In Reference to her Children, 23 June 1659
In Reference to her Children, 23 June 1659
Anne Bradstreet, Several Poems, 2nd edn. (Boston: John Foster, 1678). Cf. The Complete Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Allan P. Robb (Boston: Twayne, 1981): 184-86.
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
Even friendly biographers of Anne Bradstreet think her poem "In Reference to her Children, 23 June 1659," "sometimes quaintly absurd" (White 310) because it is an extended, indeed "epic" metaphor comparing mother Anne's children to eight birds in a nest. Yet the 19th-century stained-glass windows of St. Botulph's, in Boston, Lincolnshire, the parish church of her birth-home, include a "ladies' window" with a full-length portrait of Anne Bradstreet, holding a nest of little birds. Although certainly America's first woman poet, well known for dignified poems on Elizabeth I and Sir Philip Sidney, the affection that most readers in her home town felt for Christian Anne came from her poems as a mother in her late forties who faced an empty nest. No one before Anne had written any poem quite like "In Reference to her Children." Mothers and fathers, Ben Jonson among them, often expressed their grief over the deaths of their children. Moralists like John Bunyan took the young to task for their bad behaviour. A mother's worrying love of her living children as she was losing them to new lives elsewhere was unheard of as a subject for verse.
Anne's governing metaphor builds on everyone's English in her time. One of the common senses of the term "bird," from 1300 on, was a young son or daughter (OED "bird" 1.c-d). Four of her children are male "Cocks" and four are female "Hens" (2). She refers to them all as the "Brood" (7, 43). These terms suggest that she has in mind a tale like Chaucer's "The Nun's Priest's Tale" of Chantecleer and Pertelote, the barnyard cock and hen, but chickens do not speak "chirping languages" (83), do not go aloft trees, and seldom fly away. Anne imagines smaller common birds such as larks, sparrows, thrushes, and wrens. Their nest is the house in which she the "Dame" and her husband Simon the "Sire" -- words also conventionally applied to birds -- live in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Anne teaches her birds to mount trees, from low boughs to the highest (6, 36) and there to sing in the family choir (6, 12). The tree traditionally is associated with life itself. Randle Cotgrave's 1611 French-English dictionary, for example, explains "Arbre de vie" as "The sweet tree, called also by vs, the tree of life." Flight from this tree, for Anne, means death, "from the top bough [to] take my flight / Into a country beyond sight" (75-76). For this reason, she can only fear the repeating step that her children take, the older five all leaving the nest and flying off somewhere else. Her oldest son Samuel "took his flight / To Regions far" (7-8), as did her oldest daughter Dorothy and two others (13), and as the three children yet at home will do in time (39).
Anne understands why her daughters Dorothy and Sarah left -- they flew away to be with their mates (as she did from England to America with Simon) -- but not why her sons went, Samuel to England and Simon Jr. to Harvard. Her "mournful chirps" follow Samuel, "Chief of the Brood" (7), whom she obviously expects to return. (After all, unlike the girls, he gets to bring his mate home with him.) "Ambition" moves Simon Jr. to "chant above the rest" at Harvard, "the Academy"; but Anne expresses no sympathy with his goal, to out-sing the "nightingales," perhaps because he was born to chirp, not to warble (27-32). At last, Anne accepts their departures because they behaved "As is ordain'd" (40); her strongly Puritan beliefs include unquestioning acquiescence in the will of God over man's individual destiny.
Like most pre-modern mothers who devoted their lives to child-raising, Anne remembers life for its suffering, the agony of birth ("my pain when I you bred"), then the ever-present fear about her children's safety in her keeping ("my care when I you fed"). Now that her children have flown away, her concerns about "harm", "perils", and "accidents" that lie in wait for them intensify because they are "ignorant" and she is not around to warn them. None of her suffering is a sentimental or attention-grabbing over-reaction. Like the birds, she cannot weep (41); as a result, none knows her terrible imaginings. "Fowler's snare," stone-throwing boys, the glittery "bell and glass" that attracts the birds to food and a birder's net, birdline, and "greedy hawks" hint at demonic powers. Little wonder that Anne describes her symptoms as heart palpitations. Her brood, however, must not have been paying attention because, in her final self-assessment, she reminds them that she taught them to live among the great opposites: "joy and misery, / ... what was good, and what was ill, / What would save life, and what would kill" (88-90). If they keep safe and teach their offspring what they were taught by her, that is, if they pass on her wisdom, she will die "happy" (094).
The poem's title may not be Anne's. Its third-person allusion, "her," does not suit the familiar first-person narrative. The poem's octosyllabic couplets, mostly iambic, have the brevity and simplicity of "chirps" rather than the formality for which the title prepares us. No one knows for what occasion on June 23, 1659, Anne intended the poem, but it reads like a sing-song performance for the children who were still at home. She describes her empty-nester's life as spent in making "tunes" (67) and promises to "sing" (74) until she passes on to heaven, where she will, "with seraphims set song" (78), that is, set words to music. At the beginning of the poem she refers to her family as singing "amidst this Quire" (12). Editors and critics who see quaintness here are probably just overlooking how perfectly Anne shaped her content to her audience, those of her children who remained at home.Back to Line