Publication Details: Early American Literature 42.3 (2007): p435-470.
Source: Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 168. Detroit: Gale. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Critical essay
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning
[(essay date 2007) In the following essay, Hilliker compares the writings of Anne Bradstreet and Marie de l'Incarnation, specifically their use of the rhetoric of familial education. He examines their works within the context of the changing transatlantic discourse on American colonialism.]
Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise then true
Who thee abroad, expos'd to publick view,
Made thee in raggs, halting to th'press to trudg,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judg)
Anne Bradstreet, "An Author to her Book" (1678)
In her American Triptych, Wendy Martin epitomizes the traditional feminist criticism of Anne Bradstreet's poetry when she identifies "An Author to her Book" as the moment when Bradstreet begins to "view her daily experience as a valid subject for her art" (67). Martin's judgment reinforces a division, posited much earlier by Adrienne Rich, between Bradstreet's early, purportedly masculine and derivative, verse and her later, more successful, domestic poetry. This division, since supported by numerous critics, draws its rhetorical strength from an equation of the vitality of Bradstreet's later, domestic poems with their putative originality and authenticity, what Rich calls her "personal history [of] marriage, childbearing, [and] death" (xii-xiv). While critics such as Philip Round and Ivy Schweitzer have more recently reclaimed the political and even polemical significance of Bradstreet's poetry, they have largely reaffirmed this divide.1
As Tamara Harvey suggests, Round and Schweitzer find "double-voiced displays of poetic, personal, or female power" in the earlier poems, and thus still see in them in a kind of literary cross-dressing--the female poet-ironically winking at us from behind a false beard and mustache, as it were (5). Further, both Schweitzer and Round deemphasize Bradstreet's own role in the production of her poetry, representing it as something appropriated from her by her male Puritan interlocutors, especially her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge. The combined effect of these critical moves is to position Bradstreet as an isolated phenomenon--the lone woman poet on the American frontier--rather than part of a transatlantic community of European authors, both male and female, whose work engages the complex issues raised by the European colonization of the Americas.2 Foremost among these issues is the problem of how to maintain European identities in a "New World," and the concomitant fear of what Cotton Mather would call "Criolian Degeneracy" and "Indianization" (A Way to Prosperity 34; Decennium Luctuosum 211). By insisting that we see Bradstreet as a rara avis, both the traditional and the revisionist criticism obscure how her creative and provocative melding of religious, political, and domestic discourses responds to the challenge of creating a coherent transatlantic identity by producing a potent vision of the relationship between colony and metropole as one between a parent and child rather than male and female lovers.
It is, I suggest, only by reading Bradstreet's poetry alongside that of contemporary authors, both male and female, on both sides of the Atlantic, that we can properly understand its broader significance.3 Such a reading will allow us to see how Bradstreet links sexual and cultural reproduction, thereby cementing the family as the primary locus of identity development--at an individual and a communal level--and, more particularly, smoothing over potential dissonances between her (Puritan) religious identity and her (English) national identity. It will also allow us to see how Bradstreet both responds to and anticipates contemporary educational discourse, particularly writing about women's education, but relocates education itself, placing it in a familial rather than an institutional setting. While critics such as Harvey and Patricia Pender have demonstrated how Bradstreet's work fits within a larger body of English language writing by men and women on both sides of the Atlantic, however, I want to highlight Bradstreet's place in an international discursive shift fueled by the developing European understanding of the colonization of the Americas. In order to do this, I will examine her work alongside that of Marie de l'Incarnation, a French nun who established the first educational mission for women (both native and European) in New France.4
De l'Incarnation's writings, like Bradstreet's, bear witness to an ongoing shift in the European understanding of the relationship between colony and metropole. De l'Incarnation also resembles Bradstreet in the way she deploys the symbolic resonances of the family to help reproduce traditional religious and national identities in the "New World." Unlike Bradstreet, however, de l'Incarnation's use of this rhetoric of familial education ultimately leads her to question the appropriateness of rigidly linking national and religious identities. As Carla Zecher suggests, de l'Incarnation's religious mission "decentered some of the nationalistic impetus of the colonizing enterprise," and thereby helped to produce "a new kind of French cultural identity" based, in part, on the blending of French and Native American cultural practices (39).
The fear of precisely such a destabilization of national and religious identities animates much early colonial writing throughout the Americas--English, French, Spanish, Dutch and otherwise--with earlier adventurer-explorers often focusing on refuting the climatological theories of national character popularized by political philosophers like Jean Bodin. By the time that Bradstreet, de l'Incarnation, and others were writing from established (if only recently so) colonies such as New England and New France, however, colonization no longer simply meant thinking about the European men and women transplanting to what would be a "New" France or a "New" England, but also about the children who would be born there and might perhaps even return to the metropole. One can see the ramifications of the colonial project slowly, belatedly, taking shape in the metropolitan mind, leading to fear of the emergence of that category of people the Spanish were already calling "creoles."5
And so we see Bradstreet and de l'Incarnation turn away from many of the concerns of earlier authors in order to highlight education, particularly education within a familial setting, as the means by which national and religious identities can be successfully reproduced in the North American colonies. What we find instead of the lone, male explorer performing his cultural identity to a native audience (and recording it in print for an audience back home) is the family--particularly the nuclear family--singled out as the site of education, with the maternal figure occupying the role of instructor. This figuration produces a fundamental symbolic link between sexual and cultural reproduction that can be found not only in the writings of Scottish Enlightenment figures such as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith--all of whom, as Rosemarie Zagarri notes, identify the family as "a key transmitter of customs, habits, morals, and manners, and hence, as the basic building block of a larger society" (195)--but also those of later American authors from Thomas Paine to Louisa May Alcott.6
As this trajectory suggests, Bradstreet and de l'Incarnation's regendering of the discourse of colonial identity has significant effects. First, it shifts attention away from the hierarchical class identities that remain central to earlier male authors by taking politics out of the sphere of male competition. It simultaneously positions a particular set of religious practices and beliefs as a means to secure communal integrity. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for later discourses of national identity, it organizes the discursive connections between national politics, religion, and collective identity around the figure of a mother instructing her children in proper moral behavior--a figure that would find such resonance over a century later in the newly independent United States.
Reading "The Author to her Book" in terms of this educational paradigm also foregrounds its contemporary political resonances, making it possible to read the poem as part of Bradstreet's ongoing concern about the relationship between Old and New England, rather than her assertion of a new, authentically female voice. To draw out the political and religious implications of this poem, we particularly need to pay attention to its rhetorical constructedness--precisely those puns, metaphors, and other figures that are apt to be dissolved into the authentic, literal voice that Rich and Martin find in Bradstreet's later verse. Rather than reading this poem as a crux between two phases in Bradstreet's career, then, I want to insist that it is typical of all her poetry--indeed, all of her writing--in its use of domestic tropes to address political purposes.
In the poem, Bradstreet characterizes her book as a child of unspecified gender and sex. She then expresses concern about how her book will be received by the critics, especially because her poetry was first "expos'd to public view" without her consent, having been published in London from a manuscript copy secreted across the Atlantic by Woodbridge (177). Woodbridge even acknowledges, in his "Epistle to the Reader," that Bradstreet "resolved [these poems] should never in such a manner see the sun" (Bradstreet 526). While Woodbridge's "such a manner" implicitly refers to their publication, Bradstreet's "Author to her Book" brings out another meaning by insisting on her attempts to "amend" her book-child's "blemishes" before she returns it to public view, implying that she is not against her poems' publication, but against their appearing in public before they have been properly educated (178).
Where Woodbridge's "Epistle" aims to depoliticize the publication of Bradstreet's poetry by downplaying her authorial role, Bradstreet repoliticizes it on her own, domestic terms, offering us a crash course in what we might call "poetic pedagogy." Thus, while Bradstreet expresses shame at her "ill form'd offspring," she acknowledges her maternity rather than casting the child out. Bradstreet insists on the possibility of improving her book-child by "stretching [its] joynts to make [it] even feet" and "dress[ing]" it "in better trim" (177-78). These puns provoke a series of reinforcing associations: the appropriate gait and attire of a respectable English person overlap with the appropriate meter and diction of English poetry, producing a figurative evocation of a text that knows how to behave itself. Bradstreet, in amending her poetry, teaches it its manners, but she also teaches us something about the role of education in governing the transatlantic relationship between the metropole and the colony: to be properly English, the colonists have to reproduce proper English customs, and in order to reproduce those customs, they have to model them for their children to imitate in their turn.7
What Bradstreet's poem lays bare, then, is how the rhetoric of colonization has shifted from that deployed by earlier explorer-adventurers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and John Smith precisely because the source of the anxiety about colonization itself has shifted from the ordeals of crossing the Atlantic and the strangeness of "first contact" to the difficulties of establishing a population of "native" Euro-Americans that maintains a properly European identity. Whereas early explorers like Raleigh alternate between sexual language that portrays the discovery and conquest of a feminized and eroticized "Countrey that hath yet her Maydenhead" and the Platonic idealism visible in the naming of Virginia after Elizabeth, the "Virgin Queen" (95), and settlers like Thomas Morton portray New England as "a rich widow, now to be tane up or laid downe" (136, see also 131-37, where Morton's Puritan rivals are implicitly cast as cuckolds), Bradstreet gives us, in her poetry, a feminine and familiarized America. The New World becomes, as Pender has argued, quite literally the daughter of the Old one, replacing a heterosexual paradigm with a familial one.8
By placing Bradstreet and de l'Incarnation side by side, we can begin to see how this shift is part of a larger transatlantic discursive development driven by the rhetorical demands of the colonization of the Americas. Furthermore, we can demonstrate that Bradstreet's writings are not the strange and marvelous singularity that they are often held to be, but rather part of a larger body of writing by women that both takes part in and challenges the dominant paradigms of seventeenth-century political philosophy as it applied to the colonization of North America.
A True Instructer to Her Family
Where Francis Bacon, in his essay "Of Custom and Education," suggests that childhood education ought to be grounded in an inductive scientific method like that described in his New Organon--"I open and lay out a new and certain path for the mind to proceed in, starting directly from the simple sensuous perception" (34)--Bradstreet and de l'Incarnation conceive of education as a process in which correct behavior is modeled and then imitated.9 In a letter to her nephews, for example, de l'Incarnation instructs them that "[l]e vray moyen de vivre dans ce haut état [l'état de grâce] ... c'est d'observer Ses commandemens, de frequenter souvent les Sacremens & de regler vos moeurs sur les exemples de JESUS-CHRIST" ["The true way to live in this high state [the state of grace] ... is to observe His commandments, to partake often of the Sacraments, and to measure your mores against the example of Jesus Christ"] (129).10 Thus, while Bradstreet and de l'Incarnation hardly espouse the overt theatricality of explorers like Raleigh and Smith, their writing is, in Homi Bhabha's terms, "performative," inasmuch as it relies on the power of an iterative representational strategy to produce collective identity.11
In Bradstreet's poetry, as we saw in "The Author to her Book," this iterative or recursive representational strategy feeds off of the productive tension between literal and figurative levels of meaning. By moving back and forth between the two, Bradstreet is able to draw attention to the status of her writing as a representation. Thus, as Bradstreet represents education taking place, she is also educating her readers, encouraging her readers to identify with the figures in her poem. The impulse to identify, however, requires that a reader first recognize a gap between her- or himself and the representation that can then be bridged through the learning process.
This recognition opens up what Bhabha, borrowing from Raymond Williams, would call a "space of cultural signification" wherein "residual and emergent meanings and practices ... in the margins of the contemporary experience of society" can be represented (299). Yet where Williams and Bhabha implicitly oppose the emergent "meanings and practices" that such a performative discourse enables to the preservative or conservative ones, Bradstreet demonstrates that these two terms cannot be so readily opposed, since the emergent aspects of her writings are meant to conserve a traditional English identity. Thus, while Bradstreet and de l'Incarnation are radical in their emphasis on women's capacity for education (and, indeed, to be educators themselves)--something which had, prior to the publication of The Tenth Muse, been widely advocated only by Johann Comenius in his Pansophiae Pandromus and by the Ursulines in Italy and France--they both manage to contain that radicalism by casting education as a function of family, rather than of institutions such as schools and colleges.12
Such a combination of emergence and conservation predicates the recursivity of Bradstreet's discursive process of moving back and forth between the literal and figurative. If Bradstreet opens up a new representational space in her portrayal of the nuclear family as the site of education, it is precisely in order to collapse the distance between representation and embodied reality so as to better preserve an orthodox religious identity--a religious identity, it should be noted, upon which English national identity, in Bradstreet's understanding, depends. The religious aspect of Bradstreet's writing should, in particular, signal to us the fraught representational dynamics at work here. As Jim Egan notes, "Bradstreet never presumes to overcome the absolute difference between spiritual and material states of being" (89). And yet, Bradstreet uses writing to repeatedly stage that difference and its collapse, engaging in an iterative calculus by which the material is symbolically brought toward the divine without erasing the difference between them. Textual representation becomes an intermediate space between the spiritual and the material, allowing for a metaphorical translation to take place between the two. This translation follows a chiasmatic logic: the written word occupies the place of the material vis-à-vis the spiritual, while taking that of the spiritual in opposition to the material. Writing, in other words, allows Bradstreet to clothe the invisible world of the spirit in the guise of the material; she can offer us that world, thus clothed, as a figuration upon which to model ourselves.
Taking Bradstreet's poems to her husband as an example of how this dynamic plays out, we might, at first glance, note several passages that seem to argue for an embodied reality behind the text. In "Before the Birth of one of her Children," for example, Bradstreet closes with the lines "And kiss this paper for thy loves dear sake, / Who with salt tears this last Farewel did take" (179). These words invite us to imagine Simon Bradstreet sitting at his writing desk, his eyes fixed upon a pair of small blotches on the paper that record the traces of this sentiment, adding to them himself as he mourns the death of his wife. As Gary Schneider reminds us, however, these words are part of "a specialized epistolary rhetoric" that produces in its recipient an "imaginative sympathy so that epistolary contact maintains communicative and affective integrity and efficacy"; in other words, their focus is not on representing reality so much as producing it (33). Further, as Gina Bloom argues, the very composition of these poems is not simply "a display of affection" but, "in fact, a duty," prescribed by such Puritan ministers as William Gouge (116). Bradstreet's poems, then, convey not only a personal meaning but also a larger social and religious meaning. Though she draws upon the poetry of Du Bartas and others, Bradstreet's depiction of the marital relationship primarily operates in dialogue with writings about love and marriage in genres that more explicitly intervene in contemporary political debates: sermons, religious tracts, and conduct manuals. As Bloom demonstrates, this dialogue is truly a two-way affair; Bradstreet, she notes, often uses vocabulary that Puritan marriage doctrine suggests is inappropriate for wives to apply to their husbands, such as "dear" and "love," since these terms imply equal status, rather than placing the man at the head of the family (123). This reconfiguration of the marital hierarchy suggests some of the emergent aspects of Bradstreet's rhetoric, particularly her feminization of political discourse, as seen in her "In honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth" and her "Dialogue between Old England and New."
Yet, while Bradstreet tweaks the rhetoric of marital love, the primary message of these poems remains a thoroughly conservative one. At a mundane level, the poems insist on the need for a married couple to live together, something which the Puritans greatly encouraged as a means to "avoid fornication" (Bloom 117, following 1 Corinthians 7.2). Likewise, in "Before the Birth," Bradstreet indicates that a major role of husband and wife is to raise their children and protect them from harm, imprecating her husband to "Look to my little babes my dear remains" and "protect [them] from step Dames injury" (179). Finally, the poems position marriage as a means for conceptualizing abstract religious issues; thus, in "To my Dear and loving Husband" and "A Letter to her Husband, absent on Publick employment," Bradstreet repeatedly invokes the absent presence of her husband, obliquely figuring the absent presence of God Himself.
As Bloom notes, "[M]atrimony, for the Puritans, was more than the sum of its parts. It was the primary way in which humans could embrace the full grace of God, and it was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit" (116). In this sense matrimony is like writing, since it serves as an intermediate term between the material world and the spiritual one, bringing the two into a metaphorical relationship, just as her husband becomes the "sweet Sol" who warms her "earth" in the "Letter to her Husband" (181). Bradstreet's writing serves to reinforce the institution of marriage in two ways: first, by "manifesting" the "mutual concern" of Bradstreet and her husband for each other, and, second, by "effecting" that selfsame concern (Bloom 119). These two terms correspond to the two movements in the chiasmatic process of representation at work in Bradstreet's writing: the integrity of their marriage is manifested in the transformation of the material into the spiritual, and effected by the movement from spiritual to material. What Bradstreet teaches us in these poems is that producing and maintaining the proper relationship between husband and wife helps to bridge the spiritual/material divide, a message reinforced by the implication that the speaker of "Before the Birth" is speaking from beyond the grave.
As her marriage poems already begin to show us, the key figure of Bradstreet's rhetoric of education is the integral nuclear family. This figure is most explicitly delineated, however, in a series of epitaph poems, written upon the death of her parents, children, and grandchildren. Because these poems deal with death, which in Bradstreet's conception is quite literally the translation from the material world into the spiritual, they offer a perfect vehicle for her to convey the importance of education as a means of achieving a successful movement from earth to heaven--a movement, that is, that maintains the integrity of the family. Though the general tenor of these epitaph poems is the acceptance of God's will--so emphatically expressed that modern readers may be hard-pressed to see anything else in them--they are in fact quite prominently marked by emotive touches that evince her symbolic investment in her family. Thus, in a poem dedicated to one of her grandchildren, she writes "With troubled heart & trembling hand" before coming at length to the conclusion that her "throbbing heart" should be cheered by the fact that the child is "with [its] Saviour ... in endless bliss" (187). With Schneider's observations about the epistolary rhetoric of sympathy in mind, the purpose of these figures becomes clear: Bradstreet provides a model, here, for how one ought to behave as a member of a family, seeking to reproduce the appropriate attitudes in her audience and thereby produce communal integrity through the symbolic reintegration of the family in heaven.
Taking these poems as a group, however, we find that Bradstreet hardly takes the ease of moving from one realm to the other for granted, particularly when the "translation" of an entire family is at stake. In them she often struggles to account for God's actions in a rhetorically effective fashion. In the end, Bradstreet is often left with the mere blandishment that all her dead relations must be in heaven, reunited for eternity, though a note of doubt slips into the poem for her son when she says that her daughter-in-law is "[a]ll freed from grief (I trust) among the blest" (189). At one level this can certainly be read as a doctrinally appropriate indication of the limits of embodied human knowledge; at another, however, it speaks to the potential, and problematic, divide between God's will and the continued unity of the family. Given the central symbolic importance of the family in Puritan society in general, and Bradstreet's writing in particular, such a divide represents a potential tension between religious and national identity as well.
The question of whether saving grace could be transmitted from parent to child was hotly contested in Puritan New England in the seventeenth century. This theological debate produced a series of controversies over the main Puritan sacraments: baptism, communion, and, most particularly, the recounting of a religious conversion experience. In authorized New England Puritan practice before 1662, only children of full members of the church could be baptized, and full church membership extended only to those who could account for their spiritual regeneration sufficiently well to receive the approval of other church members. At the Cambridge Synod of 1662, however, the Puritan community in New England accepted what came to be known as the Half-way Covenant, which allowed for the baptism of children of covenanted church members--those, that is, who had received baptism themselves, but not produced a conversion narrative. The "half-way" of the Half-way Covenant refers to the fact that baptism was understood by the Puritans as offering merely the "conditional promise" of God's grace, so that baptized children were only "half saved" (Morgan 91). Despite the acceptance of the Half-way Covenant at the synod, the issue remained contentious, with Cotton Mather still lobbying conservative members of Boston's Second Church to accept the Half-way Covenant in 1692 (Levin 195).
Against this discursive background, the symbolic difficulty Bradstreet has negotiating between her relationship to her family and her relationship to God in her epitaphs makes sense. These poems evince her ongoing anxiety about the relationship between material and spiritual, raising the question of how best to move from one realm to the other when the absolute difference between them, however symbolically reduced, remains intact. If death alone is hardly, for Bradstreet, a sufficient means for moving properly from one state to the other, then birth, too, is no guarantor of heaven, a point most clearly expressed in one of Bradstreet's "Meditations Divine and Morall," in which she points out that "good parents have had bad children, and ... bad parents have had pious children" (206). Thus, while many of Bradstreet's poems downplay experience's significance, she repeatedly insists on the role of education in securing grace.
The transformative role that Bradstreet grants to education is made most forcefully and explicitly clear in her epitaph poems to her parents. In "To the Memory of my dear and ever honoured Father," Bradstreet calls her parent "my Father, Guide, Instructor too," language echoed in "An EPITAPH on my dear and ever honoured Mother," where the latter is called "A true Instructer of her Family" (165, 167). Both poems go on to list the good behaviors and deeds of Bradstreet's parents, and the poem to her father ends by rhetorically closing the gap between the embodied world of the family and the spiritual one: "His pious Footsteps, followed by his race, / At last will bring us to that happy place" (166). Ultimately, education--or at least the rhetorical invocation of education--plays the role that experience does for Bacon: the task of parents as instructors to their children is to provide examples that they can follow into heaven.
I insist here on the possibility of reading these poems as though they are simply invoking education rather than actively educating because of the reflexive qualities of Bradstreet's own instructive writings to her children, which emphasize form over content. In the introduction to her manuscript "Meditations Divine and Morall," she downplays the value of her advice, explicitly aiming to "avoyd incroaching upon others conceptions because [she] would rather leave [her children] nothing but [her] owne, though in value they fall short of all in this kinde." Bradstreet seems, here, to be disavowing the practical effectiveness of her instruction: her children, she says, could find better elsewhere. Yet she quickly flips this logic on its head by pointing out that, as she is their mother, her teachings are likely to "be better pris'd by [her children,] for the Authors sake" (195). With these words, Bradstreet positions herself at the center of her children's education, asserting that sentimental attachment supersedes the consideration of value or merit. Her meditations bear out this logic, insisting that parents must learn to "fit their [children's] nurture according to their Nature," and, more strikingly, repeatedly deploying the relationship between parent and child as a symbol of other relationships, such as that between human beings and God (196; see also 198, 200). The meditations thus insist upon the figure of the family both as a means of moral and religious instruction, and as instruction's symbolic seat. To use the old-fashioned poetic terminology, the vehicle of these maxims overtakes the tenor: the lesson is contained not in what is taught, but in how it is being taught.
That lesson--that the family is the key institution in the instruction of children, and thus the means by which orthodox religious and national identities are reproduced--offers a novel detour around the discursive impasse at work in the debates over the Half-way Covenant. In focusing almost exclusively on the nuclear family, albeit a multi-generational nuclear family, Bradstreet anticipates the end-point of a shift in the conception of the family that had begun with the Reformation but was by no means finished.13 Further, by insisting upon the instructional role of parents in producing properly religious children who can follow them to heaven, Bradstreet dodges the suspect claim, associated with Catholicism, that the grace transferred from parent to child at birth was wholly secured by infant baptism. At the same time, Bradstreet's writing hollows out the content of that instruction, reducing the emphasis on the particular religious customs at work in securing identity and leaving us with the image of the extended nuclear family reunited in heaven. The religious egalitarianism inherent in this vision jars with our conventional notion of the Puritans as an exclusive community of fire-and-brimstone-breathing bigots, though it jibes with the associations made by Max Weber, and echoed by Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse among others, between Puritan ideology and the rise and expansion of a bourgeois middle class.14 Indeed, viewed against the rank-based distinctions at work in earlier colonial authors such as Raleigh and Smith, the social organization imagined by Bradstreet is distinctly flat in character, with uniformity of religious and national identity taken almost for granted, leaving the gendered and generational distinctions between family members as the sole means to differentiate between people.
Even these distinctions are only loosely grounded, however, since the entire purpose of Bradstreet's discourse is for each generation to hew to the model offered by the previous one, and thereby remove whatever distinction existed between them. Perhaps by calling upon the conventional distinction between gender and sex I can further illuminate my reasoning here. Compared with the writings of many of her contemporaries, both Puritan and otherwise, Bradstreet's poetry is relatively ungendered, as Bloom's assessment of her vocabulary would indicate. In a sense, her regendering of politics enables a kind of ungendering, inasmuch as it flattens the distinctions between male and female discourse. I would ultimately suggest, however, that Bradstreet's writing is not so much ungendered as unsexed--which might well explain what Egan calls the "antiseptic quality of [Bradstreet's] secular love poems" (88). In other words, while her writing draws upon convenient categorical distinctions such as gender, her purpose in doing so is to produce a reality in which those distinctions no longer exist.
Thus, a modicum of gendering slips into Bradstreet's particular accounts of the qualities fathers and mothers are supposed to inculcate in their offspring--she emphasizes her mother's ordering of the household in opposition to her father's role in founding the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for example, though she also draws attention to her mother's public speaking--but in her poetry these gender differences do not necessarily attach to sexed bodies, since they operate primarily as rhetorical figures. The titular sisters of the poem "The Flesh and the Spirit," for example, could easily be made into brothers without any harm being done to the sense. Ungendered, however, is not unengendered, as Spirit clarifies at the crux of this poem, indicating that she and Flesh are the children of different fathers: one "old Adam" and one "above" (176). With this rhetorical gesture, Bradstreet reverses our conventional arrangement of the real/fictive, literal/figurative poles: she gives us, on the one hand, a literal father, Adam, who is effectively fictive, and, on the other, a figurative father, God, who is the epitome and apex of being. The key is her use of an intuitive alignment of embodiment with reality in order to portray the spiritual as a higher reality, which transforms the family into a mere metaphor for the true, spiritual family. Yet, as we have seen, becoming a metaphorical model for actual families, the educational family of Bradstreet's poetry helps elevate them to the level of the spiritual family.
The rhetoricity of Bradstreet's gendering is perhaps most apparent in her early poetry, especially "The Quarternions," which, as Harvey demonstrates, remotivate Galenic medical discourse in order to support a more egalitarian vision of the relation between the sexes. The genderings that interest me most in these poems, however, are not those given to disembodied entities such as "choler" and "phlegm," but rather those that could more convincingly be linked with sexed bodies. In her verses on the four seasons, for example, Bradstreet portrays "cleanly huswives" with their shelves "fill'd for winter time," and mowers and carters toiling in the summer sun (48, 50). While these images clearly evoke a gendered division of labor, they also draw quite consciously upon a tradition of georgic and pastoral poetry extending backward through Drayton and Spenser to Virgil and Lucretius, as signaled by the "whistling voyce" of the carter celebrating the end of his workday, a voice that echoes those of Virgil's musical shepherds in the Eclogues.15 Bradstreet, in other words, is carefully following her models in these poems, concerning herself with reproducing an image of an orderly world.
These early poems are also more explicitly political in character, clearly situating Bradstreet's figure of the integral nuclear family in a national context. What these poems show us, however, is the disintegration of that family as emblematic of the disintegration of the nation, with Bradstreet borrowing from Virgil again in her depiction of war and famine, and the chaos that follow upon them. Late in the first book of the Georgics, Virgil offers a glimpse of the effects of the intrusion of war upon the husbandry of the land:
Here the good and evil have changed places: so many
wars in the world, so many forms of wickedness, no honor
for the plow, farmers conscripted, the mournful fields untilled,
and curved pruning hooks are beaten into unbending swords.
Here Euphrates, there Germany goes to war; neighboring
cities, flouting the laws they've both agreed on, take up arms.
Aside from reversing our conventional image of swords being beaten into ploughshares, Virgil's poem suggests a fundamental opposition between agricultural production and war. Bradstreet, in the persona of "Earth," refigures this civil disintegration, imagining "The Corne, and Hay, both fall[ing] before they'r mowne, / And buds from fruitfull trees, before they'r blowne" leading to such dearth that "The husband knowes no wife, nor father sons" (13). Bradstreet's imagery differs from Virgil's, then, in giving the destruction of the nuclear family a central place in this sequence of events. Yet, while Bradstreet is certainly thinking about gender here, the authority for these figures of speech comes from their central place in literary history--and, one might add, in contemporary English education--not from their connection to embodied experience.
Rather than concentrate on sex, Bradstreet underlines the gender roles, showing us the connections between being a husband and husbandry, as it were. Bradstreet's cursory invocation of rape at several points in her poetry reinforces this unsexing. As Barbara J. Baines notes, the representation of rape in English writing of this period is "always political" because "[s]exual incontinence ... is the mark of misrule" (160); in Bradstreet's case, we might say that rape is in fact primarily political, since it operates as a symbol of political unrest, rather than being represented as an attack on an individualized, psychologized, and embodied person. Thus, when Bradstreet, later in the "Quarternions," portrays the destruction of family as the symbolic equivalent of the destruction of state, it becomes clear that her attention is focused on the disappearance of the distinctions between different family members, as when the incestuous and fratricidal rapist King Cambyses of Persia is called a "hellish Husband, Brother, Unckle, Sire" (72). This looks like the same fear that the collapse of the categories of identity will lead to political anarchy that we find expressed in the work of Bradstreet's contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, but given Bradstreet's flattening of social distinctions, it would be better read as the improper reproduction of those categories, though it clearly leads to the very same anarchy.
What are we to make, then, of this strange rhetorical method that elaborates differences only in order to collapse them? Bradstreet's writings, I have insisted, rely upon a series of figures of speech centered on the symbol of the family. These figures may not be grounded in material reality as such, but they are supposed to help create a reality, to produce the embodiment of a disembodied ideal. By placing the nuclear family at the nexus of a network of identity categories, Bradstreet suggests that it is the key to protecting those identities. Further, by portraying the family as the seat of education, Bradstreet suggests that it is the vehicle for reproducing those identities. All of these threads come together in her ultimate reconfiguration of the symbolic relationship between colony and mother country in "A Dialogue between Old England and New," which exposes the arbitrary nature of the hierarchical distinctions between this and that family member even as it demonstrates the role that family bonds play in opening up the possibility of education as a means to producing an orthodox identity.
In this poem, written at the outset of the English Civil War, Bradstreet deploys many of the same figures that we have already located in her other writings--she represents Germany, in the wake of the Thirty Years' War, for example, as a "barren heath" where "people [are] famish'd ... Wives forc'd [and] babes toss'd"--but the poem in which she deploys these figures constitutes a radical break in the traditional representation of the relationship between colony and metropole (144). The poem portrays "Old England" as wounded and weak, and "New England" as her help-meet, offering advice on how to improve her state.16 Old England tries to put New in her place, characterizing her as a limb, a gesture whose import would be clear to contemporary readers.17 New England insists, however, that Old has not paid attention to her family duties, allowing Catholicism to spread throughout the continent and thus becoming infected herself. As both Pender and Egan note, this situation reverses the traditional paradigm of mother/daughter relations. Egan puts it best when he asks: "Parents are supposed to observe their children, are they not, and when observed, present those children with an example to emulate" (93)?
Yet, while Bradstreet's poem is a departure in this way, it recuperates this transformation by placing it within the rhetoric developed across the course of her poems. New England can provide Old with an example to emulate only because she herself is emulating the example Old England once offered. Thus, the preservation of identity relies on its being reproduced in an appropriate fashion. That the child teaches the mother in this poem reinforces Bradstreet's point: English political order has been overturned. Rather than the colony her metropolitan counterparts fear, where proper English men and women degenerate into savage beasts, New England provides exactly the sort of colony England needs, one destined to offer an example to the mother country precisely because New England's mothers have raised their children well, according to example. The copy, in other words, helps to guarantee the perfection of the original.