Sometime in autumn, the poet gazes upon the rich colorful beauty of the fall trees, her senses rapt with the splendor.
She wonders that if there is so much excellence on Earth, how much more must there be in Heaven? God is glory, light, and power, and Heaven must be all Spring and all Light.
She looks at a “stately” oak tree and reflects on its great age.
She then looks at the bright Sun, growing more amazed at its glory. It is no wonder some in history have called it a deity, and if she had not known better, she would have done the same.
The Sun gives life and revives all animals, plants, insects, and birds.
She writes about the Sun’s diurnal course and its importance to humans. It creates the day and night and causes the seasons; it is full of “sweetness, beauty, and delight.”
She comments that the Sun is so glorious that human beings cannot even look at it. This must mean that its Creator is even more glorious.
She wanders throughout nature, raising her eyes to the sky and wishing she could sing sweet songs to her Creator.
She hears grasshoppers and crickets sing, and wonders about how these “abject” creatures can sing to their Maker while the poet is mute before Him.
Men who continually look back to the past grow “aged in conceit,” older than Methuselah.
She contemplates Adam in Eden, and how he was expelled from Paradise and made to sweat and toil as penalty for his “backsliding Race.”
Eve holds Cain and Abel in her lap, not knowing their eventual fate. She misses Paradise and rues her choice to listen to the Father of Lies.
Cain and Abel offer their sacrifices to God; Abel offers fire and Cain gives a false offering. He is “sullen” and “hateful.”
Abel watches over his sheep until Cain kills him; the “Virgin Earth of blood her first draught drinks.”
The vagabond Cain, filled with guilt and despair, goes to Nod and builds a city “that walls might secure him from foes.”
We think of our Fathers, their progenies, and their precepts. Adam sighs to think of his children now clothed in black and sin.
Our lives are not as long as those of our Biblical forefathers; our time is very short and we barely live while we are alive. We spend our time eating, drinking, sleeping, and in “vain delight.” Night comes before we are aware of it and all pleasures flee.
The poet thinks about Earth, her cycles, and seasons of death and rebirth. She is sad to contemplate that humans do not have this rebirth – we grow old, fall, and remain where we are laid.
We are nobler than all creatures but we seem by “nature and by custom curs’d.” We do not retain youth, spring, or wisdom.
The poet wonders if she should praise the Heavens, trees, and the Earth because they live longer than humans do. However, those things will fade and darken, while man has the possibility to achieve “endless immortality.”
She sits under the Elm. It is a lonely place, but is also dignified. She watches the river glide by, and thinks that it is better than the trees she used to admire so much.
She looks fixedly at the water and sees that nothing can stop its course; the impediments only augment its flow.
The river travels to the ocean, and little streams and brooks travel with it. She wishes she could lead her own little “rivulets” to rest in the great mansion as well.
The fishes travel from one part of the water to the next, not knowing why they do so but doing it nonetheless.
She watches the fish swim and frolic, diving down to the depths of the stream.
While the poet muses on these things, a nightingale perches on her head and sings a sweet song that fills her with wonder and delight.
She speaks to the “merry bird,” which is filled with pleasure and delight, never worrying or despairing. The bird never thinks of the past or worries about what is to come.
The nightingale’s song tries to prevent the morning. The birds sing throughout the summer season and then travel to another region.
Man is a creature, even at his best, prone to frailty, vanity, ignorance, weakness. He is sickly and feels sorrow, pain, and loss. His mind is a storm, and his body can break. He is continually troubled by his friends, foes, and family.
However, man, this abject creature, this “lump of wretchedness, of sin and sorrow” thinks not of eternal life but focuses on his struggles on Earth.
The mariner glides peacefully and happily over the waves. Suddenly, though, a gale rises up and makes him wish for calm.
Man falls in the world of pleasure, eating sweets and delighting in friends. He realizes that when sad affliction comes upon him, he cannot depend on “honour, wealth, or safety” on Earth but must look to Heaven for security.
Time is the “fatal wrack of mortal things” that can bring down the wealthiest and most powerful kings. They will soon be forgotten, and all their accomplishments will be covered in dust. Wit, gold, and buildings cannot escape rust. The man whose name is engraved in white stone, though, will “last and shine when all of these are gone."
Critics generally consider “Contemplations” to be Anne Bradstreet’s greatest poetic achievement. Indeed, it is a compelling and complex rumination on the majesty of nature and God, and the place that man occupies on Earth. As in many of her most significant works, this poem expresses "the complexity of [Bradstreet's] struggle between love of the world and desire for eternal life." Bradstreet frequently utilizes assonance and alliteration in this poem, leading scholars to praise her for creating a unified poetic voice.
"Contemplations" is comprised of thirty-three seven-line stanzas, beginning with the poet wandering through nature, marveling at the beauty in the trees, the river, and the sun. She feels an immense degree of pleasure in contemplating the natural world, which leads her to think about God, who must be even grander and more glorious than His creations. She thinks about the great oak and how its long life is nothing compared to eternity. Throughout the poem, the poet continues to vacillate back and forth between thinking about her Earthly surroundings and their Creator. In particular, she focuses on the sun, acclaiming its near-supernatural glory (she even writes that she would consider it a deity if she did not know better). As a naturalist, she calls attention to the way the sun gives life to creatures on Earth.
In the second group of stanzas, the poet turns her attention to the Biblical stories about Adam and Eve, and their sons, Cain and Abel. Her natural surroundings have led her to reflect on the true Earthly paradise of Eden, and she contemplates the fall of man (which she mostly blames on Adam). She becomes sad while recalling the story of Abel's murder and the first bloodshed of man. Thinking about death leads to the poet to ruminate about how short men's lives are now in comparison to Biblical times. She feels that men are apt to waste their limited days, "Living so little while we are alive." While nature functions in cycles, man only has one chance; once he dies, his time is over. As a Puritan, Bradstreet notes that it is only man's Earthly life that is brief, for "man was made for endless immortality."
In the following section, the poet writes about sitting by a beautiful flowing river. She watches the fish swimming about and admires their ability to travel to vast, far-off places. Critic Randall Huff observes that the poet sees the fish as "wanton people enjoying their liberty [and] frisk in the air but soon drop back to the deaths where they devour each other." The river symbolizes Earthly life, which flows into Heaven just as the river flows to the sea.
A nightingale interrupts the poet's reverie and she marvels at its voice and birds' lack of "sad thoughts" and "cruciating cares." She envies their lives, for, as she writes in some of the poem's strongest lines, "Man at best a creature frail and vain, / In knowledge ignorant, in strength but weak, / Subject to sorrows, losses, sickness, pain." She believes that Man is a "lump of wretchedness, of sin and sorrow." She thinks that man does not fix his mind on God and eternal life, and instead is prone to vanity and sin on Earth.
Finally, the poet sees that man will turn to God after he realizes that Earthly life cannot offer immortality. Percy Byssthe Shelley wrote about the same theme nearly 200 years later in his poem "Ozymandias" (1818). Here, though, Bradstreet writes about Time as "the fatal wrack of all mortal things," including monuments and tombs to kings. Nothing escapes Time's clutches. The white stone that Bradstreet references comes from the Puritans' Geneva Bible; it was supposed to be given to any Puritan who had achieved a victory or prize, thus signifying God's grace and freedom in His judgment. The stone is a talisman, just like the oak, the sun, the grasshopper, the river, the fish, etc., giving the poet fruit for contemplation and ultimately bringing her back to God.
Critics have praised Anne Bradstreet's ability to achieve the delicate balance between praising this world while also being aware of the next. Robert J. Richardson writes, "the interplay between the two worlds is so closely and carefully developed that it may be regarded as Mrs. Bradstreet's most successful expression of the Puritan ideal of living fully in the world without being of it." The poet always evinces the Puritan reflex to look to Heaven while simultaneously praising the Earth below, but the poems also "deepen and expand what is normally considered a reflex into a reasonable and persuasive conclusion." Unlike some colonists' writings during Bradstreet's era, the poet is not afraid of nature or intimidated by the howling wilderness, but rather, she sees nature as God's most beautiful and majestic creation.
Anne Hildebrand believes that Bradstreet's poetic accomplishments in her four Quaternions helped to pave the way for "Contemplations." She explains that the first seven stanzas of the latter poem relate to fire, choler, middle age, and autumn (things do not quite line up perfectly with the divisions in the former poems). The sun symbolizes fire, the oak symbolizes man and his concomitant choler (pride), while the changing leaves represent autumn. In the next set of stanzas, 8-20, Bradstreet evokes images of melancholy, old age, Earth, and winter. Melancholy is evident in the poet's quietness, Old age's recitation of events in his memory, and Earth in the Fall. The next section, stanzas 21-25, evokes water (the river), phlegm, birth, childhood (the fish playing), and spring. The final stanzas contain imagery of air, blood, youth, and summer. Hildebrand explains that "Contemplations" is "more vivid and complex, thanks to a subjective approach, greater selectivity, and a more appropriate stanza form" than the Quaternions, but both poems contain the theme of vanity.