Episode 44

Verses upon the Burning of Our House by Anne Bradstreet 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House’ by Anne Bradstreet.

Poet

Anne Bradstreet

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

Here Follow Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10, 1666

by Anne Bradstreet

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thundering noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
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 strengthen me in my distress,
And not to leave me succorless.
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.
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.
When by the ruins oft I passed
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sat 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.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy table eat a bit;
No pleasant tale shall e’er be told,
Nor things recounted done of old;
No candle e’er shall shine in thee,
Nor bridegroom’s voice e’er heard shall be.
In silence ever shall thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.
Then straight I ’gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust?
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect;
Framed by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished
Stands permanent though this be fled.
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 lie above.


Podcast transcript

This is a remarkable poem about loss and coming to terms with loss.

It’s what’s called an occasional poem; poets have written poems to commemorate all kinds of occasions, from personal events such as a wedding, or the birth of a child or a funeral, or even sitting down to re-read a favourite book; and also big public occasions such as coronations or battles or treaties. In the 17th century, which is when this poem was written, there was a lot of occasional verse, including John Milton’s ‘On the Late Massacre in Piedmont’, Andrew Marvell’s ‘An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, and Sir John Suckling’s ‘Upon My Lady Carlisle’s Walking in Hampton Court Garden’. But few occasions can be as painful as the destruction of your home by fire.

Of course, this kind of tragedy was all too common in an age where most buildings were made of wood, and heating, cooking and lighting all depended on kindling fires and flames inside these wooden structures. The date of this poem, 1666, obviously makes us think of the Great Fire of London, which happened less than two months after Anne Bradstreet’s home burned down, when 13,000 thousand houses, about 15 percent of all the housing in London, were destroyed by fire. And lots of people were ruined, made homeless and displaced by the fire.

And it would be the end of the 17th century before fire insurance became available in England, partly in response to the Great Fire of London. So if your house burned down in 1666, that was it, you had lost your house. And if your possessions were destroyed by the fire, you had lost those and the wealth they contained. So people were living in a much more precarious existence at this point.

As the 17th century chronicler Frederick John Snell put it, ‘He which at one o’clock was worth five thousand pounds and, as the prophet saith, drank his wine in bowls of fine silver plate, had not by two o’clock so much as a wooden dish left to eat his meat in, nor a house to cover his sorrowful head.’

Snell was chronicling life in England, but Anne Bradstreet did not live in England. She had been born in Northampton, in 1612, and in 1630 she emigrated to America, where she and her family were among the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And if life was precarious in England, it was even more precarious in New England.

Now, there could be an argument that since life was more precarious and people were more accustomed to losing their homes to fire, that it was less devastating. And I find that about as convincing as the idea that, before the advent of modern medicine, the high rate of infant mortality meant that people were much more used to children dying and didn’t feel the loss so keenly. I mean, come on. They were human beings. There is more than enough poetry, including several poems by Bradstreet, to testify to the depths of pain that losing a child could cause. And this poem does the same for the tragedy of seeing your home burned to the ground.

And in Bradstreet’s case, it was a substantial home and a substantial loss. We know that she came from a wealthy family, who were able to maintain their wealth and status in Massachusetts. And we can pick up some clues to this in the poem. You know, it was it was big enough for her to have familiar places to sit and to lie, to entertain guests at the table, and she refers to her ‘pleasant things’ burnt to ashes. So if you’re well off enough to have ‘pleasant things’ you are probably living, in the context of the time and place, a relatively comfortable middle class existence.

According to the scholar Anna Beer in her terrific book Eve Bites Back: an Alternative History of English Literature, which focuses on female writers of the past, she has a chapter on Anne Bradstreet where she says that her house contained over 800 books, which were consumed in the fire. And she points out that this would have been an extraordinary number for a New England Household. Books were expensive consumer goods in the 17th century, so you’d have to be pretty affluent to own that number, even in London.

So this was a substantial loss. And we might wonder, how could she think of writing poetry at a time like this? Surely she would be so consumed with grief and and the practicalities of finding a new home?

It’s an uncomfortable thought, but Beer points out that as a well-to-do colonist she probably had servants and possibly slaves to help her with the practicalities, so finding the time to think may not have been as difficult as we might assume.

But even in that case, how did she find the mental space to sit down and write a poem about the tragedy?

Well, if you’ve been listening to A Mouthful of Air from the beginning, you may recall that way back in Episode 1 of the podcast, I talked about poetry as a way of making sense of the world. Poets often write poems when there’s something that has upset their world order, when they have been shaken up by joy or grief or jealousy or another emotion, and they turn to writing as a way of making sense of the experience, and trying to come to terms with it. And the poem can then perform a similar function for a reader. So I think what we see here is Anne Bradstreet using poetry, using the act of writing, as a way of coming to terms with her loss.

And her Christian faith was clearly crucial to this process. She and her family and her community were Puritans, who followed a very strict form of Protestantism. And like many emigrants to the New World, greater freedom of worship was one of their motivations for leaving Europe. So Bradstreet was a deeply committed Christian, and this is reflected in many of her poems.

Sixteen years earlier, in 1650, a book of her poems was published in London – which made her not just the first female poet, but also the first North American author published in English. That collection included a poem titled ‘The Vanity of All Worldly Things’, where she contrasted the transience of earthly pleasures and possessions with the ‘living crystal fount’ of Christianity. And this is a well-worn theme for many poets, Christian and otherwise – you know, ‘All is vanity! We should turn our mind to higher things,’ and have faith in God or in philosophy, or whatever it is that they consider to be enduring and true.

And it’s relatively easy to write a poem like that from the comfort of your study or your library, when you have leisure to contemplate the hardships of this world from a distance. But it’s a completely different question to write it shortly after you have seen your home and your library burned to the ground. The facts of Bradstreet’s biography are a little sketchy, but she and her family certainly endured great hardship as a result of losing her home. So we’re reading the words of a poet who is really being tested in the fire.

Okay let’s take a closer look at the poem and see how Bradstreet tells the story and also works through her thoughts and her feelings and argues with herself in order to find some kind of resolution and solace amid the destruction.

We have a very dramatic opening, where she is woken in the ‘silent night’ by a ‘thundering noise’, presumably the sound of the fire and shrieks and shouts of ‘fire’:

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thundering noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
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 strengthen me in my distress,
And not to leave me succorless.

So even before she’s fully aware of the situation, when she’s ‘starting up’ out of her sleep and spies a ‘light’, her heart cries out for God, ‘to strengthen me in my distress’. And then she comes out and she sees the fire, eating away at the house:

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;

This is pretty extraordinary, isn’t it? I mean, maybe it’s easy to credit that a godly person like Bradstreet would instinctively cry out to God ‘To strengthen me in my distress’, but to spend ‘a space’, a little time, watching your own home burning down, until you can bear it no longer and have to look away – and then to bless ‘His name that gave and took, / That laid my goods now in the dust’? To do that, in what she tells us in the heat of the moment, sounds like an uncommon conviction and devotion, even for a 17th century Puritan.

And maybe she’s tidying up the experience a little bit for her audience, but I don’t get the sense that she’s using too much poetic licence here. Quite a few poets give the impression of taking liberties with the truth, but I don’t get that feeling from Bradstreet here. I feel that we can take her at her word that this was her response, if not in the very moment, but shortly afterwards:

And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust;

Good Christians will of course recognise ‘I blest His name that gave and took’ as an allusion to the Book of Job in the Old Testament. Here are the words of the King James Bible, published the year before Bradstreet was born:

the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21)

So Job, of course, was an upright and prosperous man who was blessed with goods and cattle and a house and children and family and friends and so on. But in the story God tests his faith, by allowing Satan to take away all his wealth and possessions, to kill his family and servants, and finally to take away his health, afflicting him with painful boils all over his body.

And Job is pretty forbearing and patient, but eventually he snaps and starts berating God for treating him so badly, especially as he has always striven to lead a virtuous life. And God actually answers him, speaking from the heart of the whirlwind and making it very clear who is boss. And in the end Job gives in and asks for forgiveness, saying, ‘I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes’.

So Job is an emblem of submission to the will of God. And Bradstreet clearly expects us to pick up on the allusion, when she says, ‘I blest his name that gave and took’, and in finding herself, like Job, ‘in the dust’.

So I find this quite extraordinary firstly, that in the midst of her distress, she reaches out instinctively, immediately, to a text, to the Bible, for consolation. And also, there’s an incredible compression in the way she expresses it, getting the whole of the story of Job and fitting it snugly over her own situation, in a couple of lines:

I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust;

And of course this syntactic compression mirrors the swiftness of her thought and her emotional reaction in the moment. It’s pretty amazing, if we can take her word for it, that she can go so quickly from horror to acceptance. But if we recall, that was also Job’s initial response, and he was eventually tested beyond endurance, so I think we can sense some ambiguity and tension in her relationship with God here.

And the verse form is integral to the effect. The poem is written in iambic tetrameter – tiTUM tiTUM tiTUMgtiTUM – four tiTUMs, one less than the iambic pentameter, that we probably all remember from school. So it’s a short line, that leaves no room for embellishment, and is ideally suited to compression. Particularly if you write it in rhyming couplets like this:

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.

Can you hear how clipped these lines are? How spare? Nearly every word is a single syllable. There are no adjectives, no ornamentation, and absolutely no self-pity.

In another of her poems, ‘The Author to Her Book’, Bradstreet describes her poetry as made of ‘home-spun cloth’, so she’s deliberately adopting a very plain style, in keeping with the plain dress and the sober manners of the Puritan community. And she has been criticised for being too formal and conventional in her versification, just as she has been criticised for being too subservient to the ruling patriarchal ideology of the time, where women were expected to know their place, and that place was in the home.

But another way of looking it is to see her use of this very regular rhyming couplet form as a way of imposing order on chaos. When you put a thought into a tetrameter rhyming couplet, it sounds truer than true. The metre and the rhyme give it rhetorical emphasis that wouldn’t be there if it were flopping all over the page in free verse or even in the more more ample and flexible blank verse of the kind that we looked at a few episodes ago, in the verse of Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth.

But of course the tightness and order of the verse form contrast sharply – and I think deliberately, on the poet’s part – with the chaos of the fire and the eruption of thoughts and feelings it provokes. And this tension resonates throughout the whole poem, between fear and anger and chaos and doubt, and the desire for order, for succour, for obedience and for the consolation of faith.

And it’s particularly interesting to contrast Bradstreet’s writing with Milton’s because of course, he was another great Puritan writer and an almost exact contemporary of Bradstreet. And if you recall the passage of his masterpiece Paradise Lost that we looked at back in Episode 30, you really couldn’t find a more different style of writing.

Milton uses longer pentameter lines, and extravagantly long sentences that overflow the line endings, so that a single sentence can be stretched over a dozen lines. Whereas Bradstreet’s shorter tetrameter lines are made of short, compressed sentences, and nearly all of them are end-stopped, meaning the end of the line is also the end of a phrase or sentence. Milton also uses lots of fancy, polysyllabic vocabulary drawn from Latin and Greek. But as we’ve seen Bradstreet uses simpler, shorter words, in a self-consciously plain style. So I think Bradstreet is much more what we would expect from a plain spoken Puritan. And maybe Milton has some explaining to do!

Okay before we move on I’d just like to highlight one more terrific example of Bradstreet’s use of compression. Listen for the line that comes right after the goods lying in the dust:

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.

That line, ‘Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just’, I think is a stunning example of grammatical compression that is also an emotional compression. She starts with the phrase, ‘Yea, so it was’, two perfect iambic feet, tiTUM tiTUM. And then the second half of the line is another two perfect iambics, ‘and so ’twas just’. And the two phrases, ‘so it was’ and ‘so ’twas’ are identical in terms of their meaning, ‘’twas’ is just a contraction of ‘it was’. But metrically, the contraction is vital, because it allows Bradstreet to insert the word ‘just’ at the end of the line. And that little word changes everything.

Saying ‘so it was’, is a plain statement of fact, and we can probably read in a little stoic resignation, given the context. But to then say ‘so ’twas just’, in other words, ‘it was just that it was so’ – i.e. ‘fair, and right and proper that it was so’ – goes against all our human instincts. Faced with disaster, it feels natural for us to rage and despair, and to feel a sense of grievance and injustice. But Bradstreet deliberately resists this instinct, with that brilliant contraction, so that the perfectly regular metre steamrollers over it.

To appreciate her technique here, see what happens to the line if you don’t contract ‘it was’ to ‘’twas’:

Yea, so it was, and so it was just.

Can you hear how difficult it is to read that line, and how it loses energy when the metre is broken up by the extra syllable? But tweak that little syllable and the whole line snaps into place:

Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just.

And it’s not just about preserving a regular rhythm. I also think we can feel the speaker, stiffening her resolve, just pulling in her stomach a little bit and tightening those muscles and resolving, ‘Yes, I’m going to bear it, I’m not going to complain’.

And she carries on in this vein:

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.

So she’s saying it all belonged to God, it was never mine so I can’t protest. And he ‘justly’ – there’s that word again – took it from us, ‘But yet sufficient for us left’, he left us enough to manage with. And this attitude is something that modern cognitive behavioural psychotherapists would thoroughly approve of. She’s looking the facts in the face, but she’s not ‘catastrophizing’, as the therapist Albert Ellis would have put it.

So like a good Christian she is making a heroic effort to take God’s side against her own sense of injustice and despair. And it might be hard for those of us without her faith to relate to this, or there may well be Christians who would say, ‘Well I’m not sure I could be as godly and forbearing as this’. But if it’s starting to sound a bit inhuman and unrelatable, then the next few lines make it clear how deeply she feels the loss:

When by the ruins oft I passed
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sat 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.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy table eat a bit;
No pleasant tale shall e’er be told,
Nor things recounted done of old;
No candle e’er shall shine in thee,
Nor bridegroom’s voice e’er heard shall be.
In silence ever shall thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.

I don’t know how any of us could read or listen to this passage and, and not be moved by it. And it’s natural to put ourselves in her place, and imagine wandering around the ruins of our home and thinking, ‘That’s where we all sat round the table together, that’s where I used to sit and watch TV, that’s where all my favourite things were kept…’

Interestingly, she doesn’t mention those 800 books, which you would think, as a writer, she would have missed particularly keenly. And this may be an act of self-censorship – Anna Beer points out that the Governor of the Massachusetts colony where Bradstreet lived, attributed the ‘loss of understanding and reason’, presumably some form of mental illness, of a woman called Anne Hopkins, to have been caused by her devoting ‘herself wholly to reading and writing’ and said her husband should have insisted she put down her books and devote more time to housework and child rearing. So I’m wondering whether it wouldn’t have been prudent for Bradstreet to ‘flaunt’ her learning by lamenting her books in the poem.

Anyway. Even if we can’t go all the way in accepting Bradstreet’s theological justification for her loss, what this passage does is show that, her consolation is not won lightly. Because she is clearly feeling the grief very deeply. And then, in typical fashion, she starts to argue with herself:

Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust?

So this argument with herself, this tension between the the joys and the comforts of earthly life and the idea of submitting to God’s will is very typical of her poetry in general. But she doesn’t go round in circles forever; at the end of the poem, we get this vision of the house that she believes is being built for her in heaven:

Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect;
Framed by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished
Stands permanent though this be fled.

And maybe we don’t have Anne Bradstreet’s faith, or even if we do, maybe we wouldn’t have her strength of character – we may reach for our Bible at some point, but first of all, we’d reach for the insurance company’s hotline. But this vision is pretty glorious, isn’t it? This house above the sky, with glory richly furnished:

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 lie above.

And like I say, we may not share her certainty that this house really does await her in heaven. But the house is there for us to see in the poem. It’s risen like a phoenix from the ashes, if she will permit me a pagan simile. So what we have here is not only a Christian taking comfort in her faith in the face of disaster, but also a poet using the act of writing to work out what she thinks and feels and believes, and wrestling with herself, and finding consolation in poetry as well as in faith.

 


Here Follow Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10, 1666

by Anne Bradstreet

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thundering noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
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 strengthen me in my distress,
And not to leave me succorless.
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.
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.
When by the ruins oft I passed
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sat 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.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy table eat a bit;
No pleasant tale shall e’er be told,
Nor things recounted done of old;
No candle e’er shall shine in thee,
Nor bridegroom’s voice e’er heard shall be.
In silence ever shall thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.
Then straight I ’gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust?
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect;
Framed by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished
Stands permanent though this be fled.
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 lie above.


Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet portrait drawing (posthumous)

Anne Bradstreet was a poet who was born Anne Dudley in Northampton, England in 1612 and died in 1672 in North Andover, Massachusetts. She married Simon Bradstreet at the age of sixteen and the couple had eight children. In 1630, while still a teenager, she emigrated with her parents and her own family to become some of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Her first collection of poetry, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in London in 1650 and made her her not just the first published female poet in English, but also the first North American author published in English. She wrote epic, political and religious verse, as well as more personal writings that were mostly published after her death. She is regarded as a foundational figure in American literature and a pioneering female poet in more than one sense.

 


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