«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»
Such a combination of emergence and conservation is in truth what predicates the recursivity of this discursive process. If Bradstreet opens up a new representational space in her portrayal of families as the site of education, it is precisely in order to collapse the distance between representation and embodied reality so as to better preserve Puritan religious identity—a religious identity, it should be noted, upon which English national identity, in Bradstreet’s understanding, depends. The religious aspect of Bradstreet’s writing should, in particular, signal to us the fraught representational dynamics at work here. As Jim Egan notes, “Bradstreet never presumes to overcome the absolute difference between spiritual and material states of being” (89). And yet, Bradstreet uses writing to repeatedly stage that difference and its collapse, engaging in an iterative calculus by which the material is symbolically brought towards the divine without erasing the difference between them. Textual representation becomes an intermediate space between the spiritual and the material, allowing for a metaphorical translation to take place between the two. This translation follows a chiasmatic logic: the written word occupies the place of the material vis-à-vis the spiritual, while taking that of the spiritual in opposition to the material.
Taking Bradstreet’s poems to her husband as an example of how this dynamic plays out, we might, at first glance, note several passages that seem to argue for an embodied reality behind the text. In “Before the Birth of one of her Children,” for example, Bradstreet closes with the lines “And kiss this paper for thy loves dear sake, | Who with salt tears this last Farewel did take” (179). These words invite us to imagine Simon Bradstreet sitting at his writing desk, his eyes fixed upon a pair of small blotches on the paper that record the traces of this sentiment, adding to them himself as he mourns the death of his wife. As Gary Schneider reminds us, however, these words are part of “a specialized epistolary rhetoric” that produces in its recipient an “imaginative sympathy so that epistolary contact maintains communicative and affective integrity and efficacy” (33); in other words, their focus is not on representing reality so much as producing it. Further, as Gina Bloom argues, the very composition of these poems is not simply “a display of affection” but, “in fact, a duty” (116), prescribed by such Puritan ministers as William Gouge. Bradstreet’s poems, then, convey not only a personal meaning, but also a larger social and religious meaning. Though certain lines in these poems evince a Donnian syntax—“If ever two were one, then surely we”—her depiction of the relationship between husband and wife primarily operates in dialogue with writings about love and marriage in genres that more explicitly intervene in contemporary political debates— sermons, religious tracts, and conduct manuals. As Bloom demonstrates, drawing most deeply on the writings of the Puritan minister William Gouge, who had a strong influence on the religious views of the New England Bradstreets, this dialogue is truly a two-way affair. Bradstreet, she notes, often uses vocabulary that Puritan marriage doctrine suggests is inappropriate for wives to apply to their husbands, such as “dear” and “love,” since these terms imply equal status, rather than placing the man at the head of the family (123). This reconfiguration of the marital hierarchy suggests some of the emergent aspects of Bradstreet’s rhetoric, particularly her feminization of political discourse, as seen in her “In honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth” and her “Dialogue between Old England and New.” Yet, for all Bradstreet tweaks the rhetoric of marital love here, the primary message these poems communicate remains a thoroughly conservative one. At a mundane level, the poems insist on the need for a married couple to live together, something which the Puritans greatly encouraged as a means to “avoid fornication” (1 Corinthians 7:2, cited in Bloom 117). Likewise, in “Before the Birth,” Bradstreet indicates that a major role of husband and wife is to raise their children and protect them from harm, imprecating her husband to “Look to my little babes my dear remains” and “protect [them] from step Dames injury” (179). Finally, the poems position marriage as a means for conceptualizing abstract religious issues; thus, in “To my Dear and loving Husband” and “A Letter to her Husband, absent on Publick employment,” Bradstreet repeatedly invokes the absent presence of her husband, obliquely figuring the absent presence of God Himself.
As Bloom notes, “[m]atrimony, for the Puritans, was more than the sum of its parts. It was the primary way in which humans could embrace the full grace of God, and it was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit” (116). In this sense matrimony is like writing, since it serves as an intermediate term between the material world and the spiritual one, bringing the two into a metaphorical relationship, just as her husband becomes the “sweet Sol” who warms her “earth” in the “Letter to her Husband” (181). And Bradstreet’s writing itself serves to reinforce the institution of marriage in two ways, as Bloom (again drawing upon Gouge) notes: firstly, by “manifesting” the “mutual concern” of Bradstreet and her husband for each other, and, secondly, by “effecting” that selfsame concern (Bloom 119, citing Gouge 135). These two terms correspond to the two movements in the chiasmatic process of representation at work in Bradstreet’s writing: the integrity of their marriage is manifested in the transformation of the material into the spiritual, and effected by the movement from spiritual to material. What Bradstreet teaches us, then, in these poems is that producing and maintaining the proper relationship between husband and wife helps to bridge the difference between the spiritual and material, a message further reinforced by the rhetorical implication of “Before the Birth” that the speaker speaks from beyond the grave.
As her marriage poems already begin to show us, the key figure of Bradstreet’s rhetoric of education is the integral nuclear family. This figure is most explicitly delineated, however, in a series of poems written upon the death of her parents, children, and grandchildren. Because these poems deal with death, which in Bradstreet’s conception quite literally represents the translation from the material world into the spiritual, they offer a perfect vehicle for her to convey the importance of education as a means of achieving a successful movement from earth to heaven, and maintaining the integrity of the family. Though the general tenor of these poems is the acceptance of God’s will—so emphatically expressed that modern readers may be hard-pressed to see anything else in them—they are in fact quite prominently marked by emotive touches that evince her symbolic investment in her family. Thus, in a poem dedicated to one of her grandchildren, she writes “[w]ith troubled heart & trembling hand” before coming at length to the conclusion that her “throbbing heart” should be cheered by the fact that the child is “with [its] Saviour … in endless bliss” (187). With Schneider’s observations about the epistolary rhetoric of sympathy in mind, the purpose of these figures becomes clear: Bradstreet provides a model, here, for how one ought to behave as a member of a family, seeking to reproduce the appropriate attitudes in her audience, and thereby produce communal integrity through the symbolic reintegration of the family in heaven.
Taking these “epitaph” poems as a group, however, we find that Bradstreet hardly takes the ease of moving from one realm to the other for granted, particularly when the “translation” of an entire family is at stake. In them she often struggles to account for God’s actions in a rhetorically effective fashion. In the end, Bradstreet is often left with the mere blandishment that all her dead relations must be in heaven, reunited for eternity, though a note of doubt slips into the poem for her son when she says that her daughter-inlaw is “[a]ll freed from grief (I trust) among the blest” (189). At one level this line can certainly be read as a doctrinally appropriate indication of the limits of embodied human knowledge; at another, however, it speaks to the potential, and problematic, divide between God’s will and the continued unity of the family.
The question of whether saving grace could be transmitted from parent to child was one of the most hotly contested in Puritan New England in the seventeenth century. The material effects of this theological debate appeared in a series of controversies over the main sacraments of the Puritan church: baptism, communion, and, most particularly, the recounting of a religious conversion experience. In authorized Puritan practice before 1662, only the children of full members of the church could be baptized, receiving the grace transmitted thereby, and full church membership was extended only to those who could account for their spiritual regeneration sufficiently well to receive the approval of other church members. At the Cambridge Synod of 1662, however, the Puritan community in New England accepted what was known as the Half-way Covenant, which allowed for the baptism of children of covenanted church members—those, that is, who had received baptism themselves, but not produced a conversion narrative. The “halfway” of the Half-way Covenant refers to the fact that baptism was understood by the Puritans as offering merely the “conditional promise” of God’s grace, so that baptized children were only “half saved” (Morgan 91). Despite the acceptance of the Half-way Covenant at the Synod, the issue remained contentious throughout the remainder of the century. Thus Solomon Stoddard argued for further liberalization at the Reforming Synod of 1679; meanwhile, Cotton Mather was still lobbying conservative members of the Second Church to accept the Half-way covenant in 1692 (David Levin 194-5).
Against this discursive background, the symbolic difficulty Bradstreet has negotiating between her relationship to her family and her relationship to God in her “epitaphs” comes as little surprise. These poems evince her ongoing anxiety about the relationship between the material and the spiritual, raising the question of how best to move from one realm to the other when the absolute difference between them, however symbolically reduced, remains intact. If death alone is for Bradstreet hardly a sufficient means for moving properly from one state to the other, then birth, too, is no guarantor of heaven, a point most clearly expressed in one of Bradstreet’s “Meditations Divine and Morall,” in which she points out that “good parents have had bad children, and … bad parents have had pious children” (206). Thus, while many of Bradstreet’s poems downplay the significance of experience, she repeatedly insists upon the role of education as a means for securing grace.
Bradstreet’s epitaphs to her parents offer the most compelling evidence in this regard. In “To the Memory of my dear and ever honoured Father” Bradstreet calls him “my Father, Guide, Instructor too” (165), language echoed in “An EPITAPH on my dear and ever honoured Mother,” where the latter is called “A true Instructer of her Family” (167).
Both poems go on to list the good behaviors and deeds of Bradstreet’s parents, and the poem to her father ends by rhetorically closing the gap between the embodied world of the family and the spiritual one, “[h]is pious Footsteps, followed by his race, | At last will bring us to that happy place” (166). Ultimately, then, education—or at least the rhetorical invocation of education—plays the role that experience does for Bacon: the role of parents as instructors to their children is to provide examples that they can follow into heaven.
If I insist here on the possibility of reading these poems as though they were only invoking education rather than actively educating, it is at least in part because of the tentative, even self-effacing, qualities of Bradstreet’s own instructive writings to her children. In the introduction to her manuscript “Meditations Divine and Morall,” she explicitly “avoyd[s] incroaching upon others conceptions because [she] would rather leave [her children] nothing but [her] owne, though in value they fall short of all in this kinde” (195). Bradstreet, then, would seem to be disavowing the practical effectiveness of her instruction: her children, she says, could find better elsewhere. Yet she quickly flips this logic on its head by pointing out that, as she is their mother, her teachings are likely to “be better pris’d by [her children,] for the Authors sake” (195). With these words, Bradstreet positions herself at the center of her children’s education, asserting that sentimental attachment supersedes any consideration of value or merit. Indeed, given the understanding of education expressed in her epitaphs upon her parents, we might better say that this sentimental attachment is of the highest value to a successful religious and moral education, since the salvation of the children depends upon the model provided by their parents.
The meditations themselves rely heavily on the common symbolic strategies of proverbs and parables, particularly on analogy and extended metaphor. Thus, in the fourth meditation, Bradstreet portrays the danger of having great intellectual capacities but little grace as that of a speeding sailboat with little ballast: both are at risk of foundering.