Welcoming the Spring with a Puritan Poetess

I’m posting a day late this week, on a Monday, because I spent all of last week at a beautiful retreat center learning core shamanism.  Much of the emphasis of the workshop was on ancestors, and it gave me food for thought regarding my own family line. 

Moon-day certainly fits the mood of this post, in that the Moon is concerned with both the past in general, and with one’s tribal ancestry.  I’ve always been fascinated by early American history, and indeed, many of my ancestors touched down on this continent prior to the eighteenth century.  I probably have many more early American ancestors than the ones who appear in my family tree, because, frustratingly, very little has been recorded about the wives of my Scots-Irish stock who came to the New World in droves.  It seems like a convention of genealogy to trace the bloodline exclusively through paternity, and to treat the wives as mere conduits for the male seed.  But of course, we inherit just as much of our psychic and genetic material from Mom as we do from Dad. 

In the spirit of paying homage to our early American ancestors, I'd like to share with you a poem by Anne Bradstreet.  She's not my personal ancestor (that I know of), but I've always felt a writerly kinship with her.  Anne Bradstreet was born in England in 1612/13, and though modern biographers have assigned her a birthdate of March 20, 1612, I think this is either a mistake or an arbitrary attribution; church records of the period often revealed nothing more than the month, season, or year of a child’s birth.  Here is a screenshot from a great resource for astrologers, the online ancient ephemeris, Khaldea.  It gives us the flavor of the year Anne was born, which might be all we can reasonably expect to get without performing painstaking archival work.  Note the tight square between Uranus in Gemini and Neptune in Virgo, a generational aspect, with Saturn approaching to form a T-square in Pisces. 

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Bradstreet was a popular Puritan poet.  A lot of people hate Puritans; having studied them for many years, it irks me to hear them dismissed so lightly.  Calvin’s theology might not have been tenable, but we too often focus on cartoonish stereotypes of the Puritans’ obsession with sin and their enduring work ethic, to the exclusion of their pioneering spirit and intense religious piety.  I like to think of Puritans as the punk-rockers of their day, and indeed, many of the first waves of Puritans who migrated to the New World were born under the bristly Uranus-Pluto conjunction in Aries in the 1590s.  The Puritans are more accurately described as Non-Conformists, in that they were unable to tolerate any traditional religious authority whatsoever.  In fact, it was the Puritans’ refusal to compromise their extreme principles which drove them out of England and into exile, and ultimately to the shores of the New World.  

We tend to forget that sweeping historical movements are made up of individuals, and that individuals often get caught up in forces beyond their control.  In other words, if your father was a Puritan, as Anne Bradstreet’s was, chances are pretty high that you’re going to be a Puritan too.  Anne Bradstreet arrived on the Arabella with Jonn Winthrop's fleet in 1630, accompanied by her father and husband, both of whom were destined to become governors of the newly-formed Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The Puritans didn’t put much stock in royalty, of course, but this status places Anne Bradstreet firmly in the ruling class of the young colony.

As Westerners, we carry a lot of shame about our colonizing ancestors and their cultural blindness, and there’s no denying that there’s a lot to be ashamed of there.  But we also suffer very much as a culture from denigrating – even hating – our ancestors unilaterally.  How can we heal our history if we can’t redeem our forebears somewhat, by honoring what was important to them and attempting to understand their worldview?

I chose this poem by Bradstreet not only because she is a woman, but also because she is the most relatable and accessible of the Puritan poets.  Michael Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom lives up to the worst Puritan stereotypes, and Edward Taylor’s odd “prepatory meditations” are utterly delightful, but mostly opaque to the casual reader.  Bradstreet’s poetry also appeals to me for another reason; like all good pagans, she was mildly obsessed with the number four, and saw evidence of the divine quaternity of air, fire, water, and earth everywhere.  Check out the title of her distinguished volume of poems, appearing circa 1650 (you might want to take a breath first):

The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America, or Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight, Wherein especially is Contained a Complete Discourse and Description of the Four Elements, Constitutions, Ages of Man, Seasons of the Year, together with an exact Epitome of the Four Monarchies, viz., The Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, Roman …

And that’s not even the complete title, I just capped it after she had exhausted the poetic possibilities of the quaternity, or, as Bradstreet calls it, the “quaternion.”  Now I have no doubt that Anne was a sincere Calvinist, but her poetry is a wonderful receptacle of pagan survivals in the culture that she would have been exposed to in her native England (Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic is a good resource for this).  As Bradstreet knows full well, the four elements form the basis of astrology and other much-maligned magical arts.  But even Calvin gave the OK to astrology, as long as it was being used for purposes of medicine and agriculture.  Predictions by astrology, however, were strictly verboten, as they infringed too much on God’s turf. 


Anne Bradstreet perhaps unwittingly defends the astrological worldview with lines like, "Each Season hath his fruit, so hath each clime: / Each man his own peculiar excellence, / But none in all that hath preeminence.No one person gets to be every sign in the Zodiac, in other words, and “it takes all kinds.” 

I encourage you to read this poem, penned by a Puritan ancestor over three hundred years ago, as a view into someone who lived in close harmony with the land, and who payed deep attention to the Sun's passage across the ecliptic.  Here in Eugene, Oregon, I can viscerally relate to this poem in the slow thaw of the weather, and in all my bustling neighbors I see planting seeds and starts.  I know a lot more farmers than I ever did before, and their talk of husbandry gives me a felt sense of how we are connected through the generations.  The meter of this first of Bradstreet's seasonal poems, "Spring," is plain and simple, like Bradstreet herself, an unbroken march of heroic couplets.  But there's some gold in there, for those who will take the time to find it.

Spring, by Anne Bradstreet (1650)

Another four I’ve left yet to bring on,
Of four times four the last quaternion,
The Winter, Summer, Autumn and the Spring,
In season all these seasons I shall bring:
Sweet Spring like man in his minority,
At present claimed, and had priority.
With smiling face and garments somewhat green,
She trimmed her locks, which late had frosted been,
Nor hot nor cold she spake, but with a breath
Fit to revive the numbed earth from death.
Three months (quoth she) are ’lotted to my share
March, April, May of all the rest most fair.
Tenth of the first, Sol into Aries enters,
And bids defiance to all tedious winters,
Crosseth the Line, and equals night and day,
Still adds to th’ last till after pleasant May;
And now makes glad the darkened northern wights
ho for some months have seen but starry lights.
Now goes the plow-man to his merry toil,
He might unloose his winter locked soil:
The seedsman, too, doth lavish out his grain,
In hope the more he casts, the more to gain:
The gard’ner now superfluous branches lops,
And poles erects for his young clamb’ring hops;
Now digs, then sows his herbs, his flowers, and roots,
And carefully manures his trees of fruits.
The Pleiades their influence now give,
And all that seemed as dead afresh doth live.
The croaking frogs, whom nipping winter killed,
Like birds now chirp, and hop about the field,
The nightingale, the blackbird, and the thrush
Now tune their lays, on sprays of every bush.
The wanton frisking kid, and soft-fleeced lambs
Do jump and play before their feeding dams,
The tender tops of budding grass they crop,
They joy in what they have, but more in hope:
For though the frost hath lost his binding power,
Yet many a fleece of snow and stormy shower
Doth darken Sol's bright eye, makes us remember
The pinching north-west wind of cold December.
My second month is April, green and fair,
Of longer days and a more temperate air:
The Sun in Taurus keeps his residence,
And with his warmer beams glanceth from thence.
This is the month whose fruitful show’rs produces
All set and sown for all delights and uses:
The pear, the plum, and apple-tree now flourish;
The grass grows long the hungry beast to nourish.
The primrose pale and azure violet
Among the verdurous grass hath nature set,
That when the Sun on’s Love (the earth) doth shine
These might as lace set out her garment fine.
The fearful bird his little house now builds
In trees and walls, in cities, and in fields.
The outside strong, the inside warm and neat,
A natural artificer complete.
The clucking hen her chirping chickens leads,
With wings and beak defends them from the gledes.
My next and last is fruitful pleasant May,
Wherein the earth is clad in rich array,
The Sun now enters loving Gemini,
And heats us with the glances of his eye,
Our thicker raiment makes us lay aside
Lest by his fervor we be torrified.
All flowers the Sun now with his beams discloses,
Except the double pinks and matchless roses.
Now swarms the busy, witty, honey-bee,
Whose praise deserves a page from more than me.

The cleanly housewife's dairy's now in th' prime,

Her shelves and firkins filled for winter time.

The meads with cowslips, honeysuckles dight;

One hangs his head, the other stands upright;

But both rejoice at th' heavens' clear smiling face,

More at her showers, which water them a space.

For fruits my season yields the early cherry,

The hasty peas, and wholesome cool strawberry.

More solid fruits require a longer time;

Each Season hath his fruit, so hath each clime:

Each man his own peculiar excellence,

But none in all that hath preeminence.

Sweet fragrant Spring, with thy short pittance fly,

Let some describe thee better than can I.

Yet above all this privilege is thine,

The days still lengthen without least decline.