“That fearful sound of fire and fire,
Let no man know is my Desire.”
After our foray into economics, I had intended to return to recommendations of poetry. In particular, I wanted to recommend an American poet who could help us to simultaneously love and critique the society in which most of us live and minister. Robert Frost had come to mind. But the billowing clouds of smoke outside my window, representing scores of burning homes and thousands of acres of charred earth, returned my thoughts to the very first published poet from the American colonies, the spunky and spiritual Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). You will find Anne to be a real friend, with her frank, witty, and earnest God-ward gaze as a wife, mother, and Christian.
Anne’s poetry is nothing like a John Milton or a George Herbert. It is also distinct from her younger contemporaries Edward Taylor and Michael Wigglesworth. It is simple, direct, and full of daily experience. It strongly communicates the simple sincerity and genuineness of the Puritan faith as it was lived amid the challenges of life in the home.
Anne Bradstreet’s poetry puts the lie to so many misconceptions of the Puritans. For a long time now, the term “puritanical” has meant someone who is a legalistic killjoy. But Anne’s true delight in the good things of life shatters these misconceptions. Consider these lines from “The Four Seasons:”
The vintage now is ripe, the grapes are prest,
Whose lively liquor oft is curs’d and blest:
For nought so good, but it may be abused,
But its a precious juice when well its used.
Whether you agree with her sentiments or not, all must admit that these are hardly the words of an ascetic. Like all Puritans, Anne was concerned to make every aspect of her life a deep participation with the Lord. Instead of taking all the joy out of life, this actually enabled the Puritans to enjoy all of God’s good gifts rightly.1 Idolatrous desires destroy, but grateful reception of all God’s good gifts frees the soul to experience deep joy.
This joy penetrated Anne’s deepest sorrows. In her “Meditation July 8th, 1656,” she wrote:
“I had a sore fit of fainting, which lasted 2 or 3 days, but not in that extremity which at first it took me, and so much the sorer it was to me because my dear husband was from home (who is my chiefest comforter on earth) but my God, who never failed me, was not absent but helped me and graciously manifested His love to me, which I dare not pass by without remembrance, that it may be a support to me when I shall have occasion to read this hereafter and to others that shall read it when I shall possess that I now hope for, that so they may be encouraged to trust in Him who is the only portion of His servants. O Lord, let me never forget Thy goodness, nor question Thy faithfulness to me, for Thou art my God, Thou hast said, and shall not I believe it? Thou hast given me a pledge of that inheritance Thou hast promised to bestow upon me. O never let Satan prevail against me, but strengthen my faith in Thee till I shall attain the end of my hopes, even the salvation of my soul. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.”
What God is like to Him I serve?
What Saviour like to mine?
O never let me from Thee swerve,
For truly I am Thine.
My thankful mouth shall speak Thy praise,
My tongue shall talk of Thee;
On high my heart O do Thou raise
For what Thou’st done for me.
Go worldlings to your vanities,
And heathen to your gods;
Let them help in adversities
And sanctify their rods;
My God He is not like to yours
Yourselves shall judges be;
I find His love, I know His power—
A succorer of me
He is not man that He should lie,
Nor son of man to unsay;
His word He plighted hath on high,
And I shall live for aye.
And for His sake that faithful is,
That died but now doth live,
The first and last that lives for aye,
Me lasting life shall give.
Would to God that we all had such a faith! But given the circumstances that reminded me of Mrs. Bradstreet, I must also include this poem:
“Here followes some verses upon the burning of our house, July 10th, 1666”
In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow neer I did not look,
I waken’d was with thundring noise
And Piteous shreiks of dreadfull voice.
That fearfull sound of fire and fire,
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spye,
And to my God my heart did cry
To strengthen me in my Distresse
And not to leave me succourlesse.
Then coming out beheld a space,
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And, when I could no longer look,
I blest his Name that gave and took,
That layd my goods now in the dust:
Yea so it was, and so ’twas just.
It was his own: it was not mine;
Far be it that I should repine.
He might of All justly bereft,
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the Ruines oft I past,
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast,
And here and there the places spye
Where oft I sate, and long did lye.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest;
There lay that store I counted best:
My pleasant things in ashes lye,
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sitt,
Nor at thy Table eat a bitt.
No pleasant tale shall ‘ere be told,
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle ‘ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom’s voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lye;
Adieu, Adeiu; All’s vanity.
Then streight I gin my heart to chide,
And didst thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the skye
That dunghill mists away may flie.
Thou hast an house on high erect
Fram’d by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent tho’ this bee fled.
It’s purchased, and paid for too
By him who hath enough to doe.
A Prise so vast as is unknown,
Yet, by his Gift, is made thine own.
Ther’s wealth enough, I need no more;
Farewell my Pelf, farewell my Store.
The world no longer let me Love,
My hope and Treasure lyes Above.
I wish I could include many other poems by Anne, especially her famous “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” but I will have to leave it for you to seek out. I believe you will find Anne to be a reflection of heaven’s smile in your life, like all good friends are, even when walking through the fire.
- “We need to guard our lives against the love of riches and worldly cares. All love for earthly goods, however, is not a sin. Their sweetness is a drop of his love and they have his goodness imprinted on them. They kindle our love for him as love tokens from our dearest friend. Loving them is a duty, not a sin” (Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory, 1:214-218). [↩]