By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children’ is a poem by Anne Bradstreet (c. 1612-72), who was the first poet, male or female, from America to have a book of poems published: The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America appeared in 1650. As well as penning a touching poem about her husband, Bradstreet also wrote this poem, written before one of her children was born.
As with much early modern poetry, ‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children’ sometimes uses language which requires close analysis to be fully understood. So, let’s summarise the meaning of Bradstreet’s poem, taking it section by section.
All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joyes attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh inevitable.
Bradstreet begins by acknowledging some home truths: that everything (even everything good) comes to an end, and even in the midst of our most joyous moments, we often have to contend with adversity or hardship.
It doesn’t matter how strong our ties or bonds with our friends are: we will be parted from them eventually, by death. Bradstreet knew about life’s hardship first-hand: she was never an especially healthy woman, even from a young age, and when she emigrated from Lincolnshire in England to the New World, settling with her husband in Boston, Massachusetts, she found life among the early settlers hard as disease and misfortune ravaged the community.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy Lot to lose thy friend,
We are both ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
Bradstreet addresses her husband (‘my Dear’), acknowledging that Death may soon walk with her and take her from this world. He will lose his ‘friend’, who also happens to be his wife. They are both ‘ignorant’ of when this will happen.
But in the event that it will happen one day, Bradstreet writes these lines of poetry, to stand as her ‘farewell’ to him when the time comes.
And if I see not half my dayes that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
The many faults that well you know I have
Let be interr’d in my oblivious grave;
Bradstreet now expresses some characteristic modesty: she tells her husband that, if she dies before half her life is over, she hopes that God allows her husband to live a full life even though she would have gone too soon.
And she hopes that her ‘many faults’ or flaws would be buried with her in her grave, which would be ‘oblivious’ because she would be oblivious of the world.
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
Having dealt with her ‘many’ flaws, Bradstreet expresses the wish that, if she has any virtues or positive qualities, these won’t be buried with her in the ground, but will instead live on in her husband’s memory.
And when her husband has ceased to grieve for her, just as she, being dead, is safe from all harms, she hopes he will love her and remember how often she lay in his arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These to protect from step Dames injury.
Once her husband is happy to recall the joyous memories of times he spent with his wife, who is no longer around, he should look to their children and protect them. The reference to a ‘step Dame’ implies that the husband may remarry after Anne’s death; if so, she hopes that her husband will protect their children from any harm their new stepmother may seek to do them.
And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent Herse;
And kiss this paper for thy loves dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last Farewel did take.
If at some future time her husband should happen upon this poem again, he should honour his dead wife (‘Herse’ summoning the funeral hearse) by sighing sadly and longingly for her. Then he should kiss the paper on which the poem is written, to honour and remember the one who took her ‘farewell’ from him against her will, crying as she did so.
‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children’: metre and form
Bradstreet’s poem is written in heroic couplets: rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. This form was in fashion in the seventeenth century and remained so well into the eighteenth, too: Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American poet to have a book of poems published, was writing over a century later, and still used heroic couplets in the majority of her work.
Heroic couplets are associated with epic poetry telling stories of grand adventure and heroism, hence the term ‘heroic’ couplets. Bradstreet’s choice of this verse form for ‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children’ is more than just a literary trend: the form bestows a grandeur and dignity on the everyday domestic subject of her poetry.
‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children’ is actually more of a poem about marriage than motherhood, with the primary focus being the intimate and loving bond between Anne Bradstreet and her husband. In this regard, it might be viewed and analysed as a companion-piece to the more famous lyric ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’.