«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»
Taking the meditations as a whole, however, a rather different message appears than can be found by examining any individual maxim. Meditations 10, 20, 39, 41, and 63 all cite, in some form, the need to tailor children’s “nurture” to their “nature,” with God, the spiritual father, and human parents invoked by turns as the source of this education. The meditations thus insist upon the figure of the family as both a means of moral and religious instruction, and as instruction’s symbolic seat, bearing out the familial logic of the introduction. To use the old-fashioned poetic terminology, the vehicle of these maxims overtakes the tenor: the lesson here—that the family is the key institution in the instruction of children, and thus the means by which an orthodox religious and national identity are reproduced—is contained not in what is taught, but in how it is being taught.
This lesson offers a novel way around the discursive impasse at work in the debates over the Half-way Covenant. Bradstreet insists upon the instructional role of parents in producing religiously observant children who can follow them to heaven, thereby dodging the suspect claim, associated with Catholicism, that the grace transferred from parent to child at birth was wholly secured by infant baptism. At the same time, Bradstreet’s writing hollows out the content of that instruction, reducing the emphasis on the particular religious customs at work in securing identity and leaving us with the image of the extended nuclear family reunited in heaven. The religious egalitarianism inherent in this vision jars with our conventional notion of the Puritans as an exclusive community of fire and brimstone-breathing bigots, though it fits with the associations made by Weber, and echoed by Armstrong and Tennenhouse among others, between Puritan ideology and the rise and expansion of a bourgeois middle class. Viewed against the rank-based distinctions at work in Morton’s dismissal of the Puritans as unenglish, the social organization imagined by Bradstreet is distinctly flat in character, with uniformity of religious and national identity taken almost for granted, leaving the gendered and generational distinctions between family members as the sole means to differentiate between people.
Even these distinctions are only loosely grounded, since the entire purpose of Bradstreet’s discourse is for each generation to hew to the model offered by the previous one, and thereby remove whatever distinction existed between them. Perhaps by calling upon the conventional distinction between gender and sex I can further illuminate my reasoning here. Compared with many of her contemporaries, both Puritan and otherwise, Bradstreet’s poetry is relatively ungendered, as Bloom’s assessment of her vocabulary would indicate. In a sense, her regendering of politics enables a kind of ungendering, inasmuch as it flattens the distinctions between male and female discourse. I would ultimately suggest, however, that Bradstreet’s writing is not so much ungendered as unsexed—which might well explain what Egan calls the “antiseptic quality of [Bradstreet’s] secular love poems” (88). In other words, while her writing draws upon convenient categorical distinctions such as gender, her purpose in doing so is to produce an embodied reality in which those distinctions no longer exist.
Thus there is a modicum of gendering that slips into Bradstreet’s particular accounts of the qualities fathers and mothers are supposed to inculcate in their offspring—she emphasizes her mother’s ordering of the household in opposition to her father’s role in founding the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for example, though she also draws attention to her mother’s public speaking—but in her poetry these gender differences do not necessarily attach to sexed bodies as such, since they operate first and foremost as rhetorical figures. The titular sisters of the poem “The Flesh and the Spirit,” for example, could easily be made into brothers without any harm being done to the sense.
Ungendered, however, is not unengendered, as Spirit clarifies at the crux of this poem, indicating that she and Flesh are the children of different fathers: one “old Adam” and one “above” (176). With this rhetorical gesture, Bradstreet reverses our conventional arrangement of the real/fictive, literal/figurative poles: she gives us, on the one hand, a literal father, Adam, who is effectively fictive, and, on the other, a figurative father, God, who is the very epitome and apex of being. The key here is her use of an intuitive alignment of embodiment with reality in order to portray the spiritual as a higher reality, which transforms the family into a mere metaphor for the true, spiritual family. And yet, as we have seen above, in becoming a metaphorical model for actual families, the educational family of Bradstreet’s poetry helps to elevate them to the level of the spiritual family.
The rhetoricity of Bradstreet’s gendering is perhaps most apparent in her early poetry, especially “The Quarternions,” a cycle of poems grouped by fours according to their subjects: the four elements and the four humours, for example, each of which is gendered in the course of the poems. The gendered status of elements such as fire and water is, of course, transparently rhetorical. The genderings that interest me most in these poems, however, are those that could more convincingly be linked with sexed bodies. In her verses on the four seasons, for example, Bradstreet portrays “cleanly huswives” with their shelves “fill’d for winter time” (48), and Mowers and Carters toiling in the summer sun (50). While these images clearly evoke a gendered division of labor, they also draw quite consciously upon a tradition of georgic and pastoral poetry extending backwards through Drayton and Spenser to Virgil and Theocritus, as signaled by the “whistling voyce” of the Carter celebrating the end of his work-day, a voice that echoes those of Virgil’s musical shepherds in the Eclogues. Bradstreet, in other words, is carefully following her models in these poems, concerning herself with reproducing an image of an orderly world.
These early poems are also more explicitly political in character, situating Bradstreet’s figure of the integral nuclear family as the site of education in a national context. What these poems show us is the disintegration of the family as emblematic of the disintegration of the nation, with Bradstreet borrowing from Virgil yet again in her depiction of war and famine, and the chaos that follow upon them. Late in the first book of the Georgics, Virgil offers a glimpse of the effects of the intrusion of war upon the
husbandry of the land:
Here the good and evil have changed places: so many wars in the world, so many forms of wickedness, no honor for the plow, farmers conscripted, the mournful fields untilled, and curved pruning hooks are beaten into unbending swords.
Here Euphrates, there Germany goes to war; neighboring cities, flouting the laws they’ve both agreed on, take up arms;
Aside from reversing our conventional image of swords being beaten into ploughshares, Virgil’s poem suggests a fundamental opposition between agricultural production and war. Bradstreet, in the persona of “Earth,” refigures this civil disintegration, imagining “The Corne, and Hay, both fall[ing] before they’r mowne, | And buds from fruitfull trees, before they’r blowne” leading to such dearth that “The husband knowes no wife, nor father sons” (13). Bradstreet’s imagery differs from Virgil’s, then, in giving the destruction of the family a central place in this sequence of events. Yet, while Bradstreet is certainly thinking about gender here, the authority for these figures of speech comes from their place in literary history, not from their connection to some kind of embodied experience.
Inasmuch as Bradstreet does depart from Virgil here, her work slightly reconfigures the symbolic continuum Patricia Seed has shown existed between sexual reproduction and agriculture in English thought at the time of colonization (33-35). Rather than concentrate on sex, Bradstreet underlines the gender roles, showing us the connections between being a husband and husbandry, as it were. Bradstreet’s cursory invocation of rape at several points in her poetry reinforces this unsexing. As Barbara J. Baines notes, the representation of rape in English writing of this period is “always political” since “[s]exual incontinence … is the mark of misrule” (160); in Bradstreet’s case, we might say that rape is in fact only political, since it operates as a symbol of political unrest, rather than being represented as an attack on an individualized, psychologized, and embodied person. Thus, when Bradstreet picks up on the destruction of family as the symbolic destruction of state later in the “Quarternions,” it becomes clear that her attention is focused on the disappearance of the distinctions between different family members, as when the incestuous and fratricidal rapist King Cambyses of Persia is called a “hellish Husband, Brother, Unckle, Sire” (72). This looks like the same fear that the collapse of the categories of identity will lead to political anarchy that we found expressed in Alsop, but given Bradstreet’s flattening of social distinctions elsewhere in her writings, it would be more accurate to read it as the improper reproduction of those categories, though it clearly leads to the very same anarchy.
What are we to make, then, of this strange rhetorical method that elaborates differences only in order to collapse them? Bradstreet’s writings, I have insisted, rely upon a series of figures of speech centered on the symbol of the family. These figures may not be grounded in reality, but they are supposed to help create a reality, to produce the embodiment of a disembodied ideal. By placing the family at the nexus of a network of identity categories, Bradstreet suggests that it is the key to protecting those identities.
Further, by portraying the family as the seat of education, Bradstreet suggests that it is the vehicle for reproducing those identities. All of these threads come together in her ultimate reconfiguration of the symbolic relationship between colony and mother country in “A Dialogue between Old England and New” in such a fashion as to show us the arbitrary nature of the hierarchical distinctions between this and that family member, even as the poem demonstrates the role that family bonds play in opening up the possibility of education as a means to producing an orthodox identity.
In this poem, written at the outset of the English Civil War, Bradstreet deploys many of the same figures that we have already located in her other writings—she represents Germany, in the wake of the Thirty Years War, for example, as a “barren heath” where “people [are] famish’d … Wives forc’d [and] babes toss’d” (144)—but the poem in which she deploys them offers a radical break in the representation of the relationship between colony and metropole. The poem portrays Old England as wounded and weak, and New England as her help-meet, offering advice on how to improve her state. Old England tries to put New in her place by characterizing her as a limb, a symbolic gesture whose significance would not have been lost on Thomas Hobbes and his readers. New England insists, however, that Old has not paid attention to her family duties by allowing Catholicism to spread unabated throughout the continent and paid the price by becoming infected herself. As both Pender and Egan note, this situation reverses the traditional paradigm of mother/daughter relations. Egan puts it best when he asks: “parents are supposed to observe their children, are they not, and when observed, present those children with an example to emulate?” (93) And yet, while Bradstreet’s poem is a departure in this way, it manages to recuperate this transformation by placing it within the rhetoric developed across the course of her poems.
New England can provide Old with an example to emulate only because she herself is emulating the example Old England once offered. Thus, the preservation of identity relies on its being reproduced in an appropriate fashion. That the child teaches the mother in this poem reinforces Bradstreet’s point: English political order has been overturned. Rather than the Maryland imagined in Alsop’s poem, where men give birth to strange halflings of indeterminate sex, New England provides exactly the sort of colony England needs, one destined to offer an example to the mother country precisely because New England’s mothers have raised their children well, according to example.
The copy, in other words, helps to guarantee the perfection of the original.