Sunday, July 10, 2011

Anne's House, Our House

Remembering Goodwife Bradstreet, homes lost and homes found, on the 345th anniversary of a personal calamity.

Even now I can see that house burning. The fire, a huge orange sheet, sweeps up toward the New England night, overrunning the wood, glass and thatching, gray smoke against a black sky. Clothing writhes, curls and blackens amid the overpowering heat. I'm stunned by the quietness of the destruction, which is punctuated by occasional crackling and the songs of crickets.
I wasn't there, of course. But Anne Bradstreet was. She would have been about 54 years old. She labeled the poem she later wrote with this heading: “Here followes some verses upon the burning of our house, July 10, 1666. Copeyed out of loose paper." The "loose paper" is evocative; it's as if she literally or figuratively grabbed a fragment of the ruins and tried to inscribe her memory on them, to somehow preserve what was irretrievably lost.
She knew she couldn't bring that house back. And deep down, she knew that she shouldn't be trying. In essence, that’s exactly what her poem was about.

And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine . . . .

The problem is that she does repine. She saying all the right things: that the house was never really hers to begin with, that all glory should go to God, that while his ways may be difficult to understand, they are always right – period. And yet as the poem proceeds, it's clear that she can't quite let the matter rest.

Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.

It's a heartbreaking scene – and one that bristles with tension. I picture her as she pictures herself, walking among the ashes. No no, she saying, it doesn't bother me a bit that this place I loved has gone up in smoke. I won’t miss the furniture, or my trinkets, or the company of friends and family that gave it life. More importantly, my faith is so secure that I need not grieve for it. Really.

No pleasant talk shall 'ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle 'ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, All's Vanity.

Bradstreet didn’t want to come to America. Born in Northampton, England in 1612, she had been a child of relative privilege. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was a skilled manager who had transformed the balance sheet for Earl of Lincoln. Shortly after her marriage age 16 to Simon Bradstreet, she joined her new husband and father in founding the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630 (both men later became governor). But while she thus some real stature in his fledgling community, she nevertheless found it difficult to adjust. As she later explained to her children, "I changed my condition and was married, and came into this country, at which my heart rose [in rebellion]. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the Church of Boston." You get the sense that there’s a lot of personal history compressed between those two sentences, a story she didn’t particularly want to tell at that point, the way parents sometimes don’t.
         To the difficulties involved in moving and the rigors of her faith was added another, which he described in language typical of the Puritans: "it pleased God to keep me a long time without children." She eventually raised eight in the frontier settlements of Ipswich and Andover (which is were the house that burned down as located), making the fact that she wrote any poetry all the more remarkable. Upon learning that she had accumulated a body of work, her brother-in-law brought some of it back to England, which was published in 1650 as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America. These poems, which demonstrate the degree to which Bradstreet absorbed Renaissance history and literature, had a largely public voice; one poem, for example, is a tribute to Queen Elizabeth I.
      But much of her work, especially her later work, has a more personal focus, and at times a startlingly modern edge. “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits,” she complained of those real or imagined figures who complained about her. She could also be a true romantic. "If ever two were won then surely we," she begins a poem "To My Dear and Loving Husband.”
        But the central struggle of Bradstreet's life as expressed in her writing can be described in terms of the Puritan injunction to live in the world but not be of it. “Farewell dear babe, my hearts too much content," she wrote of a grandchild who died in 1665 (she lost four and a daughter-in-law in rapid succession, which broke her heart). This passionate, if somewhat belated, love of the life she had made in America was checked by a higher sense of duty, the very sense of duty that led her and her compatriots to come to a foreign land in the first place.
Indeed, while the house and Bradstreet lived in was an actual structure of stone and wood – its very materiality was a source of its comfort – a "house" is not necessarily synonymous with a "home." If for her, and many of us, the concept of home can notes a series of concentric circles that includes one's family, birthplace, region, and nation, Bradstreet in some respects left home for good at an early age. The Puritans, after all, founded Massachusetts because they believed that King Charles I – a sovereign from the “house” of Stuart – was betraying the legacy of a Protestant Reformation that had transformed the houses, villages and cities of England. While Bradstreet's Massachusetts Puritans called their variety of the Church of England Protestantism “non-separating” (in contrast to the even more disenchanted Pilgrims who founded the colony of Plymouth when they arrived on the Mayflower in 1620) it's clear that they were trying to put as much distance between themselves and the mother country as possible.
Even so, the ties between house, home and nation remained deeply entwined. In the context of the 17th-century world, when English and Dutch renegades challenged the supremacy of Catholic Spain, virtually all sacred and secular striving to place in a world of emerging religion-based nation-states. When future Governor John Winthrop, who arrived in the same boat as Bradstreet did, implored his fellow emigrants to found a fabled "city on a hill" even before they arrived in Boston, he took it for granted that a new Jerusalem could not be born in Spanish Mexico or French Québec. These people went on an errand into the wilderness to found a New England. And they did so – and distinguished themselves from the "savages" they conquered – not by building forts or trading posts, though they certainly did build those, but rather by building houses, far more of them in New England than anywhere else in the “new” world.
So it was by this twisted path that Bradstreet’s house really had become a home as fact and symbol, an emblem of family and nation. And yet a spiritual restlessness would not quite allow her to live there at ease. In her poetry otherworldly commitments always have the last word. "The world no longer let me love," she concludes or elegy to her burned house. "My hope and Treasure lies above."
If, by some magical process, I could be transported into the wilderness of colonial Massachusetts, circa 1666, I would guess that Anne Bradstreet would not be so familiar. The differences between us – of sex, religion, and the sheer weight of history coursing like the Merrimack River near her house – are so great that I wonder if we could really communicate, even if we were both speaking the same language. To say, on the basis of reading a poem about her house burning down, that I understand how she feels, is more likely to trivialize her experience than honor her memory.
And yet I feel drawn to her. Some of this can be expressed in simple geography. I, too, have seen and marveled at “the trees all richly clad, yet void of pride” (as she describes the New England landscape in her celebrated poem "Contemplations"), trees that remain even after the advance of the interstate highway and cellphone tower. But there's more to it than that. Across the centuries, she and her children, literal and figurative, have shared a belief that their destinies would be found on the shores.
This is, of course, a familiar myth, though it isn't quite elastic enough to effortlessly incorporate other Americans, like slaves who didn't choose to immigrate, or Indians who (in this millennium anyway) didn't immigrate here at all and in fact were forced to emigrate further away. Still, for all its obvious shortcomings, the myth of America as adopted home has helped explain – better yet, it has helped unify – a nation that could, and did, find plenty of other reasons to be a house divided.
But I now realize that what may be the most important thing I share with Anne Bradstreet is a sense of shame. Her shame derive from a deep, but not altogether justifiable, love for the house that burned down in 1666. My house – our house – has not burned down. Yet we live in it with a sense of foreboding, because we know it cannot last forever, and we sometimes fear it may be demolished sooner rather than later. But our unease is not simply a sense of anxiety about the future; it also involves a sense of nagging unease about the past. We love the house even as are aware, however vaguely, of the displacements that made it possible, as well as the evasions that allow it to stand even as I sit to write these words. We cannot really expect mercy. But, God help us, we hope for it anyway. Here, for now, for the grace of Anne, we lie in our beds on summer nights.

A notably good recent biography of Anne Bradstreet is Charlotte Gordon's Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet (2005). For a nicely sculpted introduction to Bradstreet's work, I recommend Heidi Nichols's compact paperback Anne Bradsteet: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet (2006) Much of Bradstreet's poetry is available online.