Bradstreet’s ‘‘Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666’’ swings like a pendulum between Bradstreet’s Puritan beliefs and her deep emotional turmoil regarding the loss of her home. While it is tempting to try to assess whether or not Bradstreet’s sorrow is successfully mitigated or addressed by her faith, such an exercise would not only be highly subjective, but would also be misguided. It will always be debatable whether or not there is a clear winner in the conflict between grief and faith in the poem; rather, what is most significant is the nature of this battle. The poem’s final lines emphasize the futility of attempting to draw definitive conclusions about any resolution Bradstreet may have been conveying. In these last two lines, Bradstreet divulges her desire for her spiritual beliefs to be sufficient to see her through her life so that she may one day reside in heaven. Of crucial importance here is that Bradstreet ends the poem with a prayer for assistance; she asks to be relieved of her love for her life on earth. The only certainty ‘‘Upon the Burning of Our House’’ offers is that Bradstreet longs for her faith to satisfy her emotional and spiritual needs. Whether or not it possesses that ability or even that potential is not conveyed; there is no resolution for Bradstreet. However, an examination of the poem’s twists and turns, of the way the battle between grief and faith is waged, illuminates the poet’s sense of longing, mourning, and conflict and aids in the reader’s understanding of the poem’s resultant tension.
‘‘Upon the Burning of Our House’’ shifts repeatedly from the poet’s extreme emotional distress to her grasping at the structures of her Puritan faith for support. In the poem’s first seven lines, Bradstreet describes the scene of waking from sleep during the night to the terrifying noises and sights of the house fire within which she finds herself. In these moments of horror, she turns to God, making the first of many transitions in the poem from her emotional suffering to her seeking of strength in her faith. Lines 8 through 10 mark her first appeal to God; they are a simple request for emotional and spiritual support. Bradstreet turns quickly back to the trial at hand in lines 11 through 13, where she watches the flames devastate her home. Her phrasing in these lines suggests she is almost unable to look away from this horrifying scene, but when she does, in line 14, it is to praise God, and to remind herself that God both gives and takes. Bradstreet spends less time than before in the spiritual world of her faith, unable in the immediacy of the tragedy to take any comfort in God. Although she has sought God’s aid, the most solace she can glean from her faith at the moment is the acknowledgement of God’s ability to take away some of the gifts he has blessed her with—her home and her possessions. In line 15, Bradstreet focuses on what God has done, stating that it was God who rendered all her personal belongs into dust.
Just as instinctively as Bradstreet turns to God for comfort, she also posits blame for the tragedy with him. Yet her shame in doing so springs up just as quickly, in lines 16 through 18, revealing a new dimension to her faith. In these lines, Bradstreet insists it is God’s will, not her own, that is just. Deferring to God’s judgment, Bradstreet chastises herself for having felt wronged by God’s actions. She reminds herself that she should not complain. Lines 19 and 20 indicate the poet’s insistence that God is just, and that he has left her family with what they need in life, nothing more. In her emphasis on being provided with what God has determined to be sufficient, Bradstreet suggests her own guilt in having wanted more than what God has determined she needs.
Despite the poet’s guilt in having wanted more than God deemed necessary, in having desired more than God thought she deserved, Bradstreet nevertheless returns to the subject of what she has possessed, belongings she has cherished, items she no longer has. Lines 21 through 35 represent Bradstreet’s extended exploration of her loss and grief. She allows herself for the first time a space of uninterrupted mourning. For fifteen lines, Bradstreet does not interrupt her grief with her self-admonishment regarding her need for greater faithfulness. She ceases blaming herself for wanting material possessions, and she relinquishes, for a short while, the scolding and shaming. Bradstreet tenderly lays to rest a past lived in what appears to have been a pleasant and joyful home. One can intuit from these lines that to this point Bradstreet’s life, whatever its tragedies, was also filled with joy and love. The depth of her sorrow at her loss suggests how truly she must have enjoyed a happy and loving home before the fire. Bradstreet offers equal tribute to the home’s contents, its former guests, the stories told, and the memories her family created there. She speaks of favorite things and pleasantries, dinners shared and stories swapped. Her images capture not just objects, but the subtleties of what constitutes a home. Bradstreet grieves, observing that all such memories have been silenced.
The next line of the ‘‘Upon the Burning of Our House,’’ line 36, marks the poem’s the next transition, and is jarring in its abruptness. Bradstreet first bids farewell, in French, to the remains of her beloved home, and in the next breath disregards the entire construct of home—her memories, her belongings—as a representation of her vanity. In characterizing so much as so little, Bradstreet shows the extent of her guilt regarding her attachment to her material possessions. From lines 36 through 52 she continues this process of devaluing the objects and concepts that she has just mourned. She chides and scolds herself for not trusting God and derides her belongings as meaningless. Perhaps the most visually startling example of the poet’s expressed contempt for her material wealth is her comparison of the ash from her burned home with the dust rising from a heap of dung. This characterization is so drastically different from what she has conveyed in the previous lines that one can either begin to doubt the poet’s sincerity or pity her for her faith-inspired need to deny her genuine feelings of loss and grief. The extreme way in which Bradstreet attempts to renounce her attachment to her home and her treasures is a clear demonstration of the conflict her faith has generated within her. While Puritanism has taught her that nothing should be an obstacle in her devotion to God, her life experiences, as this poem suggests, have been so overwhelmingly positive that her duty to her faith was extremely difficult to fulfill. In the poem, Bradstreet characterizes trials and suffering as instructive. Loss of personal items, as her lines indicate, should be viewed as a punishment for vain attachments to earthly possessions, and as a lesson that greater and permanent spiritual wealth awaits the faithful. To this point, Bradstreet has not only expressed heartfelt sorrow regarding her loss, she has conveyed extreme frustration with her own emotional reaction. She has loved deeply and, consequently, she mourns deeply. Compelled then to deny her bereavement, Bradstreet reveals the turmoil wrought by the Puritan notion that grieving for one’s loss suggests that one bears too strong an attachment to material possessions and that such intense feelings regarding worldly objects and relationships impede the journey toward God.
The last two lines of the poem reveal much about the poet’s attempts to place the fullness and richness of her life within the proper spiritual context. They are lines pregnant with doubt, confusion, and longing. After bidding farewell again to her possessions in line 52, lines 53 and 54 suggest her yearning for release from her worldly desires. Bradstreet seeks in these lines the ability to value her impending heavenly rewards more highly than her life in this world; she pleads to be allowed to possess this attitude. In making this request, it seems apparent that while she longs for the ability to see her life in this faithful way, she does not yet possess the proper Puritan attitude. At the heart of this poem is the turmoil in Bradstreet between what she should feel and what she does feel. The poet seeks an attitude, a Puritan mindset, in which the world is renounced in favor of God. At the same time she mourns for what she has lost, she grieves for her things, her memories, her past, her home. At the end of the poem, Bradstreet seems to be grieving precisely because she grieves at all for her loss.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Anne Bradstreet, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.
Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on ‘‘Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.