Unless we’re toiling away in an English PhD program, most of us don’t pause in our daily lives to read poetry– to read anything closely, really. We might scrutinize a job offer or rental contract, or devour a Facebook feed. Seldom, however, do we allow ourselves to pause over a verse, to wade into a line of poetry or prose and stop, feeling the chill, or the sting, or the pleasure of a series of words, before moving on.
Every month, “Versing Clio” will feature a poem from the American canon that integrates gender, history, and medicine.
This series is less about figuring the “meaning” of a poem– of cracking open a poem’s shell to find a juicy moral that might be hiding inside– than about locating and considering moments of interest or ambiguity that might come to bear on our understanding of gender, history, and medicine.
This month, we turn to Anne Bradstreet’s elegies for her grandchildren. Bradstreet, a Puritan immigrant to New England, lived and wrote in a Cambridge, Massachusetts starkly different from the Cambridge that I know and love. Bradstreet’s 17th-century Cambridge was a town of hypothermic, heatless winters rather than a city of hipster intellectuals. In Bradstreet’s Cambridge, innovators focused their attention on primal subsistence needs and disease prevention, rather than the high-tech labs and startups of our contemporary city. It was in this setting — one doubtless characterized by fear, loneliness, and loss (especially for a woman) — that Bradstreet penned her poetry.
The wife of a prominent minister, and deeply involved in her religious community, Bradstreet wrote exclusively religious material. Pious, clever, and always self-deprecating, Bradstreet dedicated her verse to God and sometimes flirted with danger by surrendering herself to the sensual beauties of the natural and material worlds.
My favorite of Bradstreet’s poems, though, is not one of her paeans to the divine or one of her odes to the natural beauty of the New World. My favorite set of Bradstreet’s poems, rather, is arguably the saddest and most tragic. By the age of 57, Anne Bradstreet had already suffered the deaths of three grandchildren in the span of four years. She wrote elegies for each of them — the tension, anger, and sadness palpably mounting in each poem, despite an almost-forced resignation of power to the Almighty.
The heart-wrenching elegy that Bradstreet writes for her final grandchild, who died an infant, is entitled “On My Dear Grandchild Simon Bradstreet, Who Died on 16 November, 1669, Being But a Month, and One Day Old.” She laments:
The measured rhythm and formality of this short elegy function as a cage might try to contain or restrain a wild animal. The wild animal — in this case, Bradstreet’s grief and anger at the Almighty — aches to get out and find expression, but is confined by the strict couplets of iambic pentameter. Even so, Bradstreet’s formal strictures fail, at moments, to rein in the sadness of a grandmother mourning her third dead grandchild. The poem starts out in easy compliance with iambic pentameter: five standard pairs, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable:
No sooner came, but gone, and fall’n asleep,
Acquaintance short, yet parting caused us weep;
Soon, however, the animal of Bradstreet’s grief begins to shake off the shackles of form. The poem goes on to invoke the painfully recent losses of Bradstreet’s two other grandchildren, likening the babies to flowers, prematurely picked:
This last couplet is almost impossible to speak aloud in such a way that it maps onto iambic pentameter. It might sound something like:
Three flowers, two scarcely blown, the last i’ th’ bud,
Cropt by th’ Almighty’s hand; yet is He good.
That’s the best I could do, but if you speak the lines aloud, you’ll see that it still isn’t quite right. “Flowers” isn’t really one syllable at all, at least in any natural speech pattern I’ve heard. And an iamb is supposed to consist of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable — not the other way around. So when Bradstreet begins the fourth line of her poem with the stressed “Cropt,” it feels surprising — aggressive, even. Between the mouthful of the flower metaphor and the trochaic turn in the following line, Bradstreet seems to freewheel, beginning to lose control of the form that keeps her measured and resigned in her grief.
But, not one to let herself slip too far from the divine presence that anchored Puritan life, Bradstreet quickly arrives at a calm and considered answer to her existential woes. She concludes that, despite the inexplicable child mortality that has plagued her family, “yet is He good.” Even still, her meter eludes perfect piety. The “He” falls on an unstressed syllable (“Yet is He good”), seeming to de-emphasize the power of the Almighty.
These kinds of metrical imperfections persist throughout the remainder of the poem, and they can’t simply be attributed to an inability to draft perfect rhymes or rhythmic constructions. Bradstreet was an accomplished poet, and when she wanted perfect meter, she wrote perfect meter. We must understand Bradstreet’s inconsistencies as clues — windows cracked open to allow glimpses of the grief of a woman who had lost more than a pleasant verse could contain.
Sometimes I like to think about Anne Bradstreet as I wander through the streets of Harvard Square on my way to work, or out to dinner. How might her sorrow, and the sorrow of thousands of mothers faced with infant mortality, have been lessened by modern medicine, by WebMD, or even by a different kind of poetry — one more secular and liberal in subject matter and form? But ultimately, despite the centuries that separate us, not that much has changed since Bradstreet’s time. People still die. Kids — grandchildren, even — still die inexplicably, leaving behind their parents and caregivers. Bradstreet’s elegy cuts at the very heart of what it means for caregivers to face the deaths of loved ones, carrying little more than incomprehension and a promise of faith or divine will. It speaks to a timeless maternal grief, ringing true in the 21st century just as it doubtless did in an earlier age.