Confession, Exploration and Comfort in Upon the Burning of Our House by Anne Bradstreet
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The theological concept of humankind’s inherent depravity created tension in the lives of seventeenth century New England Puritans. The Puritans believed that humans were born sinful and remained in this condition throughout life. This doctrine stressed self-discipline and introspection, through which the Puritan sought to determine whether particular spiritual strivings were genuine marks of true religiosity. God preordained election to heaven, and some Puritans would be saved through the righteousness of Jesus Christ despite their sins. There was no certainty in this life what eternal destiny awaited because the knowledge of who was elect was a divine mystery. The experience of conversion, where the soul, touched by the Holy Spirit, is turned from sinfulness to holiness, was at least some indication of election. Although full assurance might never be attained, the conviction of having been chosen by God fortified the Puritans to contend with the hardships of creating a community of Christ in the New World. This fundamental knowledge of personal depravity, the essence of Puritan theology, created an atmosphere of constant introspection in a cyclical battle with worldly sin always ending with the acknowledged depravity.
The awareness of God’s preordained elect few did not inhibit the perseverance all Puritans applied to acknowledge depravity and to try and overcome sinfulness. This concept of depravity as the cornerstone of Puritan faith became a central theme in Puritan writing. Poet Anne Bradstreet wrote about her life and how her trials ever urged her to continue her self-inspection in an effort to attempt to subdue the carnal desires of this world. The Puritan dogma of introspection created a framework for literary confession in the poem “Upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666.” This framework freed Anne Bradstreet to fully explore her beliefs without direct challenge to authority; thus she both remains within and steps outside of traditional Puritan beliefs, ultimately allowing her to find solace and comfort in the promise of heavenly reward.
In the poem “Upon the Burning of Our House” Anne Bradstreet exemplifies the normal Puritan lifestyle of tension, although tempered with an allusion of hopefulness not usual in Puritan theology. Opening with an image of sleep, the poem alerts the reader to what would be considered a moral lapse by Bradstreet, for she was not being ever watchful for sin. The notion of millenialism, to go through life as though the second coming of Christ was imminent, meant that a Puritan was always prepared for the judgement day.
In “Upon the Burning of Our House,” fire alludes to the day of judgement. When the sound of fire is heard, Bradstreet acknowledges that this preparedness is her goal, “That fearful sound of ‘Fire’ and ‘Fire!’ / Let no man know is my desire” (311). Remaining faithful to Puritan theology, Bradstreet immediately follows this with a plea to God for strength to face this earthly “distress / And not to leave me succorless” (311). To ask for God’s help in overcoming sin would be a normal prayer; to ask for strength for human weakness within the framework of a material loss would on one level seem innocent and on another blasphemous. Anne Bradstreet, the daughter and wife of wealthy men, would have in her home accruements of this wealth, the loss of which would be painful to her not only as a woman, but as a poet who valued the beauty in nature and life. To the casual observer this confession sets up the tension implicit in the Puritan society. Some critics such as Robert Daly feel that this poem is “a document of Bradstreet’s moral triumph over earthly attachments” (qtd. in Martin 18). On closer inspection, to imply that God would bolster humankind for desiring aid explores a different theology at work, one of a God of mercy and goodness, not the harsh and judgmental God of the Puritans who believed themselves to be the New Jews, being tested in the wilderness of a new world.
To counter and cover the exploration of Puritan theology in this plaintive cry for help in “Upon the Burning of Our House,” Bradstreet acknowledges the right of God to take what has been loaned. This would be acceptable since Puritans, as Jeffrey Hammond notes, “not only acknowledged a pull toward the world but insisted that such inclination was inevitably exposed by honest self-scrutiny” (108). The narrator notes: “It was His own, it was not mine, / Far be it that I should repine” (311). The acceptance of the judgment seems complete and unconditional. Bradstreet continues this projected contentment by saying, “ He might of all justly bereft / But yet sufficient for us left” (311). Seeming to praise and defend the fire as an act of God, Bradstreet has allowed herself to question this judgment and reconcile it as part of the will of God, as would be acceptable in the society of the day. However, some critics find more ambiguity than religious certainty in the domestic interlude discussed in “Upon the Burning of Our House” as Rosenmeir who concludes “that the microcosm of family life serve not only to reflect the world but to deflect it as well” thus reinforcing the opinion of this thesis (19). Anne Bradstreet Puritan poet of seventeenth century New England found solace in the promise of heavenly reward and shared this belief subtly with her family through her private writings. A woman of wealth and intelligence, who wrote poetry and verse in a time when minister John Dod admonished, “The Wiues dutie is to keepe the house,” must be a master of words to continue this exploration process without angering the general population and the clergy, which would end this literary freedom to question (qtd. in Rosenmeier, 15-16). Thus she offers her readers an ideology that matches their expectations.
In what may be construed as the tension in Puritan life, the next line in the poem speaks to the material world, where pain and loss are explored. Bradstreet’s poem reveals memories and fantasies about her former home. Puritan theology would acknowledge the need of hopes and dreams, a need that is revealed here in depth and sorrow. The vehicle used to explore Puritan convention without seeming to challenge it is a conversation with the house:
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. (311)
This disclosure, couched immediately as depravity, is the work of a serious poet who, within the confines of time, gender, and society, reveals a woman of education and gentle upbringing mourning and exploring not only the present with its material loss and the lost years of an imagined future in her home, but the very essence of the value of earthly gain. The narrator continues: “There lay that store I counted best. / My pleasant things in ashes lie, / And them behold no more shall I” (311). The description here is not one of avaricious greed; her home and its contents are pleasant but not overvalued and sinful. The ability to preface this subtle statement with the acceptable mode of self-effacement would only stand to prove Bradstreet’s mastery of her art form. This sequence of questioning personal loss ends with a reference to Ecclesiastes and earthly pleasure being but “Vanity” to firmly convince her audience of the authenticity of her depravity (311).
Yet this very sophisticated allusion has several meanings, for the speaker in Ecclesiastes incorporates skepticism and doubt within the polarities of religion. Poets in the bible and others like William Blake accepted these contraries within humanity, but within a Puritan society this questioning could be dangerous if not carefully worked by the poet. It is this “strength as a poet” that Hammond blames for the misreading of her poetry today in relation to seventeenth century Puritan values (84). He feels that the tension and inner questioning do not “repudiate Puritan interiority but reconfirms it” because that “turmoil” is essential to Puritanism (84). A different aspect is introduced by William Scheick who feels this line from Ecclesiastes is a “sudden intrusion of an ideological convention from outside the aesthetic/domestic feelings, from outside the authorial presence, previously evident in the poem . . . but it also signals the flight of the poet from her potentially rebellious sentiment, as if the house of her emotion-full verse were also dangerously on fire” (167). Bidding her earthly possessions and dreams “Adieu, Adieu” steps outside of the Puritan belief system but the immediate use of the scriptural quote from Ecclesiastes creates the illusion of remaining within the acceptable system.
Self-effacement is the vehicle Bradstreet uses to question, explore, and attempt to reconcile her love for the material with her desire for the eternal. The use of these literary confessions frees her to explore the Puritan belief system without a direct challenge. The initial chiding is the confession necessary to continue Bradstreet’s exploration and search for heaven and its rewards. This lost home on earth is dung, she shares with her audience, because:
Thou hast an house on high erect,
Framed by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent though this be fled. (312)
Bradstreet’s belief in a heavenly resting place prepared and reserved for her after death, evident in the line, “Yet by His gift is made thine own,” is in conflict within the Puritan dogma of depravity and predetermination (312). The preceding admonishment to “Raise up thy thoughts above the sky” allows the Puritan reader to find the comfort level expected because if one has to raise up their thoughts, then they must be depraved (311). Yet the text suggests that for Anne Bradstreet Christ’s sacrifice had allowed her entrance into heaven, “purchased and paid for too / By Him who hath enough to do” (312). This radical break with the dominant theology was not rebellion but a heartfelt belief held by an intelligent, independent, and educated woman who was aware of more than a simple doctrine. As Ann Stanford states: “It was a quiet rebellion, carried on as an undercurrent in an atmosphere of conformity” (79). The poem’s subtlety is an example of both Bradstreet’s trained writing skills and her awareness of how careful she had to be exploring the theology by which she lived.
The use of these oblique references to heaven as a constant continues when Bradstreet explores further and reminds herself and her audience that Christ paid the ultimate price for humankind. The price that Christ paid was to make permanent that house on high: “Yet by His gift is made thine own; / There’s wealth enough, I need no more” (312). The exploration of the permanency of heaven is not outside the bounds of Puritan theocracy, but here Bradstreet has subtly alluded to the possibility that this “gift” is for everyone. Wendy Martin believes that “Upon a Burning of Our House” demonstrates that Bradstreet found “genuine comfort in the promise of an afterlife” (19). Continuing within the Puritan tradition of tension between the spiritual and the secular, Bradstreet asks the help of God, “The world no longer let me love,” while assuring herself that the gift is real, “My hope and treasure lies above” (312). The use of the word “hope” would imply that this is no guarantee, if Bradstreet had not mentioned in the last eight lines that this “house on high” was hers because of the sacrifice of Christ and that it was indeed the gift he had given her (312).
This reading is based within a historical context; the gift of heaven through good works was a commonly held belief for many in England at the time. Anne Bradstreet had the childhood of a gentlewoman and thus been exposed to a wider base of knowledge and canon. The idea of a guaranteed heavenly reward had no place in the Puritan dogma, yet it is subtly alluded to in the verses from “Upon the Burning on Our House July 10th, 1666.” This piousness was the goal to which all Puritans aspired, although to be aware of being pious would be sinful and to imagine that this guaranteed election into heaven close to blasphemy. Anne Bradstreet did explore and acknowledge this concept of heaven. The subtle allusion reveals a truly gifted and educated woman in full control of her art as a poet. The concept of heaven being Christ’s gift to all humankind would not have been advisable to publicize in seventeenth century New England; however, by couching her sentiments in allusive language, Anne Bradstreet managed to remain true to her own sense of personal integrity while maintaining the norms of the society in which she lived. Her exploration of God and grace did not impede the process of introspection and full devotion to God, only gave a different scope to the faith, by which she lived, wrote, and died.
Bradstreet, Anne. “Upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter, et al. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Lexington: Heath, 1994. 311-312.
Hammond, Jeffery A. Sinful Self, Saintly Self: The Puritan Experience of Poetry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1993.
Martin, Wendy. An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Rosenmeier, Rosamond. Anne Bradstreet Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Scheick, William J. “Logonomic Conflict in Anne Bradstreet’s ‘A Letter to Her Husband.’” Essays in Literature 21 (Fall 1994): 166 +.
Stanford, Ann. “Anne Bradstreet: Dogmatist and Rebel”. Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet. Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1983. 76-88.