Heavenly Treasures, Worldly Metaphors: The Ecology of Anne Bradstreet

Written by Madison Andrews
(Full notes available here: Heavenly Treasures, Worldly Metaphors.)

     In this paper, I will argue that an idiosyncratic ecological perspective emerges from a close examination of Anne Bradstreet’s use of New Testament scripture in the “The Flesh and the Spirit.” For Bradstreet, scripture functions as a storehouse of formational treasures, as a muse, and as a master signifier. I have divided this paper into two parts: the first establishes the way in which scripture enfleshes, inspires, and legitimizes Bradstreet’s poetic efforts. The second explores the ecological implications of Bradstreet’s particular reading of Matthew 6:19-21 – one which emphasizes the epistemological richness and affective resonance of the temporal world.

Heavenly Treasures, Worldly Metaphors

     Considered the first “American” poet, wife and mother of eight Anne Bradstreet immigrated to North America in 1630 aboard the ship Arbella. Her first collection of poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in 1650 in England by her father and brother-in-law. Her second book, published posthumously in 1678, moved away from the impersonal epics of her early career toward more intimate explorations of theology, personhood, and, some have recently suggested, ecology. Included in this later collection is “The Flesh and the Spirit” – a poem which seems, at first blush, to deliver a compact recitation of Puritanical views regarding the unregenerate flesh and the redeemed spirit. The speaker imagines her interiority as two dualistic sister-selves – one “Flesh,”

who had her eye
on worldly wealth and vanity;
the other Spirit, who did rear
her thoughts unto a higher sphere:

     The poem takes the form of a debate between dueling interlocutors, with Flesh arguing for temporal “riches,” “honour,” and “pleasure,” all of which, the Flesh assures her sister, human “industry” and “ambition” can acquire. The Spirit, on the hand, ultimately carries the day with her argument in favor of “heavenly treasures.” In her opening gambit, the Flesh chides, “Hast treasures [in heaven] laid up in store/ That all in th’ world thou count’st but poor?” The Spirit proceeds to rhetorically and metaphysically defeat the Flesh in her rebuttal. She reiterates the vow she made, presumably at the moment of salvation, to “pursue” her flesh-sister as a “foe,” seething as she explains,

Thy sinful pleasures I do hate,
Thy riches are to me no bait,
Thine honours do, nor will I love;
For my ambition lies above.

     She defines this heavenly ambition in an attempt to differentiate and distance herself from the Flesh. Yet in repudiating the world the speaker simultaneously relies almost entirely upon worldly metaphors.

     The Spirit subdues her other-self by attempting to describe the “treasures in heaven” which Matthew 6:19-21 exhorts Christians to seek. In response to the Flesh’s derisive question, “Doth contemplation feed thee so/ Regardlessly to let earth go?” The Spirit responds,

How I do live, thou need’st not scoff,
For I have meat thou know’st not of:
The hidden manna I do eat,
The word of life it is my meat.

     Rosamund Rosenmeier has argued that Bradstreet’s reference here to Revelation 2:17 “suggests that Christ (‘the word of life’) is, somehow, her flesh (‘my meat’).” A closer examination of the relevant New Testament passage suggests that “the word of life” is the speaker’s sustenance, not her actual flesh. Nevertheless, Rosenmeier’s attention to such discursive slippage highlights the complex,  co-constitutive relation between earthly and heavenly treasures and, by extension, Flesh and Spirit. I would suggest that rather than making an ontological claim here, the speaker is grappling with a discursive arsenal whose potential is circumscribed by her this-worldly epistemology.  She cannot define heavenly treasures without recourse to earthly metaphors – in this case, “meat” and related digestive processes. This analogy is particularly interesting given the way in which New Testament texts function in Bradstreet’s poetics – scripture enfleshes, inspires, and legitimizes her poetry. For Bradstreet, writing is a rigorous method of reading scripture.

     To put it another way, New Testament scripture functions here as a “language-world” – a “storehouse of rhetorics, images, and stories….,” “of heroes and heroines, of heroic peoples and their pathos and victory, sorrow and joy, sojourn and fulfillment.” Whereas Vincent Wimbush’s powerful study examines the language-worlds of African Americans, I want here to delineate the uses of scripture in Bradstreet’s Anglo-European, Puritanical poetry. First, the New Testament functions as a poetic muse. Galatians 5:16-17, which declares that the desires of the Flesh and Spirit are opposed to each other and encourages Christians to live by the Spirit, arguably generates the internal battle being waged in this poem. Indeed, “The Flesh and the Spirit” constitutes an attempt to work out the implications of this verse by way of poetic engagement. In representing the antagonism between Flesh and Spirit, Bradstreet chews the “meat” of the “word of life,” as it were, and through this poetic-digestive process produces insightful readings of scripture. The speaker seems to conclude that the most significant difference between the Flesh and Spirit may be summed up by the question “where do their treasures lie?” – or, more precisely, “when?” Ultimately, the Spirit’s method of reading comes “to a conclusion almost beyond paradox….,” writes Rosenmeier. “Occurrences in this world…which prefigure the riches of Christ’s grace, will not disappear, but will exist with a new vividness….In the life to come the spirit will have an unparalleled existence in the flesh.” The inherent difficulty of defining that “unparalleled existence” gives rise to fruitful scriptural activity arguably inspired by Galatians and Matthew, in addition to other New Testament texts.

     Second, scripture offers Bradstreet what I will call a “storehouse of formational treasures” – tropes, characters, analogies, and divine histories – which the speaker uses here in her argument with the Flesh. She refers, for example, to Genesis in her assertion that the Flesh is “begot” of Adam; she mentions, as we have seen, John 4:32 in her rebuttal to the Flesh’s accusation that her heavenly focus is without substance; and, perhaps most notably, she poetically reconstructs an abridged version of Revelation 21-22 in the last 29 lines of the poem. In this thickly allusive passage, the poet presents her most detailed vision of heavenly treasures, taking refuge in the argument that, while she cannot imagine anything that is not in some way derivative of this world, she can maintain that heavenly treasures will be like worldly treasures, but better. The holy city of God will be gated with pearl “both rich and clear,” its walls made of Jasper stone, its streets of transparent gold.” The superiority of substance is suggested not by radical ontological difference, but by physical impossibilities that suggest a world governed by alternative conditions and laws (one in which gold is transparent and pearl durable enough to withstand the pressures of gatehood). It is interesting to note that for John, the putative writer of Revelation, these things formed part of a symbolic code under the protection of which he could actively criticize the Roman government. Bradstreet, on the other hand, is not crafting an allegory, and there is little evidence to suggest that the poem self-consciously seeks to engage the historical/allegorical implications of this scripture. Rather, this storehouse of formational treasures offers Bradstreet a set of visual counterpoints to the Flesh’s accusation that her “treasures” are the product of insanity or delusion. Shorn of their original symbolic content, Bradstreet’s poetic reimagining of scripture shifts our attention away from the historically specific referents to the things themselves. If the Galatian dialectic of Flesh and Spirit inspires her scriptural activity, then the storehouse of formational treasures found in Revelation equips her with the tools she needs to “finish the poem,” so to speak.

     This storehouse of treasures is formational in the sense that the linguistic resources contained therein make possible the constitution of self and community. In relying upon images contained in John’s apocalyptic eschatology, the multi-vocal speaker formulates a self that, while not purely of the Spirit, at least privileges the desires of the Spirit as ultimately right and good. While on one level this internal battle offers us a glimpse into the contradictions characteristic of the Puritan psychic experience, it is also representative of actual debates that took place in Massachusetts Bay Colony between the elect and the unregenerate. In such a real life situation, New Testament scripture would have functioned as a kind of “master signifier.” Slavoj Žižek uses this term (which he inherits from the Lacanian psychoanalytic framework) to refer to political language that both rallies individuals and identifies them as such. Master signifiers, such as “God,” “the Nation,” or “the People,” are like sacred objects that no one has ever actually seen, but to whose power and authority everyone assents. In a theocracy like that of Massachusetts Bay Colony, God serves as the ultimate master signifier. Ensconced in the Reformed tradition, Bradstreet and Puritan officials would have viewed God as synonymous with the Word. Any reference to the New Testament, therefore, may be viewed as an allusion to the master signifier of Puritan society, in the Žižekian sense. Thus, when the Spirit refers to Revelation 21-22 she not only fashions her own selfhood through her use of scripture, but helps to formulate the collective identity of the elect by speaking as a representative of that community. Likewise, the Flesh aligns itself with the unredeemed community, broadly defined, when it uses Matthew 6:19-21 as part of a sarcastic dig at the Spirit’s insanity and sobriety. Both sides acknowledge the supremacy of the master signifier while claiming affiliation with different states of grace.

Ecological Implications

     Out of the speaker’s combined scriptural activities emerges a distinct ecological vision. I hesitate to use the term “ecotheological,” not only because this particular movement postdates New England Puritanical thought by at least three centuries, but because Bradstreet’s poetry seems to offer little in the way of the self-conscious ethics that characterize environmentally conscious theology. Rather, working in the vein of New Materialists like Jane Bennett and Diana Coole, I will explore the way in which the speaker’s attempt to describe treasures in heaven results in a new iteration or re-imagining of Creation as such.

     In Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett argues that things contain the power to transcend their “thinghood,” to exert an influence or agency which our anthropocentric hierarchies tend to dismiss. In the first chapter of her book, she describes a collection of things sighted on a storm grate outside a bagel shop in Baltimore –

one large men’s black plastic work glove
one dense mat of oak pollen
one unblemished dead rat
one white plastic bottle cap
one smooth stick of wood

     “As I encountered these items,” Bennett writes, “they shimmied back and forth between debris and thing – between, on the one hand, stuff to ignore, except insofar as it betokened human activity (the workman’s efforts, the litterer’s toss, the rat-poisoner’s success), and, on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects.” In the second moment, this “stuff” exhibited its thing-power, eliciting certain “affects” from the author like disgust, dismay, and wonder at the “impossible singularity” of this particular collection of things. Stuff has thing-power, then, to the extent that it exerts an agency of its own – which is to say that human perception alone does not exhaust the potentialities of the relation between humans and objects. Nevertheless, since the only barometer of thing-power to which we have access is the human subject, registering the impact of stuff requires a certain “perceptual style” that is “open to the appearance of thing-power.” In this case, Bennett’s affective response constitutes the object-oriented evidence of thing-power.

     I maintain that Bradstreet’s poetry projects such a perceptual style. Joshua Bartlett has argued that her ecological thought “displays extraordinary fascination with the effects of natural phenomena on her sensibility…as well as a continual eagerness to pursue such experience whenever possible.” Rather than consisting of an escapist or Edenic impulse, however, this ecological thinking is based on interconnectedness in this world “that allows her to continually challenge and destabilize the rigid subject-object (human-nature) distinctions that both pastoral and religious thought are dependent on and that the ecological seeks to move beyond.” Given the presuppositions of Puritan ontology and epistemology, it is difficult to imagine a poetics of Bradstreet that is in any way “beyond” religious thought. Rather, I want to suggest that Bradstreet’s method of reading scripture – the active way in which she poetically digests the “meat” of the “word,” thereby inhabiting her own idiosyncratic scriptural language-world – is itself ecological by virtue of its emphasis on textual and material interconnectedness. Scripture, too, exerts a kind of “thing-power” – scripture is not inert but, as we have seen, enfleshes, inspires, and legitimizes the poetic impulse, provoking a host of affective responses in the process (affect being the special domain of lyric poetry.) Religious and ecological thought are not mutually exclusive; rather, Bradstreet’s method of reading scripture – the primary religious activity for Puritans – is itself ecological, thereby producing interpretive conclusions that trouble “rigid subject-object” distinctions such as human and nature, Flesh and Spirit.

     It should be noted, however, that Bartlett’s assertion is partly intended as an apotropaic gesture against the tendency in Bradstreet scholarship to assume that, as Adrienne Rich argued, “a real change in [Bradstreet’s] active sensibility” occurred after her 1650 publication. By the middle of the nineteenth century, poems written before 1650 had come to be viewed in both critical and popular circles as dry, imitative, and impersonal. Readers preferred Bradstreet’s “later poems,” which “satisf[ied] a larger aesthetic, to the extent of being genuine, delicate minor poems.” Rich’s aesthetic judgment is based, partly, on observable thematic shifts – Bradstreet devotes more attention to her natural environment and becomes more forthright in her poetic self-excavations. Moreover, as Robert Boschman speculates, the death of her father, Thomas Dudley – a pillar in the Puritan community whose support both enabled and censored his daughter’s poetic efforts – may have allowed Bradstreet to “articulate herself more freely, knowing that her first reader was no longer around to peruse her work directly.” Indeed, Boschman suggests that she may have early on developed a coded language not unlike that deployed by John in Revelation. Bradstreet seldom wrote anything, in fact, without recourse to this cagey expressive mode, which Rosenmeier identifies as one of the characteristic features of her poetry. Whether or not the notable shift in Bradstreet’s poetry reflects the results of her liberation from scrutiny; or corresponds to a broader, generational progression from austerity to ritual and ornamentation; what is clear is that post-nineteenth-century critics (including Rich) have tended to associate the later period with moral declension and aesthetic achievement – “a binary of ‘bad Puritan’/‘good poet’ and vice versa.”

     While I do not seek to reify the bad Puritan/good poet binary that Bartlett attempts to dismantle, I do propose that an understanding of the scriptural language-world in which Bradstreet’s poetry operates helps to illuminate her ecological project. The change in her post-1650 poetry includes an increased confidence in navigating her unique language-world by way of her rigorous poetic reading process. In the case of “The Flesh and the Spirit,” this method produces a linguistic paradox in which the only way to piously contemplate treasures in heaven is to transact in earthly metaphors. Thus, Bradstreet’s “open” “perceptual style,” the ecological vision that arguably pervades the author’s entire oeuvre, is in fact necessitated by the demands of piety as defined by the poet through a meticulous and creative scriptural reading practice.

 

Bibliography

Bartlett, Joshua. “Anne Bradstreet’s Ecological Thought.” Women’s Studies 43, no. 3 (2014): 290-304.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010

Boschman, Robert. In the Way of Nature: Ecology and Westward Expansion in the Poetry of Anne Bradstreet, Elizabeth Bishop and Amy Clampitt. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009.

Adrienne Rich, “Anne Bradstreet and Her Poetry,” The Works of Anne Bradstreet, edited by Jeannine Hensley, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967, ix-xxii.

Rosenmeier, Rosamund R. “‘Divine Translation’: A Contribution to the Study of Anne Bradstreet’s Method in the Marriage Poems.” Early American Literature 12, no. 2 (1977): 121-135.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. What Is Scripture? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

Wimbush, Vincent L. The Bible and African Americans: A Brief History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

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