Praise and bless my Lord and thank Him” -Saint Francis of Assisi
“You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands.” -From Psalm 8
When one speaks of comparable writers, they’re often related from the same literary movement or have common biographies. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, is comparable to Henry David Thoreau in that both are products of middle nineteenth century New England thought, and they came into each other’s acquaintance during their lifetime. Anne Bradstreet, a seventeenth century Puritan wife and mother, can be comparable to any number of people who made God one of their most important subjects to write about, such as St. Francis of Assisi’s poetry.
That Emerson and Bradstreet find themselves comparable may be considered an audacious claim, but nevertheless one can be made if a close examination of both of their work is made. Anne Bradstreet came to Plymouth from England in the early 1600’s to escape religious persecution, and although she didn’t pioneer a particular movement, she is considered to be one of the first American poets. For a Puritan, some of her writings are untraditional, as they don’t always focus on the wonders of God. A perfect model for what a Puritan should write about is found in the journals of John Bradford, a contemporary of Bradstreet’s husband and another to sail to Plymouth. In his narrative, he speaks of “God’s mercy”, “this it pleased God” and “they gave God solemn thanks.”(p. 115 Norton) dstreet emphasizes God’s hand as well, but a struggle persisted throughout her lifetime, as is evident in “To my Dear Children.”
To speak of the Transcendentalist movement briefly while quenching the thirst from the reader’s lips is as difficult as speaking with enough information to understand the Puritan writers, but one can hope to make a satisfactory introduction. The word “transcendentalism” as defined by The Oxford American Dictionary of American English is stated as follows: ‘explaining matter and objective things as products of the subjective mind’ or ‘regarding the Divine as the guiding principle in man.’ The Transcendentalists strove to drive man away from his material existence and appreciate the simple beauty of nature while understanding the importance of them as a spiritual being. God played a significant role, which lived through the soul of the common man.
In Emerson’s essay “The Over-soul” he speaks of man’s function in the grand sphere of things, and how materialism and other’s notions about the world play down man’s importance. Hence, both Bradstreet and Emerson associate the spiritual with what the ink produces on their pages, and verify that the best way to convert someone is through written persuasion. Emerson grabs the reader’s attention by opening “The Over-Soul” with a poetic epigram from Henry More: “When they (he soul) shall die, then God himself shall die.” The fourth line of this five line selection is chosen due to the similar message Emerson portrays in the essay that follows; that the soul of man should be held in the same regard as the One, and if one goes down, then the other is sure to follow. Emerson continues with More’s line of thought two pages into the essay, when he mentions the absence of a boundary between God and us. “A wise old proverb (that) says ‘God comes to us without bell’ that is, as there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so there is no bar or wall in the soul where man, the effort, ceases, and God, the cause, begins” says Emerson.
At this point a Baptist minister, if so inclined, may instruct his congregation to look around the church at everywhere God dwells; stands, sits, kneels, walks, and most importantly, inside everyone. “If we will not interfere with our thought, but will act entirely, or see how the thing stands in God, we know the particular thing, and everything, and every man.”(The-Oversoul) Emerson remarks on how God is placing the keys to his members-only club in our hands for us to be a part of how he feels and what he does which brings about beauty and knowledge to everything carefully observed. These words don’t sound like they come from the pen of a man who stepped down from the Unitarian ministry, but from an enlightened one without organized religion standing in the way. As Carl Bodes introduction to The Portable Emerson states the three things he needed were “a kindly God, a kindly universe, and a few universal laws.”(xx)
On the other end, the only thing Bradstreet needed was faith in the existence of God. In her letter to her children while ill and awaiting her death, she reflects on her times of doubt: “Many times Satan troubled me concerning the verity of the Scriptures, many times by atheism how I could know whether there was a God. I never saw any miracles to confirm me, and those which I read of, how did I know but they were feigned?” As her biography confirms, she married at the age if 16, and fought repercussions of fatigue after overcoming rheumatic fever as a child. Arriving in Plymouth with pestilence and the potential wrath of the Native Americans were threats to all the Puritans’ lives. It’s surprise then that the young woman had her times of doubt, which only proves all the more how common a person she really was. Push as she did, and in her resolve she risked death eight times through childbirth, and won the respect of her brother-in-law who sought the publication of her poems in London. In one of these poems “Here follows some verses upon the burning of our house July 10, 1666” she remarks upon the ideal Puritan disenchantment of material items: “Adieu, adieu, all’s vanity” (line 36. Realizing that with the end of such valuables as “that trunk (and there) that chest”(line 25) she can focus more on the spiritual aspect of her life without becoming attached to mere possessions.
The Bradstreet in the first half of the poem is the woman who admitted to her children of her doubts, while the second half affirms her religious devoutness and embraces the God she had qualms about earlier. In Psalm 80 from the Bible, a similar passage of accepting loss is found: “It is burned with fire, it is cut down; they perish at the rebuke of Your countenance.” She thanks her God for sparing her and making her aware of what should be of everyone’s utmost importance, that is, attending service and hailing the praises of the Lord, something Great Awakening orator Jonathan Edwards speaks of in the nineteenth century. According to him the consequences of dwelling on the material are eternal damnation, whereas God gave her a second chance and ordered the house and its furniture to face damnation instead.
Both writers speak of the psalm’s second to last line: “revive us, and we will call upon your name.” Emerson’s second chance with God comes after he is unable to prepare the Lord’s Supper as a minister without feeling like a hypocrite. In the middle of his essay, he speaks of his refreshing sense that he is able to express a wide range of emotions, just like God under different circumstances. “They stir in me new emotions we call passion; of love, hatred, fear, admiration, pity….” In his address to the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School, he tells them how important it is to put aside their doctrine and talk to churchgoers to learn about their ideas. While on the pulpit, he only had the congregation absorb his ideas, but they never had the opportunity to think for themselves.
If one is still not convinced of the compatibility between the two authors, I have borrowed from Virginia Woolf’s idea of imagining Shakespeare had a sister and place Bradstreet and Emerson in a room together sharing tea. The dialogue between the two consists primarily of quotations from their works that parallel their ideas and bridge together the centuries. Anne looks at Emerson with her tired eyes and shares with him how God gave her a second chance: “I have often been perplexed that I have not found that constant joy in my pilgrimage.” She can’t understand why someone as devoted to her faith and family as she should ever lose a sparkle of faith. In telling this to her children, she doesn’t expect a response: she opens her letter with a passage that states her hopes for the children to one day read what “I leave for you when I am dead.” Emerson, however, is going to give her a voice: “Our faith comes in moments,” he says as he lifts the teacup to his lips.
Bradstreet nods her head in agreement, not only since his statement applies to even the most devout of monks, but since Bradstreet straddles between a spiritual and physical love in her poetry as well. In “A letter to her husband, absent upon public employment” she expresses her desire for the man she married while still a teenage, as “his warmth such frigid colds did melt.” (line 10) Her carnal longings overpower her wish to serve God as a Puritan wife and mother, as all people find themselves in-between moments of “properness” and lust. As Emerson places his cup down again to speak, he notices her face is flush with a rose color. “I have organs also and delight in pleasure, but I have experience also that pleasure is the bait of a trap (xviii Bode’s Introduction.)
While Bradstreet lived with a love but lost the material, Emerson lost the love (his first wife, and only true love) died only months after they married) and denounced the material. A sexual outlet would overcome his ability to speak of such matters as sensuality in nature, as he believed that all energy came from the same source.Here is where Bradstreet would once again agree that Emerson was on the right track, that one could have times of doubt, but not give in to other forces (lust in this instance) In continuing with their conversation, she brings up a more optimistic version of her sentence to her tea-mate. “That there is a God my reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see.”
In one of the facets of transcendentalism, one believes that he is on the same level as God, and the good of man reflects the good works God does. He brings with him his optimistic approach to mankind in “The Over-Soul” just as Bradstreet displays her integrity and honesty in telling those she held dearest to her, her children, that she is imperfect and has the same hopes and fears as everyone else. Anne pulls out a worn copy of the Holy Bible, one of the few items spared by the fire. She picks a passage from Psalm 107: “He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and broke their chains in pieces.” Yes, Emerson nods, for he released himself from the confinement of a ministry he wasn’t fully faithful in. He found his own light sharing ideas with “Hedge’s Club” and took trips down south to alleviate his own tuberculosis.
Anne is asked at what point in hr life did she realize that she was freed from the chains. “I have had great experiences of God hearing my prayers and returning comfortable answers.” Emerson is not a believer in praying to God in hopes that he will answer them, because of the constant union and absence of a boundary where God and man break off into their own corners, as stated earlier. He asks her to join him in a walk to the woods where they can see all the wondrous works God took a hand in. She accepts, and Emerson, being a perfect gentleman, pays the tab.
In all of this comparison it’s seldom that the writer is given the opportunity to voice her opinion, but a ten page paper gives a generous amount of room considering the limited amount of information I could obtain on Bradstreet. When I set out to juxtapose the two writers, I thought it would be easy to find similarities, but it was like pulling rotted teeth in that I wasn’t so sure that was I was trying to say was accurate. This is my chance to speak subjectively about the two writers, and I feel that if Bradstreet was born two-hundred years later, she would have been able to share with the world more of her writing. Without the confinement of staying at home and rearing her eight children to be perfect little Puritans, she would spend more time out in the open, taking in nature and reveling in its beauty. Since she was from the same area as Emerson, they might have come into acqaintance with one another just as Thoreau when Emerson gathered all the common thinkers into his club. We might be reading more of her than of her male counterpart as well, including more liberating notions about her sexuality.
Emerson, on the other hand, would have been persecuted as a heathen if he had lived in Bradstreet’s time. The zealots would have seen that he be, if still ashore, thrown overboard, or once at Plymouth, asked to be sent back to England as someone like Thomas Merrymount was. His essays might have never been published if he lived in one of the precariously- made houses the Puritans called home. Imagine if all his manuscripts were caught in the blaze, and no one would have realized that they weren’t just petty papers. The people of the nineteenth century affected by the “fire and brimstone” sermons of Jonathan Edwards then wouldn’t have had him as an outside source to rely on. If this was the case, religion would have never seen a positive light until someone else came forward. Thoreau preferred to talk about America’s problems with economics and government, having never been a minister like Emerson. What would have happened in this case?
It is definitely reassuring to know that some religious figures have adopted Emerson’s notions. During a recent homily at Saint Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church in New York, Father Joseph Palackal made a point about one of the readings. “As in nature, so must man change with the times.” It is therefore assumed that eventually someone else would have come forward with Emersonian-like principles, but one could only hope.