in our “great household.” For some, including myself, the seasons provide evidence of the miracle of creation. For Anne Bradstreet, harsh winter was a prelude to spring, in more ways than one.

January 21, 2013