Bradstreet, Illness, and The Divine

At first glance, the Puritans of New England may seem a self-loathing bunch. They believed in predestination, meaning that it was predetermined by God which people would go to heaven and which to hell before they were even born. Their belief that all misfortunes were punishments from God no doubt caused much strife in their personal lives, and definitively shaped  their relationship with both the divine and the diabolical. As one delves into the poetry and personal writing of Anne Bradstreet, however, another perspective emerges. Bradstreet held these fundamental Puritan beliefs, but rather than viewing them grimly, she encouraged her children to understand every misfortune as an opportunity to grow closer to God and as a reminder to continually grow in virtue. Much of Bradstreet’s own suffering sprung from frequent illness throughout her life, so divinely-wrought illness became a recurring motif in her personal writing and poetry as she explored her own moral growth and relationship with God.

Puritan Children were taught devotional lessons about suffering and death at a young age through texts like  The New England Primer . See Indiana University’s  annotation full text edition for more .

Puritan Children were taught devotional lessons about suffering and death at a young age through texts like The New England Primer. See Indiana University’s annotation full text edition for more.

In her poem The Flesh and the Spirit, Bradstreet approaches the eternal human struggle between the physical and the spiritual as a dialogue between “two sisters,” Flesh and Spirit. Flesh “had her eye / on worldly wealth and vanity” and exposits to her sister the wonders of mortal life such as wealth, glory, and earthly pleasures, to which Spirit scathingly responds, “And combat with thee will and must, / Until I see thee laid in dust.” (232). The godly Spirit espouses the traditional Puritan position, that worldly attachments ultimately lead to sin, and focusing oneself on piety and Christian virtues is the only way to salvation. Moreover, Flesh and the worldly desires she represents are the sworn enemy of any true Christian, not only to be resisted but to be symbolically slain.

In Bradstreet’s mind, following the pleasures of Flesh is not only the way to corruption; Flesh itself is the corruption. In the final lines of the poem, Spirit tells her twin “This city pure is not for thee, / For things unclean there shall not be.” (234). This sentiment refutes the debaucherous lifestyle Flesh presents to her sister, and underscores the belief that the body and its needs are base and must be overcome. The physical body has no divine aspect in Bradstreet’s mind, and is totally divorced from the soul, as is evident in Spirit’s words “For from one father we are not, / Thou by old Adam was begot, / But my arise is from above, / Whence my dear father I do love”. The body is corrupt, and so more easily corruptible by illness, age, and weakness: “From sickness and infirmity / For evermore they shall be free; / No withering age shall e’re come there.” (232)

Bradstreet’s spiritual interpretation of physical malady is always one of divine punishment, linking the corruption of the body with the perseverance of the spirit in an ever-warring duality. In her personal account to her children, To My Dear Children, Bradstreet warns of her own failings and follies as the catalyst for illness cast on her by the divine.

He hath never suffered me long to sit loose from Him, but by one affliction or another hath made me look home, and search what was amiss; so usually thus it hath been with me that I have no sooner felt my heart out of order, but I have expected correction for it, which mostly hath been upon my own person in sickness. (263)

Bradstreet saw a direct correlation between her own moral or spiritual wrongs and illness, and she sought to teach her children from her own mistakes by handing down what wisdom she had gleaned in her years. Rather than trying to shield her children from life’s hardships and the wrath of the Lord, Anne hoped that by teaching her children about her own experiences and spiritual reflection they would learn to trust God through any trial, and understand that trial or illness as a way for them to grow in faith on their journey through life. “...sometimes He hath smote a child with a sickness, sometimes chastened by losses in estate, and these times (through His great mercy) have been the times of my greatest getting and advantage; yea, I have found them the times the Lord hath manifest the most love to me.” (264) To Bradstreet, divine punishment, especially in the form of illness, was not simply wrath to be weathered like a storm; it was an expression of God’s love for his devout earthly children, like a human parent chastising their child so they might grow in character.

A treatment for worms from The Countess of Kent’s  A choice manual, or Rare secrets in physick and chirurgery,  a guide to seventeenth century medical practices and remedies.

A treatment for worms from The Countess of Kent’s A choice manual, or Rare secrets in physick and chirurgery, a guide to seventeenth century medical practices and remedies.

Some of Bradstreet’s most visceral and touching descriptions of sickness spring from her daily life as a mother. In her poem The Four Ages, she recalls in disgusting detail the maladies of childhood, in which no doubt she gained much experience through rearing her offspring: “As many are my sins, so dangers too...What grippes of wind mine infancy did pain, / What tortures I in breeding teeth sustain? / What crudities my stomach cold hath bred, / Whence vomits, flux, and worms have issued?” (58). Bradstreet again relates all these illnesses to sin, reasoning that a babe’s capricious nature and tempestuous moods are just as punishable by God as an adult’s. Her characterization of childhood also holds notes of humor, with the narrator Childhood likening a baby throwing a tantrum over treats like apples or plums to war and battle, which tempers her moral binarism. Alongside the humorous notes Bradstreet continues expositing those archetypical Puritan views on the impurity of the body with lines such as, “Ah me! conceived in sin and born with sorrow” (56).

It would be negligent of me not to mention Anne Bradstreet’s dozen other writings on illness, mostly of her own or her husband’s. These include For Deliverance from a Fever, From Another Sore Fit, Deliverance From a Fit of Fainting, For the Restoration of My Dear Husband from a Burning Ague, June 1, 1661, and six of her accounts from between July 8, 1656 and May 11, 1661. In all of these poems and entries, Bradstreet alternately beseeches the Lord for his mercy, praises the Lord for sparing her loved ones and herself from death, and reflects on her own sinfulness as the source of illness. Like all people in the seventeenth century, Anne Bradstreet’s life was one almost constantly engaged with illness, whether it was her own or a loved one’s. While she held a standard Puritan view of the perceived relationship between illness and sin, the intimacy of her writing lets us peer into a small window and examine how Bradstreet’s experiences, faith, and relationships all affected her perception of illness throughout her life.

Deliverance from a Fit of Fainting

Worthy art Thou, O Lord, of praise, 
But ah! It's not in me. 
My sinking heart I pray Thee raise 
So shall I give it Thee. 

My life as spider's webb's cut off, 
Thus fainting have I said, 
And living man no more shall see 
But be in silence laid. 

My feeble spirit Thou didst revive, 
My doubting Thou didst chide, 
And though as dead mad'st me alive, 
I here a while might 'bide. 

Why should I live but to Thy praise? 
My life is hid with Thee. 
O Lord, no longer be my days 
Than I may fruitful be.


Bradstreet, Anne. The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Jeannine Hensley & Adrienne Rich, eds. John Harvard Library, 2010, Cambridge, Massachusetts.