Anne Bradstreet’s poem “The Flesh and the Spirit” shows us the duality of man that her audience was having to deal with at the spiritual level. While this poem was written back in 1643 it still shows us as Christians what we have come from and how easy it would be to go back to a life of the “flesh”. This poem also goes about giving us details about what we should be striving for and what we have to look forward to if we strive toward the real or ultimate goals or rather possessions.
The poem is written in two different parts starting with the ways and things of the flesh, that being material possessions that are for our enjoyment here on earth. The second part consists of more spiritual based “possessions” and also chastises the sister living among the earthly treasures she has laid up for herself. The poem is written in iambic tetrameter meaning that each line has a total of eight syllables. Bradstreet writes this poem full of metaphors and is very illustrative with the language that she wrote it in. Bradstreet was a Puritan and this poem is filled with religious symbolism and references that would be apparent to her readers.
At the start of the poem the first sister is called “Flesh” and while this sister is very materialistic she wants her sister to enjoy some of the pleasures that she enjoys. The part of Flesh is from lines 10-37 to which she is going on about the wonders that this world has to offer. Lines like “Hast treasures there laid up in store” (16) and “Art fancy sick, or turn a sot” (18) show us that Flesh is interested in things such as the treasures and art this world has to offer. Flesh tells us that there is more gold, silver and pearls than anyone can imagine here on earth and she basically is insisting that her sister take up some of the riches that are around.
The way that Flesh talks to her sister is similar to the way that Satan talked to Jesus in the wilderness. Flesh is telling Spirit all the wonderful things of this earth and tells her sister that she will be happy if she acquires some of these indulgences. This was also the case when Satan showed Jesus all the things of earth that he could have if Jesus would worship him. There are even some apparent sins that Flesh tries to temp Spirit with such as in line “And trophies to thy name erect” (27).This line in the poem is basically the temptation to worship idols.
This notion is backed up by the previous line “As some of their immortal fame” (26) suggests that people are worshiping these trophies. Flesh’s final statement “For things unknown, only in mind” is almost a taunt to her sister because she knows what her sister has or is working towards is for her heavenly life. That line basically tells Spirit that she has nothing to show for her life and what she claims to have is all imaginary. This is something that Jesus was faced with throughout his time here on earth from the time that he was in the desert to the cross Jesus had to have faith in what he was doing was going to get Him and us a heavenly life with nothing to show for it here on earth.
The second part of this poem is what Spirit has to say to her sister about the things she was told to get and what she has been working for all her life. Much like Jesus in the wilderness telling Satan to get away from him, Spirit tells flesh to leave her alone and not tempt her with these worldly things, “Disturb no more my settled heart” (38). In lines 55-65 Spirit is telling Flesh that the things that Flesh finds appealing are things that Spirit hates. Spirit is not tempted with riches or honors. She is not looking for pleasure in people worshiping her or even the gold, silver and pearls. In fact, Spirits says “My crown not diamonds, pearls, and gold/ But such as angels’ heads infold” (ll.83-84). Spirit continues rebuking Flesh about how vanity is not what is to be sought after. Spirit may not have silk garments here on earth but in heaven she will have royal robes “More glorious than the glist’ring sun” (82).
Spirit tells us the difference between the places in which she and her sister are trying to accumulate their possessions for and tells us the importance of choosing the correct destination. “The city where I hope to dwell” (85) is talking about Spirits desire to live in God’s holy city and that this city, “There’s none on earth can parallel” (86), is absolutely better that the best places here on earth. Lines 87-104 is the description of the city and how the most precious gems and metals that we have here on earth are the basic building blocks for the city and its landscape. It continues telling us that there is no night and day which alludes to time no longer being a factor. Spirit also describes there being no sickness and with that no more death. This part ends with “But beauty shall be bright and clear” (104) which goes back to what Flesh trying to get Spirit to get nicer cloths and jewelry so that people would see her as attractive.
Although Spirit and Flesh are sisters, they are very different in every aspect of life and are basic mirrors of each other showing the duality that man has with God. In lines 40-54 Spirit is describing her relationship with her sister. While they are sisters Spirit considers Flesh to be her enemy which she is constantly fighting. She continues to say that even though they are twins they don’t have the same father (figuratively). Flesh is born from old Adam, which implies that she is worldly and is looking for the things to make her time here on earth more pleasant, such as Adam did when he disobeyed God to be with Eve.
Spirit says that her Father is above, giving reference that God is her father and that is why she will stay away from the things of Flesh so that she will be able to be with her Father. This poem does end on a solemn note, while Spirit has just described this amazing place where she is going to be with her Father she tells Flesh that she is not going to be there because nothing that makes Flesh happy will be there. This is a reflection of how the Puritans and even many Christians that being of this world will end up costing you the chance to see the city referenced in the poem.
The poem “The Flesh and the Spirit” is indeed a poem that describes the human condition of materialism and how it can consume and impact not only the mortal lives but also the eternal lives of the human race. Humanity must decide whether or not the city that is described in the poem is worth the sacrifice of material possessions in order to gain spiritual wealth. It must decide if it want to be in a place unaffected by time, death, and disease or if it simply wants to cover up its impurities with a façade that will only last a short while.
Courtney from Study Moose
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