In “Those Sexy Puritans,” Edmund Morgan argues “Puritan theology placed a high value on the affections, specifically on the love that Christ excited in believers.” Noting that “the most intense love that most people knew or felt was sexual,” in Puritan sermons, like Taylor’s poetry, the conversion experience was naturally analogized to marriage. Christ was bridegroom, the bride a believer of either sex (24). Morgan further observes that “In giving meaning to religious experience, sexual union in return acquired a religious blessing. It was, of course, conferred only on sex in marriage. Christ was a bridegroom, not a libertine. But marriage without sex was as hollow as religion without the fulfillment of Christ’s union with the soul” (25). Biology, religion and the practical linkage of family – all reinforced each other, as a mother’s desire to free her heavy breasts keeps her close to and nurturing her child. The physical isn’t opposed to the spiritual; this is no denigration in Puritan thought. To them, God created natural desires that conform to a greater plan – of course, when those desires are willful and alienated, they thwart the plan. Few subscribe to these beliefs now, but entering their world still helps us understand ours.
David Hackett Fischer describes “[t]he intensity of these Puritan beliefs in the covenanted family as an instrument of larger purposes, and in the instrumental family as primarily a nuclear unit, and also in the nuclear family as a hierarchy of age all distinguished the family customs of New England from other cultures in British America.” (75). These contractual relationships – given the intensely introspective, deeply symbolic, and legalistic turn of mind that characterized New England Puritans – were entered self-consciously and willingly. A New England marriage was civil: banns read, couple married by a magistrate, wedding cake downed with much drinking; then the couple retired to make it real. But the society as a whole remained responsible. A woman no longer held property in her name –as she would if a widow. She could not vote. But a husband who raised his hand or his voice in harsh words would be hauled before the court, punished or fined. Of course, a sharp-tongued or hard-fisted wife would also have to defend herself in court. The community discouraged other temptations.
As Fischer observes, “in their bluff and awkward way, the Puritans cherished true love, and insisted that it was a prerequisite for a happy marriage. The Puritans used the expression ‘falling in love.’ They believed that love should normally precede their marriage. Their courtship rituals were designed to promise this order of events” (79). This meant divorce was more easily granted in New England than in the colonies subscribing to other faiths. But an unhappy marriage was not a marriage. The major reasons for divorce were contracts unfulfilled – impotence or lack of support, adultery, desertion. (Fischer and Morgan) Divorces were as often granted wife as husband; guardianship generally went to the aggrieved. New England couples married late; they were, however, more likely to marry than in other colonies. Easier divorce didn’t mean frequent divorce. Fischer sums up the New England way: “By comparison with other colonies, households throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut included large numbers of children, small numbers of servants and high proportions of intact marital unions” (71).
Bradstreet’s role as wife and mother colors her writing; her allusions are often domestic, even though she can be theologically & historically dense in her formal poetry. Her voice implies sureness and strength of mind. The physical challenges and hardships of starting these colonies in the wilderness coupled with the radical egalitarian view of the Calvinists – we may all sin but our souls are equal – led to relative equality (Morgan argues as more true than any other place at the time). The rough frontier, requiring hard work & personal responsibility, led to equality as well. She is irritated by “carping” that a woman’s place is not with a pen – she knows her worth. Her formal “Prologue” appears to accept but artfully undermines the concept of a “woman’s place.” Her tribute to Queen Elizabeth wittily observes: “Nay masculines, you have thus taxed us long, / But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong. / Let such as say our sex is void of reason, / Know ‘tis a slander now but once was treason.” She respects her father; her family subscribes, as does Taylor, to a more rigid Calvinism than the average colonist. Her father challenged Winthrop’s authority, arguing for harsh purity.
Her poetry is also archetypal. The broad pattern Patrick Colin Hogan finds in narratives across continents and centuries appears in the form of the poems to her husband, implicitly these lyric poems are part of the tale of lovers parted. But specific beliefs to their culture come from the conversion process itself – deeply analytic, self-conscious. More women than men underwent those steps and literature is full of these narratives – today, their abstract spirituality frustrates, ignoring the material details we long to know of their daily lives. We also learn little of husbands and children, minor players in their spiritual dramas. Each path was individual – if stylized. And Bradstreet’s is no less complex, full of spunk & humility, learning & domesticity.
An occasional student says Bradstreet was unusual because she loved her husband; some believe she didn’t – reading these as heavily ironic. Both seem doubtful. She was unusual because few can write as well. She was the first poet in America (the qualifier woman can be added but is meaningless in this instance). Her works have seldom been out of print. She was educated by a loving and well-read father who enjoyed her art. She and her husband were probably unusually complex – he, too, was well educated, represented the colony abroad, became a respected governor. Their relationship appears heartfelt, sharing a family but also a religion that led them to that frontier, submerged in that belief perhaps but with the will that led her to write and him to govern. Their spiritual, intellectual, and familial interests must have been entwined and made their marriage strong. Did that make their love greater than that of less gifted couples?
Some students have a nervous tic: they categorize all women writers as victims. These tics annoy me, but they also sadden: as the Marxists would alienate class from class, some follow the false prophets of gender – and man is alienated from literature, woman from man, students from the past. And all from respect and empathy.
Still, some understand. Every semester, I hear “Ah, I want a love like that.” Couples then – and always – loved. Tin pan alley can be wiser than modern criticism. We believe art comes from an experience of truth; perhaps. At least, we acknowledge at its best it portrays reality – one our words are less likely to capture but that we know at gut level. The plain style – the “perspicuous” – has strengths: words remain familiar as the diction of her formal, more theological and historical poems, does not; hers is the charm of German over Latin, short over long, concrete over abstract. A quiet, certain voice foregrounds truth. Below are her poems to her husband. All conclude with the promise of love enclosed in this world & those couplets, human love enclosed in infinite love.
To my Dear and Loving Husband
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
A Letter to Her Husband – Absent upon Public Employment
MY head, my heart, mine eyes, my life, nay more,
My joy, my magazine, of earthly store,
If two be one, as surely thou and I,
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lie?
So many steps, head from the heart to sever,
If but a neck, soon should we be together.
I, like the Earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in’s zodiac,
Whom whilst I ‘joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,
His warmth such fridgid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return, return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father’s face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest.
Where ever, ever stay, and go not thence,
Till nature’s sad decree shall call thee hence;
Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,
I here, thou there, yet both but one.
As loving Hind that (Hartless) wants her Deer,
Scuds through the woods and Fern with hearkening ear,
Perplext, in every bush and nook doth pry,
Her dearest Deer might answer ear or eye;
So doth my anxious soul, which now doth miss,
A dearer Deer (far dearer Heart) than this.
Still wait with doubts and hopes and failing eye;
His voice to hear or person to descry.
Or as the pensive Dove doth all alone
(On withered bough) most uncouthly bemoan
The absence of her Love and Loving Mate,
Whose loss hath made her so unfortunate;
Ev’n thus doe I, with many a deep sad groan,
Bewail my turtle true, who now is gone,
His presence and his safe return, still wooes
With thousand doleful sighs and mournful Cooes.
Or as the loving Mullet, that true Fish,
Her fellow lost, nor joy nor life do wish,
But lanches on that shore there for to dye,
Where she her captive husband doth espy,
Mine being gone I lead a joyless life,
I have a living sphere, yet seem no wife;
But worst of all, to him can’t steer my course,
I here, he there, alas, both kept by force.
Return, my Dear, my Joy, my only Love,
Unto thy Hinde, thy Mullet and thy Dove,
Who neither joys in pasture, house nor streams,
The substance gone, O me, these are but dreams,
Together at one Tree, O let us brouse,
And like two Turtles roost within one house.
And like the Mullets in one River glide,
Let’s still remain one till death divide.
Thy loving Love and Dearest Dear,
At home, abroad and everywhere.
Phoebus make haste, the day’s too long, be gone,
The silent night’s the fittest time for moan;
But stay this once, unto my suit give ear,
And tell my griefs in either hemisphere.
(And if the whirling of thy wheels don’t drown’d)
The woeful accents of my doleful sound,
If in thy swift carrier thou canst make stay,
I crave this boon, this errand by the way,
Commend me to the man more loved than life,
Show him the sorrows of his widowed wife;
My dumpish thoughts, my groans, my brakish tears
My sobs, my longing hopes, my doubting fears,
And if he love, how can he there abide?
My interest’s more than all the world beside.
He that can tell the stars or ocean sand,
Or all the grass that in the meads do stand,
The leaves in th’ woods, the hail, or drops of rain,
Or in a corn-field number every grain,
Or every mote that in the sunshine hops,
May count my sighs, and number all my drops.
Tell him the countless steps that thou dost trace,
That once a day thy spouse thou may’st embrace;
And when thou canst not treat by loving mouth,
Thy rays afar salute her from the south.
But for one month I see no day (poor soul)
Like those far situate under the pole,
Which day by day long wait for thy arise,
O how they joy when thou dost light the skies.
O Phoebus, hadst thou but thus long from thine
Restrained the beams of thy beloved shine,
At thy return, if so thou could’st or durst,
Behold a Chaos blacker than the first.
Tell him here’s worse than a confused matter,
His little world’s a fathom under water.
Nought but the fervor of his ardent beams
Hath power to dry the torrent of these streams.
Tell him I would say more, but cannot well,
Oppressed minds abruptest tales do tell.
Now post with double speed, mark what I say,
By all our loves conjure him not to stay.