When It Was Natural for Parents to Bury Their Children

History gives us breadth: people in action on a grand stage, consequential ideas with great if unforeseen consequences; the demographer’s statistics and tables distil huge movements into tables we can wrap our minds around. But literature, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether reporting or reflecting, chooses a smaller stage. But it also catches that universal in a distilled moment – in the feelings of a narrator, a character. It may be anecdotal but it’s anecdotal accessible to our sympathy. How much have we changed between 1650 and 2012? In some ways, a lot. Fogel’s charts demonstrate that. In some ways, not so much. We remain human.

Puritan poets are not everyone’s cup of tea – the plain style helps them age more slowly, but they are still the product of a culture remarkably different from ours – a frontier, theocentric if not theocratic. But a death in the family is always shattering & love for a mate is timeless. I’ll put up the Bradstreet love poems next week, but for today, let’s look at the consolations poets found in their art & their beliefs with the death of children and a spouse. (And the brevity of these children’s lives may help us better understand how large and intimate the changes Fogel describes have been.) Even if their experiences would be uncommon today, parents may still bury children and we find we understand the poet’s feelings (in hearts we recognize at once) and to a lesser degree how they thought (in minds we enter with more difficulty).

Edward Taylor’s major works were religious, but today we often anthologize his “minor works” (V. 3) Some are clever, youthful acrostics. But, perhaps his finest is the complex “Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children.” Grabo notes this was about the same time he began the Meditations (discussed earlier). The impetus is not a mystical marriage but a real one, not a spiritual sorrow but a familial one. Between 1675 and 1682, two of his daughters died. He structures the narrative (& feelings) in the form he found congenial for the meditations – stanzas of iambic pentameter rhymed ababccc. Each stanza’s firm closure moves the narrative and tension forward – a movement that changes rhythm & tone. The narrator moves from initial light to a dark space, finally, firmly, but slowly and even hesitantly, moving to the subdued, reflected, light of the end.

He begins with a playful pun: the “knot” referring both to, as Patterson glosses, “a flowerbed of intricate design” and the Gordian knot – the marriage bed at once generative and a sign of interwoven commitment. His paternal relation and sense of intimate connection with wife and child is given body, tone still light but becoming stronger, purposeful: he plants his “stock”, engendering a boy, then a girl. The tone slows and saddens with the death of Elizabeth, then becomes stoic. God chose, he tells us. And he accepts what can be justified as an honor to child and man. Reconciled, the pattern repeats – another boy, another girl. Abigail dies, presenting a greater sorrow and even deeper challenge to his beliefs. He agonizes, for in what design, in what plan, could the suffering of the infant be a part? “But oh! the tortures, Vomit, screechings, groans, / And six weeks fever would pierce hearts like stones.” Stoicism is not easy facing such pain in a child. He understands acceptance of God’s will leads to resolution, but, as Grabo observes, “obedience to God’s will is attained with joy, but a clouded joy” (129). Without “dizzying rhetoric,” Taylor “has learned Job’s lesson: he is not to speak from the bitterness of his heart” (130). Here is the poem:

Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children

A Curious Knot God made in Paradise,
And drew it out inamled neatly Fresh.
It was the True-Love Knot, more sweet than spice
And set with all the flowres of Graces dress.
Its Weddens Knot, that ne’re can be unti’de.
No Alexanders Sword can it divide.

The slips here planted, gay and glorious grow:
Unless an Hellish breath do sindge their Plumes.
Here Primrose, Cowslips, Roses, Lilies blow
With Violets and Pinkes that voide perfumes.
Whose beautious leaves ore laid with Hony Dew.
And Chanting birds Cherp out sweet Musick true.

When in this Knot I planted was, my Stock
Soon knotted, and a manly flower out brake.
And after it my branch again did knot
Brought out another Flowre its sweet breath’d mate.
One knot gave one tother the tothers place.
Whence Checkling smiles fought in each others face.

But oh! a glorious hand from glory came
Guarded with Angells, soon did Crop this flowere
Which almost tore the root up of the same
At that unlookt for, Dolesome, darksome houre.
In Pray’re to Christ perfum’de it did ascend,
And Angells bright did it to heaven tend.

But pausing on’t, this sweet perfum’d my thought,
Christ would in Glory have a Flowre, Choice, Prime,
And having Choice, chose this my branch forth brought.
Lord, take’t. I thanke thee, thou takst ought of mine,
It is my pledg in glory, part of mee
Is now in it, Lord, glorifi’de with thee.

But praying ore my branch, my branch did sprout
And bore another manly flower, and gay
And after that another, sweet brake out,
The which the former hand soon got away.
But oh! the tortures, Vomit, screechings, groans,
And six weeks fever would pierce hearts like stones.

Griefe o’re doth flow: and nature fault would finde
Were not thy Will, my Spell, Charm, Joy, and Gem:
That as I said, I say, take, Lord, they’re thine.
I piecemeale pass to Glory bright in them.
In joy, may I sweet Flowers for Glory breed,
Whether thou getst them green, or lets them seed.

After these two, he loses three more children after 1682. But, in 1689, he loses his wife and their mother, Abigail Fitch. In 152 lines, her elegy is structured in three parts. Appropriately (but also painfully), he picks up imagery from 1682. Their fifteen years had clearly deepened his appreciation and respect. The first part is directed upward, the lines beginning “My Gracious Lord, I Licence of thee Crave, / Not to repine, but drop on the Grave, / Of my Deare Wife a Teare, or two.” The loss of the children, he tells us, was better borne with her beside him. Now, it is she, the “yokemate,” who is gone. His pain comes from that union so central to his secular life:

“Some deem Death doth the True Love Knot unty:
But I do finde it harder tide thereby
My heart is in’t & will be Squeez’d therefore
To pieces if thou draw the Ends much more.
Oh Strange untying! It ti’th harder: What?
Can any thing unty a True Love Knot?
Five Babes thou tookst from me before this Stroake.
Thin arrows then into my bowels broake,
But now they pierce in my bosom Smart,
Do Strike & Stob me in the very heart.”

He describes his grief and pleads that he may “tune” his Harp to mourning; without such release his “Vessell Sure will burst” without “this little Vent hole for reliefe.” The second section is addressed to “My Dear, Deare Love.” The last and longest part elegizes her piety and comeliness, her modesty and her willingness to love, correct and comfort their children. She was a dutiful wife; “She laid her neck unto the Yoake he draws: / And was his Faithful Yoake Mate, in Christ’s cause.” To a modern reader, the emphasis upon her dutiful selflessness is likely to be less meaningful – we’ve gone through many changes in how we see the self. This is no Enlightenment poem, even less a Romantic one. A subdued will was a triumph. She was, to herself, her husband, and her family, a model. We may be surprised this complex poet finds pleasure in a wife who had committed Wigglesworth’s long poem to heart, so much that “The doomsday verses much perfum’d her Breath, / Much in her thoughts, & yet she fear’d not Death.” But if we enter his vision, we see the importance of that last couplet – consolation as well as resolution, “proof” of her calm and secure faith. This resolution is earned with difficulty, after an outpouring (a venting) of deep grief; given this “vent,” he turn to praise her. Her presence, objectified & embodied in those rhymed couplets and returning to that old imagery, leads him forward. Contemplating her life, he gains a confidence in her fate that he could never, as a good Puritan, have in his own. Puritans rested in uncertainty, but he passes through his own grief, consoled by a certainty he can rest in.

Let’s conclude with three brief poems by Taylor’s predecessor. In 1668, Taylor arrived in a settled Boston, but called to Westfield (the western most settlement) in 1771, he, too, found a town only just organized. In 1630, Anne Bradstreet arrived early in that first great wave of immigration to a place not quite yet a settlement. Already married to Simon, she longed for children. But by her death in 1672, Bradstreet’s life was comfortable. But, at that point, Taylor was just beginning his life as minister and husband. She was a resilient and witty woman, well-educated and pious – both her husband and father were governors of the colony. Bradstreet had to look across the oeean to Puritan models; Taylor did, too, and dipped into much theology, but he also read Americans – Bradstreet and Wigglesworth. Our first important poet arrived early, was published and read widely, and was a woman. We seldom read her rather ponderous histories today. Her “A Dialogue between Old England and New” – is difficult for the modern reader, not generally steeped in English history. But its date (1642), its dialogue is of a sturdy young lass, related to Mother England but autonomous, joined in values but separated – offering succor. We sense in it an inevitable revolution but an irrevocable bond.

As respected as these more “public” works were, today we appreciate the quiet and intensity of her domestic poems. Following are three on the death of her grandchildren (one in a post several years ago). Some commentary sees these as testimonies less to her submission than to a necessary – formal and public – position in a tightly enclosed colony. Gemerally, they find her resolution unconvincing. Others see it (as they do Taylor’s) as giving (and thereby embracing) an assurance of purpose within the felt chaos. I’m an agnostic, incapable of entering that context; her assurance isn’t easily accessible, the gulf between that time and ours is large. But the path she lays out is clear, described with simplicity. As Grabo noted with Taylor, stoicism offers a stony but steady base. Her resolutions are neither easy nor soft, they aren’t sentimental. As so often the plain style seems true – transparent. It doesn’t pander and it doesn’t sentimentalize. We believe (we trust) the laconic, the precise, the careful – we associate it with integrity, with the Gary Coopers of the world. This may be no less a rhetorical strategy than in the charming carpe diem poems across the Atlantic, but the lack of the flourishes so characteristic of those works makes these seem to come straight to us – for Bradstreet, words are the clear glass through which we can see God’s truth.

In memory of my dear grand-child Elizabeth
Bradstreet, who deceased August, 1665,
being a year and half old.

FArewel dear babe, my hearts too much content,
Farewel sweet babe, the pleasure of mine eye,
Farewel fair flower that for a space was lent,
Then ta’en away unto Eternity.
Blest babe why should I once bewail thy fate,
Or sigh the dayes so soon were terminate;
Sith thou art setled in an Everlasting state.

By nature Trees do rot when they are grown,
And Plumbs and Apples throughly ripe do fall,
And Corn and grass are in their season mown,
And time brings down what is both strong and tall.
But plants new set to be eradicate,
And buds new blown to have so short a date,
Is by his hand alone that guides nature and fate.

In memory of my dear grand child
Anne Bradstreet.
Who deceased June 20, 1669, being three years and
seven Months old.

WIth troubled heart & trembling hand I write,
The Heavens have chang’d 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 flour,
That’s here to day 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.
Farewel dear child, thou ne re shall come to me,
But yet a while and I shall go to thee.
Mean time my throbbing heart’s chear’d up with this
Thou with thy Saviour art in endless bliss.

On my dear Grand-child Simon Bradstreet,
Who dyed on 16. Novemb. 1669. being but
a moneth, and one day old.

No sooner come, but gone, and fal’n asleep,
Acquaintance short, yet parting caus’d us weep.
Three flours, two scarcely blown, the last i’th’ bud,
Cropt by th’ Almighties hand; yet is he good,
With dreadful awe before him let’s be mute,
Such was his will, but why, let’s not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust,
Let’s say he’s merciful as well as just.
He will return, and make up all our losses,
And smile again, after our bitter crosses.
Go pretty babe go rest with Sisters twain
Among the blest in endless joyes remain.

11 thoughts on “When It Was Natural for Parents to Bury Their Children”

  1. When I was in the English cemetery in Istanbul about seven years ago, I took a photo of a gravestone. On it were the names and ages of a couple who had served in the Ottoman Empire as English diplomats. Also on the stone were the names of their five children, all of whom had died before age 10.

  2. Ah … I didn’t realize – really and truly – how perilous was parenthood before the 20th century, until I visited a mid-19th century graveyard. It was a small one; the old Catholic parish graveyard in Fredericksburg, Texas. It was really only in use for about fifteen years at about the time of the Civil War, and there are only about sixty marked graves in it. All but ten of them were of children and babies, some of whom only lived for days or weeks. The most tragic ones to my mind, were those of siblings – of different ages, but from the inscriptions, had died several days apart. An epidemic, I suppose – there was a horrible epidemic of diptheria, which swept through during the Civil War. The local doctor had so many patients to see, that his wife drove his trap from call to call, so that he might get some sleep in between.
    I was quite relieved to see the grave markers of adults. Really I was. Two of them had been killed by Indians, but one couple had managed the feat of dying of apparently natural causes in their seventies.
    There are social historians who claim that – oh, well, they had so many children back then, they couldn’t have grieved too much over loosing one or two. But they did grieve … they were just more stoic about it.

  3. Sorry – I did. I pasted badly, I guess.

    Yes, I remember when I was a child going out to the old Shiloh cemetary – it wasn’t ever incorporated but where my mother grew up and seeing those stones. My grandmother’s twin sisters (?) and her mother died from diptheria in less than a week (in the nineties). Her father was left with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old; he farmed out the kids, though he married twice more. And he took to drink. He was a part of my youth, by then he was in his nineties. He and grandmother would talk, but there was always a distance. They were tough, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t scarred. Like the “stunting” and “premature death” Fogel talks about, they didn’t know things could be better – and I’m not sure we can realize how much worse it was.

  4. Ginny
    My grandmother’s twin sisters (?) and her mother died from diptheria in less than a week (in the nineties).Her father was left with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old; he farmed out the kids, though he married twice more. And he took to drink.

    That resembles what I know of my grandmother’s family. She was an infant when her mother died- also in the nineties.She and her older brother got farmed out. Later remarriage.One difference is that my grandmother’s father died when she was 25. Too much drink? [My father suspected so, judging by my grandmother’s reaction to alcoholic beverages.]

    The aunt who took care of my grandmother for many years ended up living with my grandparents until she died.

    I don’t know what my grandmother thought of her father. She wrote a fond description of her stepmother by her stepmother’s photo in the family history. I do know that she was fond enough of her stepbrother to introduce me to him and his wife when my grandmother was in her seventies.

  5. My mother had a tracheostomy on her mother’s kitchen table at age 2, about 1900, for diphtheria. In those days, general practitioners had to be prepared. There is a similar case described in AJ Cronin’s book about medical practice in early 20th century England. She lived to 103 so it was successful.

    My grandmother had 10 children, all of whom lived to great age. My great grandmother had 12 children, 9 sons, who lived into old age except one who was killed by a horse in 1910. Farmers’ kids were always healthier and still are.

  6. I took my car club up Hwy 20 to the Sierra Summit (if any of you are in the area be sure to take the old hwy 50 road into Donner Lake – spectacular view).

    Anyway long the way, just off the road, is the Maiden’s Grave – the grave of a young girl who died on a wagon train – their family almost made it to their destination

  7. That trek west wasm’t easy – Sgt. Mom knows a good deal more than I do, but this marker was in bicycling distance in my childhood (the grave itself was farther off). This description takes away some of the romance of the stories in our youth – but adds more. And if anything points to Lomberg’s argument of what’s important to do first to “save the world” contemplate the “cholera corridor.” Clean water is a good start. By mid-twentieth century Americans seldom if ever worried about the water here. Sometimes I think our hyper carefulness & belief everything should be safe – refiltered in our homes – makes us more afraid than we should be and obliviious to how far we’ve traveled. I suspect it also affects our senstivity toward the problems in other places – not thinking of a cholera corridor but of the luxury of a refrigerator with cold filtered water.

  8. The dangers on the trail varied, actually – depending on the year. Pre-Gold Rush, the main dangers were of accidents, getting lost and running out of food. Even the Indians were more curious than hostile … and most of those heading West then were families and responsible citizens. (Though there was one man in an early party who was an embezzler escaping the law…) There wasn’t much traffic on the California-Oregon trail year to year, until 1849. After then — it was Katy-bar-the door. Given limited water sources along the trail, the sheer numbers of people just made any kind of sanitary measures almost impossible, especially after the cholera hit.
    Drinking coffee almost exclusively likely helped save a great many pioneers … having to boil water to make it, you see.

  9. Sgt – if you go up to Virginia City NV you still see so many mining accidents – and death by pneumonia. Apparently 1000s of feet below it is so hot down there that the miners would work 30 minutes then to to a room with ice just to cool down.l For 15 minutes. Pneumonia got a lot of them.

    In Sacramento at the old cemetery – cholera (as you said) and boiler explosions. Lots of boiler explosions from the riverboats.

    The city used to flood regularly until they built the levees high enough. You can still see old Victorian houses built 8′ imn the air – all front doors were at the end of an 8′ flight of stairs.

  10. Sgt – I must amend this post – in the historic cemeteries – at 05:44 i am still trying to get awake (as much as I can anyway ;-))

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