By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666’ is a poem by Anne Bradstreet (1612-72), a Puritan poet who was the first person in America, male or female, to have a book of poems published. In 1650 her volume The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America appeared; sixteen years later, she wrote this poem in response to the fire that destroyed her home in Massachusetts.
The best way to offer an analysis and discussion of ‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House’ is, perhaps, to start by summarising the poem’s content. So let’s take a closer look at what Bradstreet writes.
‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House’: context
Although she had been born in England in 1612, by the 1660s Bradstreet was living in Andover, Massachusetts. In 1630, just ten years after the Pilgrim Fathers sailed from England to the New World on the Mayflower, Anne and her husband left behind Boston, England and travelled across the Atlantic on the Arbella to establish a new settlement in Massachusetts.
They named this new settlement after the English town they had left behind, and thus the city of Boston was founded. Later that year, the Bradstreets moved a few miles north of Boston and settled ‘the newe towne’, later named Cambridge, where Harvard University would be founded a few years later.
It was not exactly an environment conducive to poetic creativity. Early colonial life was hard – the life expectancy was not particularly high – and the early settlers in America could afford to take few books with them. Yet Bradstreet flourished as a poet and had made a home with her family when, in 1666, a fire destroyed her worldly possessions one night.
‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House’: summary
Here Follows Some Verses Upon the Burning
of Our house, July 10th. 1666. Copied Out of
a Loose Paper.
In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
Bradstreet recounts how she was awakened by the loud noise and screaming which revealed that her house was on fire. The peace and quiet of her slumber was disrupted by the fire, which shocked her all the more because she was not expecting to find misfortune or ‘sorrow’ so ‘near’ to her.
That fearful sound of ‘fire’ and ‘fire,’
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Nobody wants to hear the frightening sound of people shouting ‘fire’. When she suddenly got up out of bed, she was the light of the flames, and immediately her heart cried out to God to keep her calm as distress and panic took hold of her. She longed for God’s support or ‘succour’.
Then, coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just.
When she fled outside, she realised that the fire was destroying her house. But here the poem takes what might strike readers as a surprising turn: Anne Bradstreet blesses God’s name for causing the fire (or for standing by and letting such misfortune befall her) and destroying her possessions. Why? Because she knew there must be a ‘just’ or morally sound and correct reason for God doing this to her. God can give and he can also take away, after all.
It was His own, it was not mine,
Far be it that I should repine;
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
Bradstreet points out that ‘her’ possessions really belong to God, because everything belongs to him. So she has no reason to worry or be unhappy. Indeed, God could have taken every material possession from Bradstreet and her family and still left them with more than they need.
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
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.
Bradstreet recalls going past the ruins of her house after the fire, and turning her eyes away from the sight in sadness at her loss. She could see the places where she used to sit or lie down, and where a trunk or chest containing household possessions once stood. They are now no more than ash, and she will never see them again.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ’ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
Addressing the ruins of her house directly – a rhetorical feature known technically as apostrophe – Bradstreet points out that no guest will ever visit this house any more and eat with Bradstreet and her family. They will never sit round the table and talk pleasantly to each other or reminisce about things from the past.
No Candle e’er shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom’s voice e’er heard shall be.
In silence ever shalt thou lie,
Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.
No candle will ever be lit inside the house now that house is no longer standing. Her husband’s voice will never be heard, nor the voices of the men who might marry her daughters. The house will rest in silence now. She bids the house goodbye, reminding us that ‘all’s vanity’ – an allusion to the Book of Ecclesiastes, and specifically the line ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’: in other words, everything on Earth is ultimately for nothing.
Then straight I ’gin my heart to chide,
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mould’ring dust?
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
But no sooner had Bradstreet thought these sorrowful thoughts than she began to tell herself off for thinking them. If her earthly possessions had survived, then what? Did she pin all her hopes on a pile of items that could be reduced to rotting dust? Did she put her faith in an arm made of mortal flesh, rather than the arm of God above?
She then told herself to raise her thoughts above the sky and towards God in heaven, so that the mists of the ‘dunghill’ that constitutes the remains of her home are soon forgotten, like a smell disappearing on the wind.
Thou hast a house on high erect
Framed by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent though this be fled.
Bradstreet reminds herself that she has another ‘house’: the house of God in heaven, made by the mighty builder of houses, God himself. That house is furnished richly with glory, and it stands forever, even though Bradstreet’s physical house is destroyed.
It’s purchased and paid for too
By Him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown,
Yet by His gift is made thine own;
There’s wealth enough, I need no more,
Farewell, my pelf, farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.
Bradstreet concludes ‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House’ by pointing out that the house is all bought and paid for, so owned outright. It is worth so much it is, in fact, priceless, and yet God has gifted it to the poet, and made it hers, too.
That place in heaven provides a richer kind of ‘wealth’, spiritual wealth, which is enough for Bradstreet, so she need not yearn after earthly possessions. She can bid farewell to her possessions (‘pelf’ is an old term usually denoting ill-gotten or undeserved possessions), and she doesn’t have to love worldly things, because all her hope, and her treasure, are in heaven, waiting for her.
‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House’: analysis
Bradstreet’s poem is in keeping with much of her other verse, in that it takes personal events from the poet’s own life (which are often, as here, personal misfortune) and uses them as an opportunity to reflect on the superiority of spiritual rather than earthly possessions. God has a plan for her, and she can be reassured that whatever troubles may befall her on Earth, she will be looked after in heaven.
A key Bible verse for ‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House’ is from the Book of Job, chapter 1, verse 21: ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ The fourteenth line of Bradstreet’s poem, ‘I blest His name that gave and took’, is a paraphrase of this sentiment. Bradstreet’s poem counsels Christians to use adversity in this life as a chance to learn a deeper lesson about God’s plan for them in the next.
In this case, she picks up the symbol of the ‘house’ – her literal house, burnt by fire – in order to contrast it with the ‘house’ of God, again drawing on Biblical scripture: in John 14:2, for example, Jesus tells his followers, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions’, and there are many references in both the Old and New Testaments to the ‘house of God’. The fire which destroyed Bradstreet’s earthly home comes to be seen as a divine intervention, purifying her life so that she is better placed to focus on her spiritual wealth.
‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House’ is written in rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter. This means there are four iambs, or eight syllables, her line. For instance, in the first two lines we can hear the alternate rhythms of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable:
In SIL-ent NIGHT when REST I TOOK,
For SOR-row NEAR I DID not LOOK
This metre is simple and plain and allows the focus to be on Bradstreet’s religious message, first and foremost.