‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children‘ was published in 1678 and touches on the dark subject of child mortality. Bradstreet writes from a personal perspective, having had eight children herself. She taps into her experience to craft a specific narrator, a pregnant woman, who is considering the possible outcomes of her pregnancy in ‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children.’
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In the first lines of ‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children,’ the speaker begins by noting that everything in the world will eventually come to an end. This includes those she loves and the child she’s carrying inside her. There is nothing strong enough to stand up against the specter of death. She notes the fact that her husband is probably going to die soon and how she doesn’t know whether she’s going to die in childbirth. It’s a mystery whether she’s going to make it through the pregnancy.
She’s writing this poem as a goodbye to her husband, who she may never get to properly say goodbye to. She hopes that she lives, but she wants him to know that even if she doesn’t, she’s still his. The speaker also wants her husband to know that she’s fine with him remarrying but hopes he still takes care of her children if the new mother is cruel. Finally, she asks that her husband kiss this paper every once in a while to acknowledge the fact that she once loved him (if, of course, she does end up dying).
Throughout this poem, the poet engages primarily with the theme of death. Despite the title, which references birth, she’s more interested in talking about the negative consequences of childbirth. Her new child might die as might she. The poem turns into a goodbye to her husband that explains her awareness of the risks of birth. She has accepted that she will die one day, as everyone is, and wants her husband to remember her for as long as he can. This leads to the next theme: legacy. She wants to be remembered fondly and have her children taken care of.
Structure and Form
‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children‘ by Anne Bradstreet is an epistolary. That is, a poem addressed to a specific person. This piece was written with the speaker’s husband in mind. It’s not entirely clear whether Bradstreet was the intended speaker or if she created a persona. The poem is composed of twenty-eight lines. These are written in heroic couplets or pairs of rhyming lines. They follow iambic pentameter. This means that each one (with a few exceptions) contains five sets of two beats. The first of which is unstressed, and the second of which is stressed.
- Metaphor: an example can be found in the eleventh line when Bradstreet uses the mage of a “knot…untied” to describe death.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines nine and ten as well as fifteen and sixteen.
- Alliteration: seen through the repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of lines. For example: “Dear, death” in line seven and “dayes” and “due” in line thirteen.
- Parallelism: seen through the use of the same or very similar structures in poetry. For example, lines seven and eight.
All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joyes attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy Lot to lose thy friend,
We are both ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
In the first lines of ‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children,’ the speaker begins by making a sweeping statement about death. She acknowledges the fact that it’s always going to come no matter how close and strong one’s human connections are. “Death’s parting blow is sure to meet” everyone. Her thoughts on death are directly related to her current condition—she’s pregnant. In Bradstreet’s time, pregnancy was quite dangerous, killing innumerable women a year.
She considers the possibility that the next child she has with her husband is going to end her life. It’s possible, but she doesn’t know the outcome yet. The fact that it’s a possibility has inspired her to write this poem. The lines are very clearly directed to the woman’s husband. She’s telling him goodbye while she still has a chance.
And if I see not half my dayes that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
The many faults that well you know I have
Let be interr’d in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
In the next lines of the poem, the speaker goes on to say that it’s possible she might not live out “half” her “dayes” that she’s due, but she hopes that extra time is given to her husband and her children. She’s very calm in these lines, presenting a realistic view of death and the possibility that she’ll soon be lost to her family.
Rather than remembering any of her faults, she wants her husband to remember the best things about her. Readers should note the use of alliteration in these lines. For example, “long lay” in line twenty” and “dayes” and “due” in line thirteen. There are also examples of enjambment. Like, the transition between lines fifteen and sixteen.
The direct way she delivers these lines makes them even more powerful. She’s speaking about her death so openly that anyone who loved her, such as the listener, couldn’t help but be moved by her words. This is especially true when she says that she hopes he remembers her as the woman who lay in his arms and goes on loving her.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These o protect from step Dames injury.
And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent Herse;
And kiss this paper for thy loves dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last Farewel did take.
In the final section of lines, the speaker says that she knows her husband will remarry one day. The stepmother, she hopes, he’ll keep from treating her children cruelly. If he loved the speaker, then surely he’ll protect her children from harm. Finally, the speaker concludes her poem with one last thought about the poem itself. She hopes he’ll turn to the poem and kiss the paper for her sake if she dies. This should be a fond memory and a piece of writing he can turn to when he feels sad.
This poem is about the inevitability of death and a woman’s reaction to it.
The themes in this piece are motherhood, death, and legacy.
This poem is about a disappointed writer’s description of her work. She’s failed, in her own eyes, and can’t figure out how to fix it.
Some believe ‘Contemplations‘ is Bradstreet’s most famous poems. Others believe it is ‘The Author to Her Book.’
Readers who enjoyed ‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children’ should also consider reading some other Anne Bradstreet poems. For example:
- ‘A Letter to her Husband, absent upon Publick employment’ – tells of a speaker’s longing for the return of her long-absent husband.
- ‘The Author to Her Book’ – describes the disappointment that a writer feels over the finished product she has created and her fruitless attempts to improve it.
- ‘To my Dear and Loving Husband’ – a beautiful poem praising the mutual love between the poet and her beloved husband.