Puritan Culture: Burning Down the House

15 February 2014

Anne Bradstreet’s poem, “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666,” uses an event from everyday life to exemplify the puritan understanding of the world. Her poem uses examples from everyday life to construct a deeply religious message in a story about the loss of property. Her ability to create strong religious messages within the context of an everyday situation seems to be deeply influenced by her puritan faith. Bradstreet’s poem brings light to the puritan worldview in three different ways; the poem imitates the consistency of puritan life through rhyme and meter, it directly addresses the puritan theme of submission to God’s will, and it gives an example of puritan typology; however, the most humanizing aspect of the poem is the speakers difficulty reconciling her sorrow with the will of God.

The first clue to the puritan influence in Bradstreet’s poem is hidden within the works structure. The puritans believed in predestination and the consistency of a world controlled by a supreme God; while these ideas are not directly addressed in the text, they are hinted at by the formal considerations of Bradstreet’s poem. The poem consists of rhymed couplets all with 8 syllables each. The consistency of the meter mirrors the puritan belief in a well ordered consistent world. The puritans believed that natural order of things that they saw proof of in their everyday lives was proof of the existence of a God. The rhymed couplets draw a parallel with the puritan belief in predestination. As the puritans believed that people’s fates were planed out before the creation of the world, the rhyme at the end of each line shows that each of the lines had been planned out before the poem had been written. While the symbolism of the rhyme and meter in Bradstreet’s poem could be easily ignored, it gains significance as one looks further into the theme of the overall work.

A major hallmark of puritan life was the letting go of one’s own desires, and the major theme of Bradstreet’s poem is the submission to God’s will. The theme of submission to God’s will shows up several times in the poem. Bradstreet writes, “And when I could no longer look,/I blest His name that gave and took” (Bradstreet 13-14.) In this line, the speaker is trying to accept the loss of all of her earthly possessions by giving up control of her life to God. Later, the speaker anguishes over the loss of her house only to reaffirm that earthly possessions are only vanity in the eyes of God (Bradstreet 21-36.) Finally, the speaker comes to the conclusion that her treasure lies in the afterlife (Bradstreet 52-54.) Again, these sections reaffirm the major theme of the poem.

The puritans believed that the scriptures were not only a guide to spiritual wellbeing, but also a book of personal revelation. They believed that every life event could be evidenced in the scriptures, and all one had to do was study the scriptures to know how to act in any situation. In Bradstreet’s poem, the speaker relates the burning of her possessions to the trials of Job (Bradstreet 14.) The process of interpreting one’s life through scripture is known as typology, and Bradstreet uses scripture in the poem to give spiritual meaning to the earthly occurrence of a burning house. While the whole poem is about submitting one’s life to the will of God, the characteristically puritan act of  reading one’s life in the light of scripture happens on line 14 when the speaker uses the words of Job to give herself solace in her time of sorrow.

Bradstreet’s use of form, theme, and procedures of puritan life in her poem allows anyone who reads her poetry to come to a greater understanding of the historical puritan ideals. But much of what makes this poem a unique and important document to understand what it must have been like to live as a puritan is the inclusion of the speaker’s doubt. Bradstreet’s poem focuses much of the narrative on the speaker’s difficulty in letting go of the dreams that she had associated with living within the house. As one might expect any puritan to do, the speaker blesses God for burning down her house (Anne Bradstreet 8-14.) However, the speaker does not seem fully convinced at first. Bradstreet writes, “And to my God my heart did cry/To strength me in my distress/And not to leave me succorless” (Bradstreet 8-10.) The speaker begs God not to leave her without comfort, yet a puritan is supposed to draw all of his or her comfort from the lord not one’s material possessions. The questioning of God’s plan in Bradstreet’s poem brings the puritan experience to life in a way that history books cannot.

Works Cited

Bradstreet, A. “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666.” Ed. Baym, N. 2013. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York. Norton. 122-23.

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