Anne Bradstreet vs. William Shakespeare (analysis)
Love, Nature and Death
Puritanism in England might have been a consequence of distinct social changes, such as the increase of the population; the dramatic demographic shift created tension in an already troubled economy. Religion was a daily presence in the lives of the Puritans. Followers of Calvin, they believed that God predestined their souls for Heaven or for Hell that even devout believers in Christ could do nothing to alter their predetermined fate. With mere belief not assurance of salvation, constant vigilance and self-examination on the individual and the communal level, formed a necessary part of the Puritans primary duties as Christians.
They believed that only those who felt sure that God was with them should enter into church membership. The interior examination of one’s soul thus entered the external arena of social action. Self-questioning was, to some extent, a kind of pre-condition to social place. But even the most pious continually doubted their place with God, and many kept diaries in which they carefully detailed and examined everyday occurrences for signs of God’s hand in their endeavors.
The Community relied upon the necessary interdependence of its individuals, with the Old Testament model of the patriarch (in New England, the governor) at the head of the state and the church. Modeling their environment upon the one they had left, the Puritans established a patriarchal community. It was a structure founded upon “Christian Charity”, modified by the conception of mutual consent. The covenantal nature of their fate (the belief that God had made an agreement with the by choosing them, of all other people, to come to America) coalesced with the covenantal relationships they established on the familiar and church level. Theirs was a community based upon mutual consent.
Puritans believed all people were equal before God, but that women were inferior to men because tainted by Eve’s guilt.
In memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet, Whodeceased August, 1665, Bein Sonnet XVIIIg a Year and Half Old
Farewell dear babe, my heart’s too much content
Farewell sweet babe, the pleasure of mine eye
Farewell fair flower that for space was lent,
Then ta’en away unto eternity.
Blest babe, why should I once bewail thy fate,
Or sigh the days so soon wer terminate;
Sith thou are settle in an everlasting state.
By nature trees do rot when they are grown
And plums and apples throughly ripe do fall
And corn and grass are in their season mown,
But plants new set to be eradicate
And buds new blown, to have so short a date,
Is by His hand alone that guides
Almost seventy years before Anne Bradstreet had written this poem, there was another clear example of the power of Nature imagery dealing with Death, William Shakespeare’s XVIII Sonnet:
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee
[William Shakespeare’s Sonnets; 1609]
Pay attention to the similitude between these two works, in order to perceive the value both of them give to the fact of Death, within a Nature context. Whereas in Bradstreet’s poem the speaker refers to the death of a grandchild, Shakespeare appeals to his typical ambiguous deliverer that can possibly be a man or a woman, but undoubtedly a lover. They actually are different, but at the same time remain closer.
Bradstreet as a Puritan woman, accepts the death although it is a tragedy, almost reluctantly. The poem is divided into two stanzas, each of them dealing with different purposes: the first one remains on an elegiac style, by praying repeatedly for the little baby dead.
This repetition Farewell […] / Farewell […] / Farewell apparently has to do with happiness, but it is possibly a way to explain the suffering repressed of a Puritan soul, forced to accept this kind of «unfairness» that life represents, not only as a matter of God, but as an imposed reason to be “happy” about.
According to the comparison established between the two poems, I think it is in the second stanza of Bradstreet’s one where this parallelism can be appreciated most clearly; the second stanza describes a natural landscape where death behaves as unavoidable fate with those “natural elements” such as trees, plums, corn, plants and buds that sometimes die before time; the death of a year and a half old grandchild might be as inevitably natural as crops. But if we go on further: Does this make it more acceptable? Does the comparison itself convey the speaker’s feelings about this?
Finally, it could be said that Shakespeare mentions in his Sonnet the futility of beauty in comparison with Nature: both are condemned to disappear as time goes on, but his love is eternal and remains after death.
It may sound strange but, let us think about futility: Doesn’t the Sonnet suggest that that beauty is immortalized in the poem itself? Would a Puritan ever think in these terms?
Maybe the most remarkable difference amongst the two works quoted here, is the religious aim of Bradstreet’s elegy: its final line «Is by His hand alone that guides nature and fate» speaks directly about God and His inscrutable behavior, while the Sonnet only exposes strong feelings about love.
 Taken from Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.