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Short poem

Anne Bradstreet (ca. 1612-1672)

In Reference to her Children, 23 June 1659

              1I had eight birds hatcht in one nest,
              2Four Cocks were there, and Hens the rest.
              3I nurst them up with pain and care,
              4No cost nor labour did I spare
              5Till at the last they felt their wing,
              6Mounted the Trees and learned to sing.
              7Chief of the Brood then took his flight
              8To Regions far and left me quite.
              9My mournful chirps I after send
            10Till he return, or I do end.
            11Leave not thy nest, thy Dame and Sire,
            12Fly back and sing amidst this Quire.
            13My second bird did take her flight
            14And with her mate flew out of sight.
            15Southward they both their course did bend,
            16And Seasons twain they there did spend,
            17Till after blown by Southern gales
            18They Norward steer'd with filled sails.
            19A prettier bird was no where seen,
            20Along the Beach, among the treen.
            21I have a third of colour white
            22On whom I plac'd no small delight,
            23Coupled with mate loving and true,
            24Hath also bid her Dame adieu.
            25And where Aurora first appears,
            26She now hath percht to spend her years.
            27One to the Academy flew
            28To chat among that learned crew.
            29Ambition moves still in his breast
            30That he might chant above the rest,
            31Striving for more than to do well,
            32That nightingales he might excell.
            33My fifth, whose down is yet scarce gone,
            34Is 'mongst the shrubs and bushes flown
            35And as his wings increase in strength
            36On higher boughs he'll perch at length.
            37My other three still with me nest
            38Until they're grown, then as the rest,
            39Or here or there, they'll take their flight,
            40As is ordain'd, so shall they light.
            41If birds could weep, then would my tears
            42Let others know what are my fears
            43Lest this my brood some harm should catch
            44And be surpris'd for want of watch
            45Whilst pecking corn and void of care
            46They fall un'wares in Fowler's snare;
            47Or whilst on trees they sit and sing
            48Some untoward boy at them do fling,
            49Or whilst allur'd with bell and glass
            50The net be spread and caught, alas;
            51Or lest by Lime-twigs they be foil'd;
            52Or by some greedy hawks be spoil'd.
            53O would, my young, ye saw my breast
            54And knew what thoughts there sadly rest.
            55Great was my pain when I you bred,
            56Great was my care when I you fed.
            57Long did I keep you soft and warm
            58And with my wings kept off all harm.
            59My cares are more, and fears, than ever,
            60My throbs such now as 'fore were never.
            61Alas, my birds, you wisdom want
            62Of perils you are ignorant.
            63Oft times in grass, on trees, in flight,
            64Sore accidents on you may light.
            65O to your safety have an eye,
            66So happy may you live and die.
            67Mean while, my days in tunes I'll spend
            68Till my weak lays with me shall end.
            69In shady woods I'll sit and sing
            70And things that past, to mind I'll bring.
            71Once young and pleasant, as are you,
            72But former toys (no joys) adieu!
            73My age I will not once lament
            74But sing, my time so near is spent,
            75And from the top bough take my flight
            76Into a country beyond sight
            77Where old ones instantly grow young
            78And there with seraphims set song.
            79No seasons cold, nor storms they see
            80But spring lasts to eternity.
            81When each of you shall in your nest
            82Among your young ones take your rest,
            83In chirping languages oft them tell
            84You had a Dame that lov'd you well,
            85That did what could be done for young
            86And nurst you up till you were strong
            87And 'fore she once would let you fly
            88She shew'd you joy and misery,
            89Taught what was good, and what was ill,
            90What would save life, and what would kill.
            91Thus gone, amongst you I may live,
            92And dead, yet speak and counsel give.
            93Farewell, my birds, farewell, adieu,
            94I happy am, if well with you.


7] Chief of the brood: Samuel, born 1633-34 (White 227), "sailed to England on November 7, 1657, and returned July 17, 1661" (Hensley 306).

13] second bird: Dorothy (White 311-12), "married Seaborn Cotton, June 25, 1654" (Hensley 306).

20] treen: trees (old plural form).

21] a third: Sarah, born ca. 1638 (White 158), "married Richard Hubbard of Ipswich" (Hensley 306). Her "colour white" may allude to the complexion not uncommon in redheads.

25] Aurora: Greek goddess of the dawn (hence first appearing in the east).

27] One to the Academy: Simon, Jr., born Sept. 28, 1640 (White 158), "admitted to Harvard, June 25, 1656" (Hensley 306).

33] My fifth: Dudley (White 312).

37] My other three: Hannah, Mercy, and John.

49] bell and glass: the bell-glass covered plants to protect them, perhaps from birds and animals, whom its shining may have attracted.

51] lime-twigs: birdlime, a sticky matter made from holly bark and smeared on twigs to catch small birds.

60] throbs: palpitations of the heart.

Commentary by Ian Lancashire

Even friendly biographers of Anne Bradstreet think her poem "In Reference to her Children, 23 June 1659," "sometimes quaintly absurd" (White 310) because it is an extended, indeed "epic" metaphor comparing mother Anne's children to eight birds in a nest. Yet the 19th-century stained-glass windows of St. Botulph's, in Boston, Lincolnshire, the parish church of her birth-home, include a "ladies' window" with a full-length portrait of Anne Bradstreet, holding a nest of little birds. Although certainly America's first woman poet, well known for dignified poems on Elizabeth I and Sir Philip Sidney, the affection that most readers in her home town felt for Christian Anne came from her poems as a mother in her late forties who faced an empty nest. No one before Anne had written any poem quite like "In Reference to her Children." Mothers and fathers, Ben Jonson among them, often expressed their grief over the deaths of their children. Moralists like John Bunyan took the young to task for their bad behaviour. A mother's worrying love of her living children as she was losing them to new lives elsewhere was unheard of as a subject for verse.

Anne's governing metaphor builds on everyone's English in her time. One of the common senses of the term "bird," from 1300 on, was a young son or daughter (OED "bird" 1.c-d). Four of her children are male "Cocks" and four are female "Hens" (2). She refers to them all as the "Brood" (7, 43). These terms suggest that she has in mind a tale like Chaucer's "The Nun's Priest's Tale" of Chantecleer and Pertelote, the barnyard cock and hen, but chickens do not speak "chirping languages" (83), do not go aloft trees, and seldom fly away. Anne imagines smaller common birds such as larks, sparrows, thrushes, and wrens. Their nest is the house in which she the "Dame" and her husband Simon the "Sire" -- words also conventionally applied to birds -- live in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Anne teaches her birds to mount trees, from low boughs to the highest (6, 36) and there to sing in the family choir (6, 12). The tree traditionally is associated with life itself. Randle Cotgrave's 1611 French-English dictionary, for example, explains "Arbre de vie" as "The sweet tree, called also by vs, the tree of life." Flight from this tree, for Anne, means death, "from the top bough [to] take my flight / Into a country beyond sight" (75-76). For this reason, she can only fear the repeating step that her children take, the older five all leaving the nest and flying off somewhere else. Her oldest son Samuel "took his flight / To Regions far" (7-8), as did her oldest daughter Dorothy and two others (13), and as the three children yet at home will do in time (39).

Anne understands why her daughters Dorothy and Sarah left -- they flew away to be with their mates (as she did from England to America with Simon) -- but not why her sons went, Samuel to England and Simon Jr. to Harvard. Her "mournful chirps" follow Samuel, "Chief of the Brood" (7), whom she obviously expects to return. (After all, unlike the girls, he gets to bring his mate home with him.) "Ambition" moves Simon Jr. to "chant above the rest" at Harvard, "the Academy"; but Anne expresses no sympathy with his goal, to out-sing the "nightingales," perhaps because he was born to chirp, not to warble (27-32). At last, Anne accepts their departures because they behaved "As is ordain'd" (40); her strongly Puritan beliefs include unquestioning acquiescence in the will of God over man's individual destiny.

Like most pre-modern mothers who devoted their lives to child-raising, Anne remembers life for its suffering, the agony of birth ("my pain when I you bred"), then the ever-present fear about her children's safety in her keeping ("my care when I you fed"). Now that her children have flown away, her concerns about "harm", "perils", and "accidents" that lie in wait for them intensify because they are "ignorant" and she is not around to warn them. None of her suffering is a sentimental or attention-grabbing over-reaction. Like the birds, she cannot weep (41); as a result, none knows her terrible imaginings. "Fowler's snare," stone-throwing boys, the glittery "bell and glass" that attracts the birds to food and a birder's net, birdline, and "greedy hawks" hint at demonic powers. Little wonder that Anne describes her symptoms as heart palpitations. Her brood, however, must not have been paying attention because, in her final self-assessment, she reminds them that she taught them to live among the great opposites: "joy and misery, / ... what was good, and what was ill, / What would save life, and what would kill" (88-90). If they keep safe and teach their offspring what they were taught by her, that is, if they pass on her wisdom, she will die "happy" (094).

The poem's title may not be Anne's. Its third-person allusion, "her," does not suit the familiar first-person narrative. The poem's octosyllabic couplets, mostly iambic, have the brevity and simplicity of "chirps" rather than the formality for which the title prepares us. No one knows for what occasion on June 23, 1659, Anne intended the poem, but it reads like a sing-song performance for the children who were still at home. She describes her empty-nester's life as spent in making "tunes" (67) and promises to "sing" (74) until she passes on to heaven, where she will, "with seraphims set song" (78), that is, set words to music. At the beginning of the poem she refers to her family as singing "amidst this Quire" (12). Editors and critics who see quaintness here are probably just overlooking how perfectly Anne shaped her content to her audience, those of her children who remained at home.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Anne Bradstreet, Several Poems, 2nd edn. (Boston: John Foster, 1678). Cf. The Complete Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Allan P. Robb (Boston: Twayne, 1981): 184-86.
First publication date: 1678
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1997.
Recent editing: 4:2002/1/20*1:2002/9/9

Composition date: 1658 - 1659
Composition date note: See White 313
Form: Tetrameter Couplets

Other poems by Anne Bradstreet