Anne Bradstreet and her time/Chapter XVII
THROUGH all these later years Anne Bradstreet had made occasional records, in which her many sicknesses find mention, though never in any complaining fashion.
Now and then, as in the following meditation, she wrote a page full of gratitude at the peace which became more and more assured, her doubting and self-distrustful spirit retaining more and more the quietness often in early life denied her:
Meditations when my Soul hath been Refreshed
with the Consolations which the
World knowes not.
Lord, why should I doubt any more when thou hast given me such assured Pledges of thy Love? First, thou art my Creator, I thy creature; thou my master, I thy servant. But hence arises not my comfort: Thou art my father, I thy child. Yee shall [be] my Sons and Daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Christ is my brother; I ascend unto my Father and your Father, unto my God and your God. But least this should not be enough, thy maker is thy husband. Nay, more, I am a member of his Body; he, my head. Such Priviledges, had not the Word of Truth made them known, who or where is the man that durst in his heart have presumed to have thought it? So wonderfull are these thoughts that my spirit failes in me at the consideration thereof; and I am confounded to think that God, who hath done so much for me should have so little from me. But this is my comfort, when I come into Heaven, I shall understand perfectly what he hath done for me, and then shall I be able to praise him as I ought. Lord, haveing this hope, let me pruefie myself as thou art Pure, and let me bee no more affraid of Death, but even desire to be dissolved, and bee with thee, which is best of all.
Of the same nature are the fragments of diary which follow:
July 8th, 1656. I had a sore fitt of fainting which lasted 2 or 3 days, but not in that extremity which at first it took me, and so much the sorer it was to me because my dear husband was from home (who is my chiefest comforter on Earth); but my God, who never failed me, was not absent, but helped me, and gratiously manifested his Love to me, which I dare not passe by without Remembrance, that it may be a support to me when I shall have occasion to read this hereafter, and to others that shall read it when I shall posesse that I now hope for, that so they may bee encourag'd to trust in him who is the only Portion of his Servants.
O Lord, let me never forget thy Goodness, nor question thy faithfulness to me, for thou art my God: Thou hast said and shall I not beleive it?
Thou hast given me a pledge of that Inheritance thou hast promised to bestow upon me. O, never let Satan prevail against me, but strengthen my faith in Thee till I shall attain the end of my hopes, even the Salvation of my Soul. Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly.
What God is like to him I serve,
What Saviour like to mine?
O, never let me from thee swerve,
For truly I am thine.
Sept. 30, 1657. It pleased God to viset me with my old Distemper of weakness and fainting, but not in that sore manner sometimes he hath. I desire not only willingly, but thankfully, to submitt to him, for I trust it is out of his abundant Love to my straying Soul which in prosperity is too much in love with the world. I have found by experience I can no more live without correction than without food. Lord, with thy correction give Instruction and amendment, and then thy strokes shall bee welcome. I have not been refined in the furnace of affliction as some have been, but have rather been preserved with sugar then brine, yet will He preserve me to His heavenly kingdom.
Thus (dear children) have yee seen the many sicknesses and weaknesses that I have passed thro: to the end that, if you meet with the like, you may have recourse to the same God who hath heard and delivered me, and will doe the like for you if you trust in him: and, when he shall deliver you out of distresse, forget not to give him thankes, but to walk more closely with him then before. This is the desire of your Loving Mother,
With this record came a time of comparative health, and it is not till some years later that she finds it necessary to again write of sharp physical suffering, this being the last reference made in her papers to her own condition:
May 11, 1661. It hath pleased God to give me a long Time of respite for these 4 years that I have had no great fitt of sickness, but this year, from the middle of January 'till May, I have been by fitts very ill and weak. The first of this month I had a feaver seat'd upon me which, indeed, was the longest and sorest that ever I had, lasting 4 dayes, and the weather being very hott made it the more tedious, but it pleased the Lord to support my heart in his goodness, and to hear my Prayers, and to deliver me out of adversity. But alas! I cannot render unto the Lord according to all his loving kindnes, nor take the cup salvation with Thanksgiving as I ought to doe. Lord, Thou that knowest All things, know'st that I desire to testefye my thankfulnes, not only in word, but in Deed, that my Conversation may speak that thy vowes are upon me.
The diary of "Religious Reflections" was written at this period and holds a portrait of the devout and tender mind, sensitive and morbidly conscientious, but full of an aspiration that never left her. The few hints as to her early life are all embodied here, though the biographer is forced to work chiefly by inference:
To my Dear Children:
This Book by Any yet unread,
I leave for you when I am dead,
That, being gone, here you may find
What was your living mother's mind.
Make use of what I leave in Love
And God shall blesse you from above.
My Dear Children:
Knowing by experience that the exhortations of parents take most effect when the speakers leave to speak, and those especially sink deepest which are spoke latest—and being ignorant whether on my death-bed I shall have opportunity to speak to any of you, much lesse to All—thought it the best, whilst I was able to compose some short matters, (for what else to call them I know not) and bequeath to you, that when I am no more with you, yet I may bee dayly in your remembrance, (Although that is the least in my aim in what I now doe) but that you may gain some spiritual Advantage by my experience. I have not studied in this you read to show my skill, but to declare the Truth—not to sett forth myself, but the Glory of God. If I had minded the former, it had been perhaps better pleasing to you,—but seing the last is the best, let it bee best pleasing to you. The method I will observe shall bee this—I will begin with God's dealing with me from my childhood to this Day. In my young years, about 6 or 7 as I take it, I began to make conscience of my wayes, and what I knew was sinful, as lying, disobedience to Parents, &c., I avoided it. If at any time I was overtaken with the like evills, it was a great Trouble. I could not be at rest 'till by prayer I had confest it unto God. I was also troubled at the neglect of Private Dutyes, tho: too often tardy that way. I also found much comfort in reading the Scriptures, especially those places I thought most concerned my Condition, and as I grew to have more understanding, so the more solace I took in them.
In a long fitt of sicknes which I had on my bed I often communed with my heart, and made my supplication to the most High who sett me free from that affliction.
But as I grew up to bee about 14 or 15 I found my heart more carnall, and sitting loose from God, vanity and the follyes of youth take hold of me. About 16, the Lord layed his hand sore upon me and Smott mee with the small pox. When I was in my affliction, I besought the Lord, and confessed my Pride and Vanity and he was entreated of me, and again restored me. But I rendered not to him according to the benefitt received.
After a short time I changed my condition and was marryed, and came into this Contry, where I fond a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church at Boston.
After some time I fell into a lingering sicknes like a consumption, together with a lamenesse, which correction I saw the Lord sent to humble and try me and doe mee Good: and it was not altogether ineffectual.
It pleased God to keep me a long time without a child, which was a great grief to me, and cost mee many prayers and tears before I obtained one, and after him gave mee many more, of whom I now take the care, that as I have broght you into the world, and with great paines, weaknes, cares, and feares, brought you to this, I now travail in birth again of you till Christ bee formed in you.
Among all my experiences of God's gratious Dealings with me I have constantly observed this, that he hath never suffered me long to sitt loose from him, but by one affliction or other hath made me look home, and search what was amisse so usually thos it hath been with me that I have no sooner felt my heart out of order, but I have expected correction for it, which most commonly hath been upon my own person, in sicknesse, weaknes, paines, sometimes on my soul, in Doubts and feares of God's displeasure, and my sincerity towards him, sometimes he hath smott a child with sicknes, sometimes chastened by losses in estate,—and these Times (thro: his great mercy) have been the times of my greatest Getting and Advantage, yea I have found them the Times when the Lord hath manifested the most love to me. Then have I gone to searching, and have said with David, Lord search me and try me, see what wayes of wickednes are in me, and lead me in the way everlasting; and seldom or never, but I have found either some sin I lay under which God would have reformed, or some duty neglected which he would have performed. And by his help I have layed Vowes and Bonds upon my Soul to perform his righteous commands.
If at any time you are chastened of God, take it as thankfully and Joyfully as in greatest mercyes, for if yee bee his yee shall reap the greatest benefit by it. It hath been no small support to me in times of Darkness when the Almighty hath hid his face from me, that yet I have had abundance of sweetness and refreshment after affliction, and more circumspection in my walking after I have been afflicted. I have been with God like an untoward child, that no longer than the rod has been on my back (or at least in sight) but I have been apt to forgett him and myself too. Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep thy statutes.
I have had great experience of God's hearing my Prayers, and returning comfortable Answers to me, either in granting the thing I prayed for, or else in satisfying my mind without it; and I have been confident it hath been from him, because I have found my heart through his goodnes enlarged in thankfullnes to him.
I have often been perplexed that I have not found that constant Joy in my Pilgrim age and refreshing which I supposed most of the servants of God have; although he hath not left me altogether without the wittnes of his holy spirit, who hath oft given mee his word and sett to his Seal that it shall bee well with me. I have sometimes tasted of that hidden manna that the world knowes not, and have sett up my Ebenezer, and have resolved with myself that against such a promise such taste of sweetnes, the Gates of Hell shall never prevail. Yet have I many times sinkings and droopings, and not enjoyed that felicity that sometimes I have done. But when I have been in darknes and seen no light, yet have I desired to stay myself upon the Lord. And, when I have been in sicknes and pain, I have thought if the Lord would but lift up the light of his Countenance upon me, altho: he ground me to powder, it would bee but light to me; yea, oft have I thought were if hell itself, and could there find the Love of God toward me, it would bee a Heaven. And, could I have been in Heaven without the Love of God it would have been a Hell to me; for in Truth, it is the absence and presence of God that makes Heaven or Hell.
Many times hath Satan troubled me concerning the verity of the Scriptures, many times by Atheisme how could I know whether there was a God; I never saw any miracles to confirm me, and those which I read of how did I know but they were feigned. That there is a God my Reason would soon tell me by the wondrous workes that I see, the vast frame of the Heaven and the Earth, the order of all things, night and day, Summer and Winter, Spring and Autumne, the dayly providing for this great houshold upon the Earth, the preserving and directing of All to its proper end. The consideration of these things would with amazement certainly resolve me that there is an Eternall Being.
But how should I know he is such a God as I worship in Trinity, and such a Savior as I rely upon? tho: this hath thousands of times been suggested to mee, yet God hath helped me ever. I have argued this with myself. That there is a God I see. If ever this God hath revealed himself, it must bee in his word, and this must be it or none. Have I not found that operation by it that no humane Invention can work upon the Soul? Hath not Judgments befallen Diverse who have scorned and contemd it? Hath it not been preserved thro: all Ages mangre all the heathen Tyrants and all of the enemies who have opposed it? Is there any story but that which shows the beginnings of Times, and how the world came to bee as wee see? Doe wee not know the prophecyes in it fullfilled which could not have been so long foretold by any but God himself? When I have gott over this Block, then have I another pott in my way, That admitt this bee the true God whom we worship, and that be his word, yet why may not the Popish Religion bee the right? They have the same God, the same Christ, the same word; they only interprett it one way, wee another. This hath sometimes stuck with me, and more it would, but the vain fooleries that are in their Religion, together with their lying miracles and cruell persecutions of the Saints, which admitt were they as they terme them, yet not so to be dealt with all. The consideration of these things and many the like would soon turn me to my own Religion again. But some new Troubles I have had since the world has been filled with Blasphemy, and Sectaries, and some who have been accounted sincere Christians have been carryed away with them, that sometimes I have said, Is there ffaith upon the earth? and I have not known what to think. But then I have remembered the words of Christ that so it must bee, and that, if it were possible, the very elect should bee deceived. Behold, faith our Savior, I have told you before. That hath stayed my heart, and I can now say, Return, O my Soul, to thy Rest, upon this Rock christ Jesus will I build my faith; and if I perish, I perish. But I know all the Powers of Hell shall never prevail against it. I know whom I have trusted, and whom I have believed, and that he is able to keep that I have committed to his charge. Now to the King, Immortall, Eternall, and invisible, the only wise God, bee Honor and Glory forever and ever! Amen.
This was written in much sicknesse and weakness, and is very weakly and imperfectly done; but, if you can pick any Benefitt out of it, it is the marke which I aimed at.
For a few of the years that remained there were the alternations to which she had long been accustomed, but with 1669 she had become a hopeless and almost helpless invalid, longing to die, yet still held by the intense vitality which must have been her characteristic, and which required three years more of wasting pain before the struggle could end. In August, of 1669, she had written one of the most pathetic of her poems:
Aug: 31, 69.
As weary pilgrim now at rest,
Hugs with delight his silent nest
His wasted limbes now lye full soft
That myrie steps have trodden oft.
Blesses himself to think upon
his dangers past, and travails done.
The burning sun no more shall heat
Nor stormy raines on him shall beat.
The bryars and thornes no more shall scratch,
nor hungry wolves at him shall catch
He erring pathes no more shall tread
nor wilde fruits eate, instead of bread
for waters cold he doth not long
for thirst no more shall parch his tongue.
No rugged stones his feet shall gaule
nor stumps nor rocks cause him to fall.
All cares and feares, he bids farewell
and meanes in safity now to dwell.
A pilgrim I, on earth, perplext,
Wth sinns wth cares and sorrows vext
By age and paines brought to decay.
And my Clay house mouldring away
Oh how I long to be at rest
and soare on high among the blesst.
This body shall in silence sleep
Mine eyes no more shall ever weep
No fainting fits shall me assaile
nor grinding paines my body fraile
Wth cares and fears n'er cumbred be
Nor losses know, nor sorrows see
What tho my flesh shall there consume
it is the bed Christ did perfume
And when a few yeares shall be gone
this mortall shall be cloth'd upon
A corrupt Carcasse downe it lyes
A glorious body it shall rise
In weakness and dishonour sowne
in power 'tis rais'd by Christ alone
When soule and body shall unite
and of their maker have the sight
Such lasting joyes shall there behold
as eare ne'r heard nor tongue e'er told
Lord make me ready for that day
then Come dear bridegrome, Come away.
The long waiting ended at last, and her son, Simon Bradstreet, wrote in his diary:
"Sept. 16, 1672. My ever honoured & most dear Mother was translated to Heaven. Her death was occasioned by a consumption being wasted to skin & bone & she had an issue made in her arm bee: she was much troubled with rheum, & one of ye women yt tended herr dressing her arm, s'd shee never saw such an arm in her Life, I, s'd my most dear Mother but yt shall bee a Glorious Arm.
"I being absent fro her lost the opportunity of committing to memory her pious & memorable xpressions uttered in her sicknesse. O yt the good Lord would give unto me and mine a heart to walk in her steps, considering what the end of her Conversation was, yt so wee might one day have a happy & glorious greeting."
Dorothy, the wife of Seaborn Cotton and the namesake of her grandmother, had died in February of the same year, making the first break in the family circle, which had been a singularly united one, the remainder all living to advanced years. Grief at the loss had been softened by the certainty that separation could not last long, and in spite of the terror with which her creed filled even the thought of death, suffering had made at last a welcome one. No other touch could bring healing or rest to the racked and weary body, and deeply as Simon Bradstreet mourned her loss, a weight rolled away, when the long suffering had ended.
That the country-side thronged to the funeral of the woman whose name was honored in every New England settlement, we may know, but no record remains of ceremony, or sermon, or even of burial place. The old graveyard at Andover holds no stone that may perhaps have been hers, and it is believed that her father's tomb at Roxbury may have received the remains, that possibly she herself desired should lie by those of her mother. Sermons were preached in all the principal churches, and funeral elegies, that dearest form of the Puritan muse, poured in, that by John Norton being the best illustration of manner and method.
A Funeral Elogy,
Upon that Pattern and Patron of Virtue, the truely pious, peerless &
MRS. ANNE BRADSTREET.
Mirror of her Age, Glory of her Sex, whose Heaven-born-Soul leaving
its earthly Shrine, chose its native home, and was taken
to its Rest upon 16th Sept. 1672.
Ask not why hearts turn Magazines of passions,
And why that grief is clad in several fashions;
Why she on progress goes, and doth not borrow
The small'st respite from the extreams of sorrow,
Her misery is got to such an height,
As makes the earth groan to support its weight,
Such storms of woe, so strongly have beset her,
She hath no place for worse, nor hope for better
Her comfort is, if any for her be,
That none can shew more cause of grief then she.
Ask not why some in mournfull black are clad;
The sun is set, there needs must be a shade.
Ask not why every face a sadness shrowdes;
The setting Sun ore-cast us hath with Clouds.
Ask not why the great glory of the Skye
That gilds the stars with heavenly Alchamy,
Which all the world doth lighten with his Rayes,
The Persian God, the Monarch of the dayes;
Ask not the reason of his extasie,
Paleness of late, in midnoon Majesty,
Why that the pale fac'd Empress of the night
Disrob'd her brother of his glorious light.
Did not the language of the stars foretel
A mournfull Scoene when they with tears did Swell?
Did not the glorious people of the Skye
Seem sensible of future misery?
Did not the low'ring heavens seem to express
The worlds great lose and their unhappiness?
Behold how tears flow from the learned hill,
How the bereaved Nine do daily fill
The bosom of the fleeting Air with groans,
And wofull Accents, which witness their Moanes.
How doe the Goddesses of verse, the learned quire
Lament their rival Quill, which all admire?
Could Maro's Muse but hear her lively strain,
He would condemn his works to fire again,
Methinks I hear the Patron of the Spring,
The unshorn Deity abruptly sing.
Some doe for anguish weep, for anger I
That Ignorance should live, and Art should die.
Black, fatal, dismal, inauspicious day,
Unblest forever by Sol's precious Ray,
Be it the first of Miseries to all;
Or last of Life, defam'd for Funeral.
When this day yearly comes, let every one,
Cast in their urne, the black and dismal stone,
Succeeding years as they their circuit goe,
Leap o'er this day, as a sad time of woe.
Farewell my Muse, since thou hast left thy shrine,
I am unblest in one, but blest in nine.
Fair Thespian Ladyes, light your torches all,
Attend your glory to its Funeral,
To court her ashes with a learned tear,
A briny sacrifice, let not a smile appear.
Grave Matron, whoso seeks to blazon thee
Needs not make use of witts false Heraldry;
Whoso should give thee all thy worth would swell
So high, as 'twould turn the world infidel.
Had he great Maro's Muse, or Tully's tongue,
Or raping numbers like the Thracian Song,
In crowning of her merits he would be
Sumptuously poor, low in Hyperbole.
To write is easy; but to write on thee,
Truth would be thought to forfeit modesty.
He'l seem a Poet that shall speak but true;
Hyperbole's in others, are thy due.
Like a most servile flatterer he will show
Virtue ne'er dies, time will a Poet raise
Born under better Stars, shall sing thy praise.
Praise her who list, yet he shall be a debtor
For Art ne're feigned, nor Nature fram'd a better,
Her virtues were so great, that they do raise
A work to trouble fame, astonish praise.
When as her Name doth but salute the ear,
Men think that they perfections abstract hear.
Her breast was a brave Pallace, a Broad-street,
Where all heroick ample thoughts did meet,
Where nature such a Tenement had tane,
That others Souls, to hers, dwelt in a lane.
Beneath her feet, pale envy bites her chain,
And poison Malice, whetts her sting in vain.
Let every Laurel, every Myrtel bough
Be stript for leaves t'adorn and load her brow.
Victorious wreaths, which 'cause they never fade
Wise elder times for Kings and Poets made
Let not her happy Memory e're lack
Its worth in Fame's eternal Almanack,
Which none shall read, but straight their lots deplore,
And blame their Fates they were not born before.
Do not old men rejoyce their Fates did last,
And infants too, that theirs did make such hast,
In such a welcome time to bring them forth,
That they might be a witness to her worth.
Who undertakes this subject to commend
Shall nothing find so hard as how to end.
Finis & Non,
Forty years of wedded life, and a devotion that remained unaltered to the end, inclined Simon Bradstreet to a longer period of mourning than most Puritan husbands seemed to have submitted to, but four years after her death, the husband, at seventy-three, still as hale and well-preserved as many a man of fifty, took to himself another wife.
She was the widow of Captain Joseph Gardner of Salem, killed in the attack on the Narragansett fort in December, 1675, and is described by her step-son Simon, in his diary as "a Gentl. of very good birth and education, and of great piety and Prudence." Of her prudence there could hardly be a doubt, for as daughter and sister of Emanuel and George Downing, she had had before her through all her early years, examples of shrewdness and farsightedness for all personal ends, that made the names of both, an offence then and in later days. But no suspicion of the tendencies strong in both father and son, ever rested on Mistress Gardner, who was both proud and fond of her elderly husband, and who found him as tender and thoughtful a friend as he had always been to the wife of his youth. For twenty-one years he passed from honor to honor in the Colony, living in much state, though personally always abstemious and restrained, and growing continually in the mildness and toleration, from which his contemporaries more and more diverged. Clear-sighted, and far in advance of his time, his moderation hindered any chafing or discontent, and his days, even when most absorbed in public interests, held a rare severity and calm.
No act of all Bradstreet's life brought him more public honors than his action against Andros, whose tyranny had roused every man in New England to protest and revolt. Almost ninety years old, he met the deputation who came to consult him, and set his hand to a letter, which held the same possibilities and was in many senses, the first Declaration of Independence. From the Town House in Boston went out the handbill, printed in black letter and signed by fifteen names, the old patriarch heading the list. Bancroft, who is seldom enthusiastic, tells the story of the demand upon Andros of immediate surrender of the government and fortifications, and the determination of the passionate and grasping soldier to resist.
"Just then the Governor of the Colony, in office when the charter was abrogated, Simon Bradstreet, glorious with the dignity of four-score years and seven, one of the early emigrants, a magistrate in 1630, whose experience connected the oldest generation with the new, drew near the town-house, and was received with a great shout from the free men. The old magistrates were reinstated, as a council of safety; the whole town rose in arms, with the most unanimous resolution that ever inspired a people; and a declaration read from the balcony, defending the insurrection as a duty to God and the country. 'We commit our enterprise,' it is added, 'to Him who hears the cry of the oppressed, and advise all our neighbors, for whom we have thus ventured ourselves, to joyn with us in prayers and all just actions for the defence of the land.' On Charlestown side, a thousand soldiers crowded together; and the multitude would have been longer if needed. The governor vainly attempting to escape to the frigate was, with his creatures, compelled to seek protection by submission; through the streets where he had first displayed his scarlet coat and arbitrary commission, he and his fellows were marched to the town-house and thence to prison. All the cry was against Andros and Randolph. The castle was taken; the frigate was mastered; the fortifications occupied."
Once more Massachusetts assembled in general court, and the old man, whose blood could still tingle at wrong, was called again to the chair of state, filling it till the end of all work came suddenly, and he passed on, leaving a memory almost as tenderly preserved as that of "the beloved governor," John Winthrop.
In the ancient burial place at Salem may still be seen the tomb of the old man who had known over sixty years of public service.
Armiger, exordine Senatoris, in colonia Massachusettensi ab anno 1630, usque ad anum 1673. Deinde ad anum 1679, Vice-Gubernator. Denique ad anum, 1686, ejusdem coloniæ, communi et constanti populi suffragio, Gubernator. Vis, judicio Lynceario preditus; guem nec numma, nec honos allexit. Regis authoritatem, et populi libertatem, æqua lance libravit. Religione cerdatus, vita innocuus, mundum et vicit, et deseriut, 27 die, Martii, A. D. 1697. Annog, Guliel, 3t ix, et Æt, 94.
Few epitaphs hold as simple truth. "He was a man," says Felt, "of deep discernment, whom neither wealth nor honor could allure from duty. He poised with an equal balance the authority of the King, and the liberty of the people. Sincere in Religion and pure in his life, he overcame and left the world."
The Assembly was in session on the day of his death and, "in consideration of the long and extraordinary service of Simon Bradstreet, late Governor, voted £100, toward defraying the charges of his interment."
They buried him in Salem where his tomb may still be seen in the old Charter Street burying-ground, though there is grave doubt if even the dust of its occupant could be found therein. His memory had passed, and his services meant little to the generation which a hundred years later, saw one of the most curious transactions of the year 1794. That an ancestor of Nathanael Hawthorne should have been a party to it, holds a suggestion of the tendencies which in the novelist's case, gave him that interest in the sombre side of life, and the relish for the somewhat ghoul-like details, on which he lingered with a fascination his readers are compelled to share. On an old paper still owned by a gentleman of Salem, one may read this catastrophe which has, in spite of court orderings and stately municipal burial, forced Simon Bradstreet's remains into the same obscurity which hides those of his wife.
"Ben, son of Col B. Pickman, sold ye tomb, being claimed by him for a small expence his father was at in repairing it aft ye yr 1793 or 1794 to one Daniel Hathorne, who now holds it." Having taken possession, Daniel Hawthorne, with no further scruples cleaned out the tomb, throwing the remains of the old Governor and his family into a hole not far off.
The New England of Simon Bradstreet's day is as utterly lost as his own dust. Yet many of the outward forms still remain, while its spirit is even more evident and powerful.
Wherever the New England element is found—and where is it not found?—its presence means thrift, thoroughness, precision and prudence. Every circumstance of life from the beginning has taught the people how to extract the utmost value from every resource. Dollars have come slowly and painfully, and have thus, in one sense, a fictitious worth; but penuriousness is almost unknown, and the hardest working man or woman gives freely where a need is really felt. The ideal is still for the many, more powerful than the real. The conscientiousness and painful self-consciousness of the early days still represses the joyful or peaceful side of life, and makes angles more to be desired than curves. Reticence is the New England habit. Affection, intense as it may be, gives and demands small expression. Good-will must be taken for granted, and little courtesies and ameliorations in daily life are treated with disdain. "Duty" is the watchword for most, and no matter how strange the path, if this word be lined above it, it is trodden unquestioned.
As in the beginning, the corner-stone still "rests upon a book." The eagerness for knowledge shown in every act of the early colonial years has intensified, till "to know" has become a demon driving one to destruction. Eternity would seem to have been abolished, so eager are the learners to use every second of time. Overwork, mental and physical, has been the portion of the New England woman from the beginning. Climate and all natural conditions fostered an alertness unknown to the moist and equable air of the old home. While for the South there was a long perpetuation of the ease of English life, and the adjective which a Southern woman most desires to hear before her name is "sweet"; the New England woman chooses "bright," and the highest mark of approval is found in that rather aggressive word. Tin pans, scoured to that point of polish which meets the New England necessity for thoroughness, are "bright," and the near observer blinks as he suddenly comes upon them in the sun. A bit of looking-glass handled judiciously by the small boy, has the same quality, and is warranted to disconcert the most placid temperament; and so the New England woman is apt to have jagged edges and a sense of too much light for the situation. "Sweetness and light" is the desirable combination, and may come in the new union of North and South. The wise woman is she who best unites the two. Yet, arraign New England as we may—and there are many unmentioned counts in the indictment—it is certain that to her we owe the best elements in our national life. "The Decadence of New England" is a popular topic at present. It is the fashion to sneer at her limitations. Our best novelists delight in giving her barrenness, her unloveliness in all individual life—her provincialism and conceit, and strenuous money-getting.
"It is a good place to be born in," they say, "provided you emigrate early," and then they proceed to analyze her very prominent weaknesses, and to suppress as carefully as possible just judgment, either of past or present. Her scenery they cannot dispense with. Her very inadequacies and absurdities of climate involve a beauty which unites Northern sharpness of outline with Southern grace of form and color. The short and fervid summer owns charms denied a longer one. Spring comes uncertainly and lingeringly, but it holds in many of its days an exquisite and brooding tenderness no words can render, as elusive as that half-defined outline on budding twigs against the sky—not leaves, but the shadow and promise of leaves to be. The turf of the high pasture-lands springing under the foot; the smell of sweet fern and brake; the tinkle of cow-bells among the rocks, or the soft patter of feet as the sheep run toward the open bars—what New England boy or girl does not remember and love, till loving and remembering are over for the life we live here?
Yet in all the ferment of old and new beliefs—the strange departures from a beaten track—the attitude always, not of those who have found, but of those who seek, there has ever been the promise of a better day. The pathos which underlies all record of human life is made plain, and a tender sadness is in the happiest lines. And this is the real story of New England. Her best has passed on. What the future holds for her it is impossible to say, or what strange development may come from this sudden and overmastering Celtic element, pervading even the remotest hill-towns. But one possession remains intact: the old graveyards where the worthies of an elder day sleep quietly under stones decaying and crumbling faster than their memories. It all comes to dust in the end, but even dust holds promise. Growth is in every particle, and whatever time may bring—for the past it is a flower that "smells sweet and blossoms in the dust"—for present and future, a steady march toward the better day, whose twilight is our sunshine.