In which we learn the meaning of homes, lost and found, earthly and spiritual
OK, kids, today we’re going to start by reading a poem. Jonquil, you start us off.
Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10th, 1666 BY ANNE BRADSTREET Here Follows Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our house, July 10th. 1666. Copied Out of a Loose Paper. In silent night when rest I took, For sorrow near I did not look, I wakened was with thund’ring noise And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice. That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,” Let no man know is my Desire. I, starting up, the light did spy, And to my God my heart did cry To straighten me in my Distress And not to leave me succourless. Then, coming out, behold a space The flame consume my dwelling place.
Can’t you just see the house burning? The fire, a huge orange sheet, sweeps up toward the New England night, overrunning the wood, glass and thatching, gray smoke against a black sky. Clothing writhes, curls and blackens amid the overpowering heat. I’m stunned by the quietness of the destruction, which is punctuated by occasional crackling and the songs of crickets.
—You sound like you’re making another one of your movies, Mr. K.
She knew she couldn’t bring that house—or the 800 books inside it—back. And deep down, she knew that she shouldn’t be trying. In essence, that’s exactly what her poem was about. Keep going, Jonquil.
And when I could no longer look, I blest his grace that gave and took, That laid 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 . . . .
The problem is that she does repine. She saying all the right things: that the house was never really hers to begin with, that all glory should go to God, that while his ways may be difficult to understand, they are always right—period. And yet as the poem proceeds, it’s clear that she can’t quite let the matter rest.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest, There lay that store I counted best, My pleasant things in ashes lie And them behold no more shall I. Under the roof no guest shall sit, Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
She walks among the ashes. No, no, no, it doesn’t bother me a bit that this place I loved has gone up in smoke. I won’t miss the furniture, or my trinkets, or the company of friends and family that gave it life. My faith is so secure that I need not grieve for it. Really. Jonquil?
No pleasant talk 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 lie. Adieu, Adieu, All's Vanity.
A funny thing had happened to Anne Bradstreet: a foreign land had become home. By 1666, she was 54 years old, and it had been 36 years since she made her voyage across the sea. She spent most of her life in a new world, and that burning house was at the center of concentric circles that included the town of Ipswich, where she was living, the Massachusetts Bay colony, and America. She was still English; that would never change. But if that was her nation, this was her country—a word that connotes something a little different than a set of boundaries or a form of government. A country is the place where your heart lives.
The problem was that she knew that her country was not the place her heart should live. That heart belonged to God. And so it is that she censures herself. Again, Jonquil.
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide, And did thy wealth on earth abide? Didst fix thy hope on mold’ring dust? The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
And so she fixes her gaze on her heavenly home. Bring it on home, Jonquil. You’ve done a great job. Thank you.
Thou hast a house on high erect Framed by that mighty architect … It’s purchased and paid for too By him who hath enough to do.
As always in her work, otherworldly commitments always have the last word. “The world no longer let me love,” she concludes. “My hope and Treasure lies above.”
Does she mean it? Sure. Entirely? Surely not. If there wasn’t a struggle, there wouldn’t be a poem.
There’s no trace of the house that burned down on July 10, 1666. For that matter, there’s no trace of Anne Bradstreet, either: she died in 1672 and no grave has been located. There’s a plaque honoring her near the location of the Ipswich house, and the one at the gates of Harvard Yard in Cambridge. In the end, she lives in the word.
Anne Bradstreet shares very little with us. As a matter of imagination, though, we share a country. Between us lies a Revolution, a Constitution, a republic, an empire. But we speak the same language (more or less), and as someone who also adopted New England as my home—I left it to come teach at this school—I relate to her love and longing. Do you?
—I like the way she shows her struggle. I don’t really relate to the religion thing. But I get feeling conflicted.
What do you feel conflicted about, Sadie?
—I dunno. Lots of things.
Do you love your country?
—You mean am I a patriot? Not really.
Do you love your home?
—What do you mean by “my home?”
What do you think I mean?
—You mean my actual house? Sure.
Do you know how old your house is?
—I think my dad said it was built in the fifties.
Do you know what was there before?
Do you know who owned it before you?
—No. My parents bought it when my sister was born.
So they own it legitimately?
—Well, sure. Though I think my dad did something with the basement that he told me could be a problem when it comes time to sell the house.
How much do you think the Indians were paid for the land your house sits on?
—I have no idea.
Do you think the Indians got a fair deal on it?
—Probably not. But that was a long time ago.
Yes. But the circumstances were like an original sin, no?
—You mean like Adam and Eve? I guess so. I don’t spend much time thinking about it.
No, I reckon you don’t. You said a minute ago that you don’t consider yourself a patriot. Why is that?
—Well, because I don’t think the United States always does the right things.
And yet you benefit from the security and benefits the United States offers its citizens.
—Yes. Are you saying I’m a bad person, Mr. K.?
I’m saying you’re like Anne Bradstreet. You enjoy aspects of your life which, if you’re honest with yourself—and I applaud you for your honesty here, Sadie—you know are a little suspect. If not downright wrong.
That’s certainly the way I feel. I too know that my attachments are suspect. I feel uneasy for some of the same reasons Anne Bradstreet does: we pledge our faith to the same God, read the same Bible. There are other things Bradstreet appeared to feel little guilt about: she didn’t seem to worry about the occupation of Indian territory any more than you do, Sadie. She doesn’t say anything the presence of slavery (which infected Massachusetts and all the other English colonies). And while a lot of the poems she wrote depicted nature as beautiful, she was no environmentalist—nature was something more likely to threaten her than she considered something requiring protection. There are all kinds of things that are wrong with the world today, which we’re all taught to reject and resist. I say all the right things, just as Bradstreet does. Do I mean them? Surely. Entirely? Surely not.
The most important thing I share with Anne Bradstreet is a sense of shame. Her shame derives from a deep, but not altogether justifiable, attachment to the house that burned down in 1666. Our house—our country house, as it were—has not burned down. Yet I live in it with a sense of foreboding, because I know it cannot last forever, and I sometimes fear it will be destroyed sooner rather than later. But my unease is not simply a sense of anxiety about the future; it also involves a sense of nagging unease about the past. I love our house even as I’m aware, however vaguely, of the displacements that made it possible, as well as the evasions that allow it to stand even as I stand before you. We cannot really expect mercy, kids. But, God help us, we hope we’ll be lucky. Here, for now, for the grace of Anne, we lie in our beds on autumn nights.
Next: Sex and other ways of dealing with boredom