"The Flesh and the Spirit" - Analysis
The poem, “The Flesh and the Spirit,” is rich in its metaphors and figurative language, through which its author, Anne Bradstreet, seeks to compare spiritualism and materialism conveyed through the voices of different personas. The flesh is this tangible entity,
which symbolizes all tangible earthly items – such as “diamonds, pearls, and gold” (line 84). All of these are of price value, as opposed to the spirit – an intangible, insoluble, and perhaps obscure entity – which symbolizes “the hidden manna” (line 68) that is priceless. Not many people can see the spirit or have it in their presence. That is not true for the flesh; most people can obtain these worldly treasures, which leads to self-fulfilled indulgences. There is no longer that fulfillment which Puritans were supposed to receive from God.
Furthermore, the word “hidden” shows that the religion is very esoteric, and that only a select few people know of the “hidden manna” (“manna”, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the “food sent to the Israelites” or a “blessing” as sent from God). Hence, the idea of Puritanism, a religion in which only a select few are chosen to be redeemed and to live with God again some day, can be very exclusive, which is evident through this poem written by the Puritan Bradstreet in her use of metaphorical and symbolic descriptions. This sort of imagery allows us to clearly see the complex but intricate beliefs held by the Puritan, which is that people begin to divert their faith in God when they start to indulge in worldly pleasures (in the form of temptations, used by the devil to lead Puritans astray).
Initially, this poem is a little confusing, because it does not take the form of stanzas; but rather, the entire poem is one long stanza – just like one long rant! Although the poem was not hard to follow, the reader must pay close attention to note the change in personas. The initial persona is a narrator, most likely a passerby who witnessed the conversation between the two sisters. This constitutes the first portion of the poem (lines 2-9), which is in the point of view of the narrator. Then, the next section (lines 10-37) takes the persona of the sister called Flesh, followed by the next chunk (lines 38-109) which has the persona of the sister called Spirit. Bradstreet does not categorize these speakers into stanzas.
The change in personas between Flesh and Spirit is marked by a caesura “Spir.” (line 38), also known as a pause, to let us know that the conversation slightly halts for a while, as the speaker changes. I believe that Bradstreet uses slant (or close) rhymes for the end rhymes in the first fifteen lines as a means to show that, although these twin “sisters” are similar in birth and origin, at the end (rhyme), their ideas and values about life and its importance are slanted or deviated from each other’s.
The iambic tetrameter is used throughout the poem, which can symbolize the angles of a square, thus representing balance and order. Maybe we can delve further and say that the meter, which is four pairs of iambs in each line, represents a box – a square of enclosure of this esoteric tradition of the Puritans. Biblical myths tell us that God sent the devil, once an angel of heaven who fell into the abyss, to rule the world, while God Himself rules the heavens. Ironically, the devil, along with God, keeps the world in perfect balance. This balance, in reference to the square-meter, between good and evil is constantly restored so that humans can get both views and redefine their faith in the Almighty Being. After all, for if people cannot perceive evil, then they would not be able to differentiate between what is moral and just versus what is wrong.
At polar extremes, we can view this poem as a contrast between good and evil, because the Spirit says to her sister, “No candle there, nor yet torchlight / For there shall be no darksome night” (lines 101-102), meaning that where the Spirit dwells, God’s light is already shining. If Flesh is evil, then Spirit must be pure. These ideas contribute the worldly order of the balance between good and evil, the coexistence of these units, and their dependence upon each other (that neither can exist without the other). In a sense, this balance is like a seesaw in motion, because any tap on one side causes their to be effect on the other side. Hence, even though Spirit is supposed to be pure, she has such a condescending tone that makes her haughty and too proud to be completely pure. Even though Flesh is supposed to be the impure figure, her existence is relevant to that of Flesh’s.
Historically, this poem follows the Puritan belief of the paradox and how humans are not supposed to attach themselves to worldly things but rather suffer to get to heaven and to transcend to a better world. The Spirit is portrayed as the pure figure here. Thus, I think it is ironic that the author denotes the Flesh as having “her eye on worldly wealth and vanity” (lines 6-7), when the Spirit has an equal, if not more condescending, tone when praising her values of faith and religious contemplation and status. “This city pure is not for thee / For things unclean there shall not be” (lines 106-107) is aimed at Flesh for her attachment to all the filth in the world. By saying this, Spirit deprecates Flesh and praises herself in a holier-than-thou kind of tone, for she believes that she is pure and clean and worthy to be selected by God to live with Him eternally.
“And trophies to thy name erect” (line 28) suggests the worshipping of idols, because Flesh is telling her sister Spirit that if she had “immortal fame” (line 27), then people would erect trophies to her name and worship her in a sense. This idea strongly goes against the Christian faith of idol-worshipping. All of these ideas are in fact contradicting, as they suggest the immense pride that the Puritan Spirit has, which is shunned by their modest tradition of religiosity. I think that humans should find a balance between materialism and spiritualism because you should not have just one or the other – it would be an incomplete view of the world. Without worldly temptations, a person would not be able to learn the higher essence of the divine or learn how to abstain from those temptations.