“A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public(k) Employment” by Anne Bradstreet is a love poem, written in heroic couplets, except for the final couplet, which is in iambic tetrameter. Heroic couplets are two-line groupings in iambic pentameter with an “aa bb cc…” rhyme scheme. Iambic describes a way to write and read poetry according to stressed and unstressed syllables. An iamb is a unit of poetic meter, or a foot, consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Several types of metric substitutions are employed in iambic poetry, but the iamb is the root, and by far the most common. Pentameter refers to the number of feet in a line of poetry—in this case, five. Bradstreet most commonly wrote in iambic meter, usually in pentameter, but sometimes in tetrameter (four feet). Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney, who both wrote in iambic pentameter, were two of Bradstreet’s chief influences.
The tone of this poem is romantic, and a bit over-exaggerated in its wistfulness.
Lines 13-16 deal with the narrator’s children, whom she refers to as “those fruits which through thy heat I bore” (line 14). The word “heat” can be viewed in the context of the extended sun metaphor, but possibility of sexual connotation should not be ruled out. Bradstreet and her husband (often the much-admired subject in his wife’s work) had eight children.
An extended sun metaphor continues through lines 17-24. In the penultimate couplet, the narrator prays that, once the sun returns, he will stay with her until he dies.
Where ever, ever stay, and go not thence,
Till natures sad decree shall call thee hence (lines 23-24)
Since the narrator’s husband is the sun, his death will not only cause her great sorrow but, indeed, the end of the world.
The theme of this poem is the absence of the beloved—a very common theme throughout the ages. Throughout the poem, the narrator expresses her feelings of deep connection with him. She is affected by his absence and longs for his return.
Metaphor and Symbolism
In the first six lines, Bradstreet uses metaphor and hyperbole to convey her emotional dependence on her husband. She calls him her head, her heart, her eyes, her life, her joy, her “Magazine of earthly store” (lines 1-2); he is everything. The two of them are inseparable, and so the narrator struggles to understand how they can exist so far apart.
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lye? (line 4)
In lines 7-12, the narrator likens herself to the Earth. She laments the fact that the Sun (her husband) is so far away.
I like the earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in’s Zodiack, (lines 7-8)
It is winter. The bereaved Earth longs for her “sweet Sol” to return “from Capricorn” (line 12). According to traditional astrology, Capricorn starts in the beginning of winter, and the key life foci attributed to people born under this sign are career and structure. Later in the poem, the narrator refers to Cancer, which is directly opposite Capricorn on the zodiac wheel.
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest. (lines 20-22)
People born under the sign of Cancer, which begins with summer, value home and family.
For the most part, Anne Bradstreet wrote in Modern English. Her writing is relatively easy to follow, but there is still some Middle English sprinkled in, such as the pronouns “thee” and “thy.” Some words, like “nummed” and “lye” are spelled differently, but still recognizable to the ear. Poets at this time sometimes employed contractions, such as “in’s” and “’joy’d” to keep a poem’s meter.
Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was born into a noble family in England. She did not go to school, but her father was very learned and had a great library. Anne grew up devouring classic and modern literature. She immigrated to New England with her husband, Simon, and her parents in the 1630s. It was here that she began writing poetry and gave birth to eight children. Her first book of poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was first published in London in 1650.