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Thou Rambling Ill-Formed Child—Please Call Your Parents (Parenthood)

February 3, 2012
anne bradstreet

Anne: a softer portrait

It’s expected for a writer to dislike some or all of their published work on account on perfectionism, insecurity, self-deprecation—or overdue enlightenment. In The Author to Her Book, Anne Bradstreet used a child as a vivid metaphor for a disfavored book of her verse that she may have felt was prematurely published, and to such a degree you’d think the poem was about a real child if you neglected to read the title. Taking to task the “ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain” as “one unfit for light,” Bradstreet speaks with the hair-wilting harshness of a disappointed parent running out of ideas. In the end she softens, empathizes, and offers a bit of counsel on the rigors of the world (“‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam”). A good thing, because she evidently harbored enough venom to kill a Puritan village. Really, the affection seems to have been there all along, and part of her anger is with herself for … being angry.

Bradstreet must have had multiple motives in writing this way, self-deprecation being obvious. She lived in 17th century New England and was for a woman (or for most anyone) unfashionably intellectual, not to mention competing in a man’s field. She also birthed eight children in ten years, neither an easy job nor free of bitterness. So to me the illegitimate child metaphor seems partly literal, a device to allow writing directly about motherhood while using her work as a stalking horse for the task.

When I reread the poem just now, thirty years later, looking for thoughts on writing, I ended up hearing it as a parent. Beneath the mother’s anxiety (it’s hard to imagine a father writing this way) there are so many implicit questions. How harshly ought we critique our own, how quick do we forgive? Need we continue to help them (“In better dress to trim thee was my mind”)? How do they reflect on us when they’re out there (“At thy return my blushing was not small”)?

The child metaphor is limited. Unlike books, humans have free will and continually add their own chapters without parental co-authors. They can’t revise the past, and a childhood gone wrong can’t be rewritten. Bradstreet knew love alone is not enough, especially after the fact (“affection would/Thy blemishes amend, if so I could”), and may make things worse (“rubbing off a spot still made a flaw”). There is no sure path to success from the start, but so many ways to fail. Even if we had a chance to start over, as we do with a book, we might not get it right, which is to admit true incompetence.

Can you tell I have a teenager on my mind? My little fledgling, with feet almost as big as mine, has two years of high school left. He seems to think that is a long time. I used to joke we’d move as soon as he went to college. Now I think we might follow him. Well, not really, but the sentiment is there, once I realized that a clean break was neither possible nor desired. But will he call? (Don’t suggest that he’d call just for money; he knows me better than that!)

tenth muse book

The Accursed Book

The Author to Her Book
by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

A critique of the poem by Julie Sheehan and a short biography of Bradstreet.

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