Forsaken Earth & Faith in Heaven in Bradstreet’s “The Flesh and the Spirit”

In Anne Bradstreet’s poem, “The Flesh and the Spirit,” our speaker overhears a conversation between two sisters, Flesh, the embodiment of base human desire and worldly pleasures, and Spirit, the embodiment of faith and trust in God and Heaven. As Flesh covets greed and material wealth, Spirit hopes to reap greater rewards in the afterlife. In a similar fashion to some of her other poems such as “The Four Elements” and “The Four Seasons,” Bradstreet personifies abstract ideas through female characters who weigh their merits in the form of a conversational debate.

In secret place where once I stood
Close by the Banks of Lacrim flood,
I heard two sisters reason on
Things that are past and things to come.
One Flesh was call'd, who had her eye
On worldly wealth and vanity;
The other Spirit, who did rear
Her thoughts unto a higher sphere.

What is most interesting to me about this move is that she represents her characters as females, and in particular in this poem, as twin sisters. This move—allowing women to represent universal human concerns—subverts conventional ideas of representation in literary works. Traditionally, males are often depicted as embodiments of powerful entities like gods or elements, and when women are present, they are often lesser gods or entities who suffer dominance under masculine powers. By representing the Earth and the Heavens as females, Bradstreet highlights the importance of femininity in universal beings and truths.

Engraving by Isabella Piccini from  Poesie Liriche Di Baldassarre Pisani  (Venice, 1676). British Library 11429.df.1.

Engraving by Isabella Piccini from Poesie Liriche Di Baldassarre Pisani (Venice, 1676). British Library 11429.df.1.

The conflict between these two female speakers is intense, as they represent two opposite ideals. Flesh is presented as a vain and base being, much like the Devil sent to corrupt Adam and Eve. Flesh argues that spirituality alone cannot satisfy the body and its needs, and tries to tempt Spirit by saying, “Earth hath more silver, pearls, and gold,/Than eyes can see or hands can hold…take thy fill,/Earth hath enough of what you will” (lines 34-35). Despite Flesh’s attempt, Spirit is adamant about her faith in Heaven and God above, as she argues “Thy sinful pleasures I do hate,/Thy riches are to me no bait,…/My thoughts do yield me more content/Than can thy hours in pleasure spent” (lines 58-59, 70-71). Spirit shows greater resolve in the face of Flesh’s offers, and seeks not the treasures of our world but of Heaven, and for that she is willing to give up any Earthly pleasures for pleasures she believes lie in the afterlife. This sentiment is reminiscent of Bradstreet’s own religious devotion and no doubt she would like her speaker to convey the message of Heaven’s eternal pleasures of that over Earth’s fleeting ones.

 

The hidden Manna I do eat;
The word of life, it is my meat.
My thoughts do yield me more content
Than can thy hours in pleasure spent.

What I find so interesting about this poem is the animosity that Spirit feels toward her sister, as she swears, “thee as a foe still to pursue./And combat with thee will and must,/Until I see thee laid in th’ dust” (lines 41-43) which reads as aggressive and violent toward Flesh. Flesh is treated not only as Earth and human desire but as sin itself, which, in turn, reflects the idea that humanity and Earth are evils to be combated by the spirit. Spirit even goes as far to say that Earth holds “trash” (line 81) compared to what lies in Heaven, which is a negative outlook on human life on Earth. In the final two lines, Spirit forsakes the Earth and people, “If I of heaven may have my fill,/Take thou the world and all that will,” in return for what the heavens have to offer. Perhaps this idea seems so extreme to me because I do not share the same religious zeal as Bradstreet did, but her character of Spirit appears adamantly antagonistic to the world and its people. While Flesh is perhaps too greedy and materialistically obsessed, I wonder if Bradstreet meant for us to find a flaw in Spirit, who seems to have no faith or belief in humans and the Earth. While it can easily be argued that our Earth has experienced many horrible tragedies and humans can act quite sinfully, it also can be argued that our world has given us many beautiful wonders, such as poetry, nature, and human relationships.

From sickness and infirmity
Forevermore they shall be free.
Nor withering age shall e're come there,
But beauty shall be bright and clear.
This City pure is not for thee,
For things unclean there shall not be.
If I of Heav'n may have my fill,
Take thou the world, and all that will.'