In “Contemplation”, Anne Bradstreet illustrates the Christian understanding of the natural world as a source of divine revelation that points to its Creator. Throughout the poem, she ponders some of the beauties and curiosities of nature and then demonstrates how these various aspects serve as signs of the greater, transcendent beauty of the God who made all things. Although she accomplishes this throughout the whole of the poem, a particular stanza may be considered to highlight some of the ways that she relates nature, in this case the sun, to God:
“Art thou so full of glory that no Eye
Hath strength thy shining Rays once to behold?
And is thy splendid Throne erect so high?
As, to approach it, can no earthly mould.
How full of glory then must thy Creator be?
Who gave this bright light luster unto thee:
Admir’d, ador’d for ever be that Majesty.” (Bradstreet)
In this stanza, Bradstreet portrays the sun’s attributes as signifying attributes of God by considering the strength of the sun’s appearance, the loftiness of the sun’s position relative to the earth, and the source of the sun’s brightness.
Bradstreet begins this stanza by considering the strength of the sun’s appearance. Having first examined a great oak with its autumnal hues, her gaze is directed further upward to the “glistering Sun” which shines through the earth-toned leaves. She describes the sun in terms of its glory, that is, the shining of its rays. The shining of these glorious rays is what directs her to consider the sun in the first place. She says that it is full of this glory. If there is a direct link between the words “glory” and “rays”, then Bradstreet could well be considering this great orb as so full of this glory that it pours it out onto the earth below. Through her words and the composition of autumn imagery, the trees, leaves, and shining sun, she frames a picture of great beauty, capturing the picture that is on display for her. She notes the medium through which she perceives this picture. She beholds the scene through her eyes and notes that the eye is too weak to look directly at the sun. Such is the strength of this sight, according to Bradstreet, that even to look once is too much. As anyone peering at the sun has experienced, one must quickly turn one’s eyes away; the brightness is too intense. Even then, the image lingers as a shadow for some time. Perhaps it is this overpowering of the eye that Bradstreet has in mind when she says, “…no Eye hath strength thy shining Rays once to behold.”
In what may be seen as the second section of this stanza, Bradstreet moves from considering the sun’s appearance to its lofty position relative to earth. A “splendid Throne” is how she describes the sun’s location above her vantage point. A throne suggests the ruler who sits on it, and a ruler is one vested with power to rule over something. Bradstreet’s poetic language calls to mind the creation account where God makes the sun “…to rule over the day…” (Genesis 1:18 ESV). In using the word “splendid”, she calls to mind the previous two lines about the sun’s glory. But the greatness of the sun’s throne doesn’t merely consist in its outpouring of visible “glory”, but in its great height. It is so high, she says that “no earthly mould” can approach it. That is to say that this great sun, which is so bright that one dare not look directly at it, is situated so high that one could not hope to attain to its height. She specifically says that no earthly mould can “approach” it. In Bradstreet’s estimation, the sun is of such a high and lofty position that, try as it might, nothing of earthly origin can close the gap between them. The distance is too great. The sun is, as it were, in another realm altogether.
In the latter three lines of the stanza, Bradstreet shifts from the appearance and position of the sun to the source of its creaturely attributes. In typical Christian fashion, Bradstreet uses the inspiration of awe and wonder stirred up by some part of nature as a sort of symbol or sign that points to the God who created it. In response to the glory of which the sun is full, she asks the sun about the fullness of the Creator’s glory, and from whom he received his bright light. In response to the sun’s great height, she speaks of this Creator’s “Majesty”. She clearly distinguishes between the sun as a created object and the Creator who made the sun, gave glory and luster to it, and placed it in unapproachable heights in its splendid throne. In making this Creator-creature distinction, and in asking the question “how full of glory then must thy Creator be,” she is implying that, as awe-inspiring as the sun is, the one who is responsible for its existence must be as glorious and high and powerful to the sun as the sun is to us.
Her conclusion, then, is understandable. Rather than continuing to reverence the creation, she judges that the one who is so much greater should be “Admir’d, ador’d for ever.” The choice of these two words, “Admir’d” and “ador’d”, coupled together suggests that Bradstreet is well acquainted with the answer to the first catechism question memorized by many Protestants in the 17th Century, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster). How can one glorify one who is so much more glorious than the sun but by admiring Him? How can one enjoy one who is so much higher than even the sun on its inapproachable throne but to adore Him? And if this Creator is so great, then it is no surprise that Bradstreet, along with the Westminster divines who formulated the catechism answer, would choose to admire and adore Him “for ever”, with no end in sight.
In the form of written word, Anne Bradstreet preserves the visual experience of an autumn day, marking the appearance, height, and source of the sun’s greatness. In so doing in this section and throughout the poem, she echoes the teaching of Psalm 19, seeing in the natural world an opportunity to pay homage to the Creator.
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 9:1-4 ESV)
“Westminster Shorter Catechism”. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Web. 2014, September 12. <http://reformed.org/documents/wsc/index.html>.