An early draft of my conference paper.
Even as early as it is, it's taken a lot of turns. I'm not sure where it's going to end up.
I can only pray that this creation does not slip its bounds and kill us all.
Nov 28, 2011
Dr. Lisa Logan
LIT 6936 - Final Paper
A Question of Marriage
In Puritan tradition, marriage was tricky business. A wedding was as much a religious process as a legal one, and the Biblical standards that governed Puritan behavior were no more lax in marriage than in any other aspect of life. One standard from which the Puritans rarely deviated was the idea that males were the head of the household, and therefore that husbands automatically had dominance over their wives. This concept was reinforced, by and large, with Scripture. One of the most common verses used to support this comment states, in the translation used at the time, “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” (King James Bible, Eph. 5.23-24). The influence of this concept is easily seen in Puritan works of the day, as observed in the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Puritanical and Biblical standards of marriage permeate Bradstreet’s work, specifically her poems “To My Dear and Loving Husband” and “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment.”
One of the most commonly known concepts of marriage found in the Bible is the idea of marriage constituting one man and one woman bound together in a holy ceremony. This definition comes primarily from Genesis, in a passage that states, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (King James Bible, Gen. 2.24). This is a concept with which the Puritans would have been intimately familiar, and indeed seems to form the basis of many of their marriage traditions. The “one flesh” idea is referenced in “A Letter to Her Husband,” in which Bradstreet says, “If two be one, as surely thou and I, / How stayest thou here, wilst I at Ipswich lie?” (“A Letter”). In this line Bradstreet is clearly referencing the idea that she and her husband are “one flesh,” because she poses the question: if we are one person, how could we be split apart?
Bradstreet returns to the same Biblical concept in the next few lines, when she writes, “So many steps, head from the heart to sever, / If but a neck, soon should we be together” (“A Letter”). These lines evoke physical violence, and also possibly corporal punishment in their connection of “neck” with “sever” (Woodlief). They also form another reference to the Scriptural idea of physical unification, which shows up throughout the poem, even into the lines: “Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone, / I here, thou there, but both but one” (“A Letter”). “A Letter to Her Husband” makes repeated reference to unity of flesh, and it is hardly Bradstreet’s only poem to do so.
“To My Dear and Loving Husband,” another Bradstreet poem about marriage, makes even more explicit reference to the idea of “one flesh” than does “A Letter.” The opening line to “Loving Husband” is practically a direct reaction to scripture: “If ever two were one, then surely we” (“Loving Husband”). At a surface level, the line is obviously meant to express their devotion to one another, but it also both reinforces and questions the commonly accepted notion of physical unity. The phrasing “If ever two were one” seems to imply the possibility that some married couples might not be unified, though the second half of the line reaffirms that Bradstreet feels it is true for her (“Loving Husband”).
Bradstreet also dances with the idea that, though husband and wife must be as a single person, that single person must be completely devoted to God. Therefore, her devotion to God should be greater even than her devotion to her “other half.” Martin says that Bradstreet “struggled with the conflict between her love for her husband and children and her devotion to God,” a conflict somewhat mitigated in “Loving Husband” by the fact that she uses socially acceptable Biblical phrasing to describe her longing for her husband (Martin 69). However, this is just one of many contrasts with which she struggles in her poetry.
Through her works, Bradstreet earnestly processes her own difficulties in honoring God while still maintaining a socially acceptable marriage. Robert Richardson calls the “Puritan way of life,” to which Bradstreet subscribed, “at worst, a series of impossible conflicts, and at best a difficult balance” (Robertson 108). This subtle tension can be recognized in her poetry, including “A Letter to Her Husband.” One force acting on Bradstreet is her sexual desire for her husband, as evidenced in the following lines: “In this dead time, alas, what can I more / Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?” (“A Letter”). The source of her passion is evident throughout the poem, and she compares her husband to the sun and to the season of summer.
However, there is conflict centered around her desire for her husband, and this conflict is caused by the factors limiting their involvement with one another; in this case, distance and their devotion to God. “Anne Bradstreet’s love for Simon was in harmony with God’s plan...But she must love him ‘in Christ’ and not selfishly or carnally; to allow her emotional or physical desire for Simon to eclipse her greater commitment to God would be idolatry” (Martin 68). The Puritan traditions of the day therefore held that one could not be sexually active outside of marriage, and also that one should not be too sexually active even within marriage, lest it distract you from God. These imposed rules, however, did not prevent Bradstreet from longing for her husband, as the poem clearly shows.
Bradstreet struggles with the same conflict in “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” in which she claims that she cannot love her husband sufficiently and that God must make up the difference. “Thy love is such I can no way repay, / The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray” (“Loving Husband”). Again, this expresses that she feels her marriage is incomplete without God. Bradstreet sends the very clear message that, though she feels a great longing for her husband as a person and enjoys her relationship with him, she knows that they must remain subservient to God and therefore she cannot let her passion overwhelm her. This conflict is remarkably Puritan, and provides another layer of tension to her marriage that might not otherwise be evident.
Another dichotomy present in the same poem is the idea of this world versus the world to come. Puritans embraced the Biblical notion of finding fulfillment in the promise of future good in Heaven rather than finding fulfillment in hollow Earthly pleasures, and in her text Bradstreet is cognizant of that. She writes, “Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere / That when we live no more, we may live ever” (“Loving Husband”). Again, Bradstreet is forced to balance two seemingly opposing concepts in order to accommodate her religion: first, her belief that her love with her husband is good and pleasurable at the same time. Second, her belief that she should focus on finding value and fulfillment in Heaven rather than on Earth. She reconciles these two seemingly opposed concepts by ending her poem on a note of hope and trust in God, indicating that she will enjoy what worldly pleasures she is allowed and give all the credit to the Lord.
Anne Bradstreet also challenged, in an honest and forthright way, many of the Puritan values that constituted the rules for her marriage. As Richardson says, “Anne Bradstreet also wrestled with the problem, at times rebelling, at times submitting. That she had severe doubts about her faith does not make her any less a Puritan. In fact...a firm and doubt-free conviction of salvation was a probable sign of damnation” (Richardson 108). Bradstreet’s struggle for belief was less a sign of her rejection of Puritan faith and more an illustration of her exploration of God and his claims, though there are several subtle questions and jabs at Puritan beliefs in her poems.
“A Letter to Her Husband” makes an interesting comment about God simply by not commenting about Him. Bradstreet starts the poem off by saying, “My head, my heart, mine eyes, my life, nay, more, / My joy, my magazine of earthly store,” and there is an abundance of meaning in those lines (“A Letter”). First of all, in a Puritan belief structure the only thing of more value than her life was her soul, so the idea that she would pledge something worth more value than her life to anyone other than Jesus was unorthodox. Second, she offers her husband her full measure of earthly possessions, though the Puritans were expected to place little or no value on material things. This could suggest that her husband was only supposed to possess her physical items while God was the arbiter of her spirit, though it could also suggest that she would give everything she owned to her husband instead of giving it to God. Either way, in her point by point recollection of what she would give up for her devotion, she does not mention God.
Just as interesting as God’s absence is Bradstreet’s implicit lack of trust in his teachings. This is more of a tenuous connection, likely not even intended by Bradstreet herself. However, lines such as “If two be one, as surely thou and I” suggest doubt in the Bible as God’s infallible word (“A Letter”). Simply by beginning the sentence with “if,” Bradstreet implicitly suggests the possibility that it might not be true, which subtly casts doubt on the words of the Bible. Later in the poem, Bradstreet gives the agency of death to nature rather than to God by saying, “Till nature’s sad decree shall call thee hence” (“A Letter”). In traditional Christianity, God is the one that calls someone from this life, not nature. To suggest that God does not oversee a person’s transition into Heaven is to question the Heavenly admission process itself, which a person in Bradstreet’s community could hardly do openly.
“To My Dear and Loving Husband” begins with an illustration of uncertainty not typical for Puritan religious rhetoric. The lines “If ever two were one, then surely we. / If ever man were loved by wife, then thee; / If ever wife was happy in a man, / Compare with me” seem to challenge Biblical and Puritanical notions of marriage and male-female relations (“Loving Husband”). Just as in “A Letter to Her Husband,” Bradstreet’s tendency to begin lines with “if” raises implications of doubt in the reader. It sounds as if she is questioning the Biblical picture of a man and a woman becoming unified in flesh and blood, and then living a happy and productive life together. She suggests that other Christian couples may not be as happy as they are, which (while undoubtedly true) would probably have not gone over well with other members of the church. She also, again, does not directly mention God.
However, she does beg the heavens to give her husband the reward he deserves, since her love is not quite adequate: “The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray” (“Loving Husband”). This idea is consistent with traditional Puritan ideals, as it seems to suggest that the wife is incapable of loving the husband as he deserves, so God must take over. The wife is implicitly subject to the husband, who is then subject to God. In this work she also brings up the Puritan notion of living life for the sake of eternity rather than for the fleeting pleasures of this world, particularly in the last lines: “Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere / That when we live no more, we may live ever” (“Loving Husband”). This is another concept that lines up with Puritan orthodoxy, in that the husband and wife are loving each other with an eye on eternity rather than on Earth.
Puritanical hierarchy established males as the head of the household, as consistent with Ephesians: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” (King James Bible, Eph. 5.23-24). Many pastors preach on this verse even today, and they usually forget the next verse: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it,” meaning that husbands should do for their wives as Jesus did for humanity and sacrifice their own lives in servitude and humility (King James Bible, Eph. 5.25). However the verses are read, though, the point remains that Puritanical marriage had a patriarchal structure, and Bradstreet reacted to that social reality of her time.
“A Letter to Her Husband” focuses on Bradstreet’s sorrow while her husband is gone and her longing to have him back, but the terminology used suggests equivalence rather than subservience. Bradstreet says of him “Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone, / I here, thou there, but both but one,” hearkening back to the Puritan “one flesh” concept and conveniently putting the two of them on the same level. “In addition,” Wendy Martin says of Bradstreet, “there is no indication that she considers her social or domestic role subordinate to his” (Martin 68). Bradstreet uses common religious terminology, such as the “flesh of my flesh” comment, to imply gender equality rather than hierarchy.
In Anne Bradstreet, we find an intelligent and startlingly honest response to the stresses created in the interactions between life’s demands and society’s strictures. In “A Letter to Her Husband” and “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” Bradstreet uses religious tones and terminology to paint a picture of her own longing for a man she loved, even though she was--according to her community--not supposed to love him too much. This tension shaped her, shaped her writing, and shaped the lives of many married Puritans of the era.