Anne Bradstreet’s poem “The Flesh and the Spirit,” reveals an interesting inner conflict in the life of a Puritan woman in the New World, as well as insight into Bradstreet and her own internal conflicts with Puritanism and the wilderness of America. Bradsteet is considered a representative of the ideal Puritan wife and mother; her poems reflect those images as well as give the opportunity to question them. “The Flesh and the Spirit” is a poem about conflict versus resolution, evil versus good, earth versus heaven, and weakness versus faith. The victor in these Puritan poems is always the most honest. Because the conflict is resolved so the Spirit overcomes over the Flesh, Bradstreet’s poem is representative of the characteristic of the Puritan morals.
The poem begins with the narrator referring to herself as “I.” Because the poem continues in the first person, as the narrator is overhearing a conversation taking place, the reader is able to associate this conversation with one taking place within the author’s mind. The concept of inner conflict is also established through the first two lines of the poem, “In secret place where once I stood / Close by the banks of Lacrim flood.” This indicates a secret place in the narrator’s world where, whether physically or mentally ,she deals with an inner conflict in a time of hardship. Internal conflict and moral resolution are very important to Puritan belief of self and faith. Because Bradstreet composed this poem in the New World, her strenuous and discouraging life was constantly being tested with Puritan ideals while she adjusted to her new life.
While listening to the twin sisters debate, the narrator hears the voice of Flesh first. Nearly everything Flesh says is an essential question of Spirit’s faith. Her desire for “worldly wealth and vanity” is the cause for her confusion with the beliefs of Spirit. Her first question regards the livelihood of Spirit, “what liv’st thou on, / Nothing but meditation?” (lines9-10). This question is particularly interesting in that in the context of the New World, much questioning and separation occurs between the natives and the Puritans by what they eat. The significance of food for survival is particularly important because the colonists were struggling for the necessities, and encountered many new varieties of food. When Flesh refers to the faith of Spirit as “speculation . . . with out reality” she questions the idea of God as a whole. Flesh further insists on arguring the basis of religious faith in describing Spirit’s quest for heaven as one which attempts to grasp at “shadows” (lines 13-20). This debate of believing what cannot be seen could be further construed in the context of colonial life as being a representative of the colonizers believing in a new and abundant paradise across the ocean. After believing in the fertility and beauty of the New World, Bradstreet as a colonist may have felt misguided. Life across the ocean was not what she thought it would be. Heaven, to Flesh, could not contain more riches than earth; her belief is confirmed by being able to “see” and “hold” the wealth (lines 30-34). Whereas Spirit is assured of the abundance of luxury available in heaven by something solely spiritual. The answers to Flesh’s questions can only be found through scripture; Spirit goes to scripture for the answers. Spirit’s replies to Flesh contain no questions; she is convinced of the power of the Father and heaven through the presence of her “settled heart” (line 38). Spirit once again recognizes their relationship as twins from a single beginning. This further proves the claim that these sisters are two sides to the narrator’s mind. Spirit then admits to having been a slave to the Flesh and to vanity and deadly trickery. Spirit says, “Thy sinful pleasures I do hate, / They riches are to me no bait” (lines 57-58). This is particularly contrary in that the description of heaven Spirit uses of large amounts of valuable gold, silver, and pearly gates present at the end of the poem define very earthly pleasures. Spirit states that her more honorable moment will be when she is able to be completely victorious over Flesh. This section of the poem is particularly interesting also in the context of the colonial environment. ?When thou my captive shalt be led, How I do live, thou need’st not scoff, For I have meat thou know’st not of; The hidden manna I do eat, The word of life it is my meat?? (lines 64-68).The words of capture, culture, and meat play roles in the physical relationship between the Puritan colonists and the Native Americans. Bradstreet may have seen the natives as ridiculing the Puritans for their culture and their lack of ability to live on the land of the New World. She sees the natives as surviving with more resources, but understands that they do not accept that the Father is the ultimate provider. These lines may refer to how Bradstreet answers to her own questions about her lack of food and necessities when compared with the non-Christian, devilish natives. This passage is also a means of replying to Flesh’s question of what the Spirit lives on. In that context, it is apparent that the Spirit does not need the meat of the land, but the meat of God. This hunger has been satisfied through the religious freedom allowed in the New World and will continue to be satisfied as Spirit will rise above the earth with her death and be “enriched” by an “Eternal substance” (line 75).
Another significant aspect of this poem is that both of the characters are women. The Flesh sister is very much representative of the way women are understood in this time period: she is unable to satisfy her desires, she does not understand the scripture, she longs for vanity. Spirit, however, is able to interpret the scripture and is a faithful and the highest character in the worship of her Father. The only male characters in the entire poem are the Father and Adam, both the creative forces behind the women, but not the route through which spirituality is achieved. This lack of male intervention is uncharacteristic of Puritan ideology as it was believed that women were incapable of interpreting and understanding scripture without the help and guidance of their husbands or fathers. Bradstreet does not exclude her male counterpart in all of her poetry (e.g. “To My Dear and Loving Husband”), and it is not necessarily true that she meant to exclude it here. This aspect of the poem further confirms the idea that the conflict here is happening internally. Bradstreet may have believed in her ability to understand scripture was adequate as a way of being a faithful Puritan, but her respect for her husband was not emphasized by this internal belief.
As a piece of literature which was written in Early America by a Puritan women, the poem “The Flesh and the Spirit” contains many of the issues present in the everyday life of the people. It also reflects the images the colonists were expecting when they ventured in the New World. Bradstreet’s inner conflict between her fleshly desires and her spirituality are very Puritan and private. By composing a poem such as this, she admits her own struggle with the issues of faith. This trial, in addition to the hardships she encountered as a colonist in the New World support her identity with the Puritan faith.