Flesh and the Spirit (1650s)

The seventeenth-century New England Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet achieved considerable notoriety in England and America with the publication of The Tenth Muse in London in 1650. Though the poems in this volume were largely secular and humanistic in form and content, revealing a writer possessing a broad Renaissance education, Bradstreet herself was nevertheless a staunch Puritan with a firm understanding of Reformed theology. After the publication of The Tenth Muse she turned her poetic attention away from worldly matters and more toward concerns of the spirit. One such poem, written sometime in the 1650s, involves a debate between two sisters, Flesh and Spirit. Flesh concerns herself with issues of "worldly wealth and vanity," posing questions which attempt to undercut the ultimate reality of an immaterial spirit at odds with the stark materiality of flesh. Spirit responds as if in mortal combat with its greatest enemy, for even though they are "sisters," they are not of the same origin, nor are they similar substances. Though "twins," they stand as mirror opposites, exemplifying different natures and capacities. Spirit's "thoughts" are not "shadows" and "fancies"; rather, they are the product of "eternal substance" "invisible" to Flesh.

A Puritan woman writing poetry in the New World was indeed unusual, but a work focusing on the relation of the body to the spirit, of the material and the immaterial, was not at all knew or unusual for the seventeenth century. Long before the composition of Bradstreet's poem Catholics, Anglicans, and Puritans had engaged in a spirited debate over the nature of the body and the soul (or spirit) and the larger question of the ultimate reality of immaterial existence. A neo-Epicurean atomism emerged in the latter decades of the sixteenth century in England in the works of Giordano Bruno, Thomas Hariot, and early Lord Bacon, leading ultimately to the materialism of Thomas Hobbes and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in which "every part of the universe, is body, and that which is not body, is no part of the universe" (Hobbes, Leviathan [London, 1839], 3.672), and in which the soul, if it exists at all, is also a corporeal "substance, yet such a substance as to be the Rarest and Purest substance in nature" (Cavendish, Orations of Divers Sorts accommodated to Divers Locations [London, 1662], 304). Descartes, of course, in The World and Treatise on Man (written during 1629-33), the Discourse on the Method (1637), Principles of Philosophy (1644), Comments on a Certain Broadsheet (1648), and The Passions of the Soul (1649), argues for a strict dualism between a material world of bodies that exhibit extension and divisibility and an immaterial world of spirit that is non-extended and indivisible. The soul does not give man life, but it does somehow "intermingle" in the brain with the animal spirits produced by the heat of heart. The Reformed Anglicans and Puritans were dualists of sorts--not as strict as Descartes and certainly opposed to Hobbes's materialism, yet wary of the implications of the kind of vitalism proffered by Smith, More, and Cudworth. In numerous works, from Sir John Davies' The Original, Nature, and Immortality of the Soul (1599) to Thomas Hooker's The Immortality of the Soule (1646), Bishop Bramhall's The Catching of the Leviathan, or the Great Whale (1658), Thomas Wadsworth's Immortality of the Soul (1670), and Richard Baxter's The Nature and Immortality of the Soul Proved (1682), both Anglican and nonconformist commentators argued against aspects of all three views on the basis of an orthodox Reformed biblical view of man and nature. One group who distinguished themselves sharply from Hobbes and Descartes were the Cambridge Platonists. From John Smith's discourse Of the Immortality of the Soul (composed in the 1640s) to Henry More's great treatise on the same subject (published in 1659), to Ralph Cudworth's massive The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), these writers. argued for an essentially vitalistic universe in which incorporeal spirit permeates not just the human body but all of matter throughout the universe, "exercising a plastical power therein . . . [and] raising such phenomena in the world . . . as cannot be resolved into mere mechanical powers" (Henry More, Immortality [London, 1659], 450).

Bradstreet's poem is an early American Puritan response to what was clearly a major European subject of much debate: the question of the ultimate reality of the corporeal and the incorporeal, matter and mind, the body and the soul, the flesh and the spirit. The major positions within this debate--the materialism of Hobbes, the dualism of Descartes, the vitalism of the Cambridge Platonists, and the biblicism of the English Reformers and nonconformists--reveal a movement in which, at one extreme, spirit is materialized as a result of a largely secular, mechanistic approach to the phenomena of the universe, while at the other extreme matter is spiritualized due to a more biblical, vitalistic approach to the same phenomena. Between these poles lie two views that attempt a compromise of sorts, sustaining a simultaneous union and distinction of material and immaterial substances, but in varying degrees and with different purposes. For a more complete discussion of the poem and these subjects, see Timothy Whelan, “‘The Flesh and the Spirit’: Anne Bradstreet and Seventeenth Century Dualism, Materialism, Vitalism and Reformed Theology,” Journal of Ultimate Reality and Meaning 19 (1996), 257-84.

The Flesh and the Spirit

In secret place where once I stood

Close by the Banks of Lacrim flood,

I heard two sisters reason on

Things that are past and things to come.

One Flesh was call'd, who had her eye

On worldly wealth and vanity;

The other Spirit, who did rear

Her thoughts unto a higher sphere.

"Sister," quoth Flesh, "what liv'st thou on

Nothing but Meditation?

Doth Contemplation feed thee so

Regardlessly to let earth go?

Can Speculation satisfy

Notion without Reality?

Dost dream of things beyond the Moon

And dost thou hope to dwell there soon?

Hast treasures there laid up in store

That all in th' world thou count'st but poor?

Art fancy-sick or turn'd a Sot

To catch at shadows which are not?

Come, come. I'll show unto thy sense,

Industry hath its recompence.

What canst desire, but thou maist see

True substance in variety?

Dost honour like? Acquire the same,

As some to their immortal fame;

And trophies to thy name erect

Which wearing time shall ne'er deject.

For riches dost thou long full sore?

Behold enough of precious store.

Earth hath more silver, pearls, and gold

Than eyes can see or hands can hold.

Affects thou pleasure? Take thy fill.

Earth hath enough of what you will.

Then let not go what thou maist find

For things unknown only in mind."


"Be still, thou unregenerate part,

Disturb no more my settled heart,

For I have vow'd (and so will do)

Thee as a foe still to pursue,

And combat with thee will and must

Until I see thee laid in th' dust.

Sister we are, yea twins we be,

Yet deadly feud 'twixt thee and me,

For from one father are we not.

Thou by old Adam wast begot,

But my arise is from above,

Whence my dear father I do love.

Thou speak'st me fair but hat'st me sore.

Thy flatt'ring shews I'll trust no more.

How oft thy slave hast thou me made

When I believ'd what thou hast said

And never had more cause of woe

Than when I did what thou bad'st do.

I'll stop mine ears at these thy charms

And count them for my deadly harms.

Thy sinful pleasures I do hate,

Thy riches are to me no bait.

Thine honours do, nor will I love,

For my ambition lies above.

My greatest honour it shall be

When I am victor over thee,

And Triumph shall, with laurel head,

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.

My thoughts do yield me more content

Than can thy hours in pleasure spent.

Nor are they shadows which I catch,

Nor fancies vain at which I snatch

But reach at things that are so high,

Beyond thy dull Capacity.

Eternal substance I do see

With which inriched I would be.

Mine eye doth pierce the heav'ns and see

What is Invisible to thee.

My garments are not silk nor gold,

Nor such like trash which Earth doth hold,

But Royal Robes I shall have on,

More glorious than the glist'ring Sun.

My Crown not Diamonds, Pearls, and gold,

But such as Angels' heads infold.

The City where I hope to dwell,

There's none on Earth can parallel.

The stately Walls both high and strong

Are made of precious Jasper stone,

The Gates of Pearl, both rich and clear,

And Angels are for Porters there.

The Streets thereof transparent gold

Such as no Eye did e're behold.

A Crystal River there doth run

Which doth proceed from the Lamb's Throne.

Of Life, there are the waters sure

Which shall remain forever pure.

Nor Sun nor Moon they have no need

For glory doth from God proceed.

No Candle there, nor yet Torch light,

For there shall be no darksome night.

From sickness and infirmity

Forevermore they shall be free.

Nor withering age shall e're come there,

But beauty shall be bright and clear.

This City pure is not for thee,

For things unclean there shall not be.

If I of Heav'n may have my fill,

Take thou the world, and all that will."