‘A Letter to her Husband, absent upon Publick employment’ by Anne Bradstreet is a twenty-six line poem contained within one stanza of text. The lines are formatted as heroic couplets. This means that they are paired off and structured in iambic pentameter. Each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. This format holds true for the first twelve couplets, but the final two lines are not full rhymes and are in iambic tetrameter. This means that they contain four sets of two beats.
The most important theme of this piece is absence. The speaker spends a great deal of time describing how much, and for which reasons, she cares for her husband. Her tone is wistful as she looks towards the past and the future, recalling their times together and predicting what is soon to happen.
The speaker’s husband is directly related to one of the most important images of the text, the sun. The speaker refers to him as her “Sun” whose absence has made her “earth…mourn in black.” The metaphor extends throughout a number of stanzas, expanding to include astrological symbols.
Bradstreet specifically refers to her sun being in “Capricorn.” He is off in winter, leaving her in darkness. In the twenty-first line, while she is speculating on his return, she refers to “Cancer.” He will be in “Cancer” when he returns to her breast and the warmth returns to the world.
Summary of A Letter to her Husband, absent upon Publick employment
‘A Letter to her Husband, absent upon Publick employment’ by Anne Bradstreet tells of a speaker’s longing for the return of her long absent husband.
The poem begins with the speaker telling the listener that she belongs to her husband totally. All parts of her have been given to his warmth. He is absent at this point though, traveling far from her as the sun moves from the earth during the winter months.
She frequently compares him to the sun and herself to earth. The speaker freezes without his presence and will only feel whole again when he returns to her “in Cancer.”
Analysis of A Letter to her Husband, absent upon Publick employment
My head, my heart, mine Eyes, my life, nay more,
My joy, my Magazine of earthly store,
If two be one, as surely thou and I,
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lye?
So many steps, head from the heart to sever
If but a neck, soon should we be together:
In the first set of lines the speaker collects the parts of her life, physical and ephemeral, together and dedicates them to her husband. They all belong to him and can be found in her “Magazine of earthly store.” This is a reference to a building in that holds gunpowder or another type of ammunition. She uses the metaphor to compare her own emotions to this powerful substance. They too reside within a building that keeps them safe. The speaker also tells the listener that she and her husband are “one.” There is no doubt in her mind that this is the case.
The next line is certainly directed at her husband. She asks him how he can remain away from her while she is alone “at Ipswich. Their distance is like that from the “head to the heart.” There is a whole neck in between but if that was taken away, (if it was “sever[ed]”), then they could “be together.” These two words “head” and “heart” also speak to the way that her passion is all-consuming. It resides both in her head and heart.
I like the earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in’s Zodiack,
Whom whilst I ’joy’d, nor storms, nor frosts I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now nummed lye forlorn;
Return, return sweet Sol from Capricorn;
In the next set of lines Bradstreet introduces the most important image of the poem. It occurs within another metaphor comparing the husband to the sun. He is to her the light and warmth of the world. When he is gone, “so far” into the “Zodiak” of the sky, so too is her joy. He has moved beyond her reach and cast her into the winter. No longer does his “warmth” fend off the “frigid cold” or warm her “chilled limbs.”
The speaker goes on to ask her husband to return to her from “Capricorn.” He is out, as the sun, traveling through the constellation Capricorn. This only occurs from late December to mid-January, placing the setting in the middle of winter. The days are short, dark and to the speaker, endless.
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Then view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living Pictures of their Fathers face.
O strange effect! now thou art Southward gone,
I weary grow, the tedious day so long;
In the next set of lines she refers to the fact that she has only “those fruits” to comfort her. This is a reference to her own children who she “bore” through his “heat.” Although they are not the same as having her husband around, the kids do have some resemblance to their father. She can see in their faces “Pictures of their Fathers face.” It is “strange” to her to see him and yet still be without him.
The separation is clearly taking its toll on the speaker. Just as one would become weak without access to the sun, the speaker is growing weary. The days are “tedious” and “long.”
But when thou Northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest.
Where ever, ever stay, and go not thence,
Till natures sad decree shall call thee hence;
Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,
I here, thou there, yet both but one.
The last lines of the text are more optimistic. Here the speaker plans for her husband’s return. She knows eventually that he will come “Northward” and “burn / Within the Cancer” of her “glowing breast.” He would have long since passed beyond Capricorn and entered into Cancer, its exact opposite. This is the time that his heat will be at its most intense.
Bradstreet once more utilizes the metaphor of a building for the speaker’s husband. Once he comes back, he will again be her “welcome house.” She is planning to ask her husband to never leave her again. He must stay by her side for ever and “go not hence,” or away from her.
The final two lines are structured in iambic tetrameter and conclude the poem succinctly. Although she has been through a lot, their love has not been weakened. They are still one, just as “flesh” and “bone” are. This line is taken almost exactly from the book of Genesis in the Bible.