The poet describes walking by the secret place on the banks of the Lacrim and overhearing a conversation between two sisters; one called "Flesh" and the other named "Spirit."
Flesh asks her sister why she prefers to survive on meditation alone, and how quiet contemplation can be satisfying. She wonders if her sister ever dreams of anything beyond the moon and asks if she is "fancy-sick." Flesh wants to try to show Spirit some sense and let her see that substance lies in variety. Earth is full of riches like silver, gold, and pearls, which can all give a person pleasure. Here on Earth, she tells her sister, "is enough of what you will."
Spirit calls her sister a foe and implores her not to disturb her lifestyle. Spirit will fight Flesh and lay her out in dust if she has to in this "deadly feud." The two sisters have different fathers – Flesh is born of Adam and Spirit is born of God. Spirit is not swayed by Flesh's flattery and is tired of being enslaved by her words. She says she will stop up her ears against beguilement, for she hates "sinful pleasures" and explains that her "ambition lies above."
Spirit continues to say that sustenance is in the "word of life" and her thoughts give her unparalleled contentment and fulfillment. Flesh, however, will never reach those things. Spirit does not wear robes of silver and gold, but her clothes are made of the royal fabric of Heaven. She claims that the city above, with its stately walls, pearly gates and crystal river, is finer than anything on Earth. There is no need for a candle or torchlight, because there is never darkness. Sickness cannot hold sway there either. Spirit's city will not welcome Flesh, though, for she is "unclean."
"The Flesh and the Spirit" was published in 1650. The poem is a conversation between Flesh and Spirit, which Bradstreet personifies as two arguing sisters. There is tension between these two aspects of human nature, and in the poem, Bradstreet explores some of the most important and ubiquitous questions within the Puritan faith.
The poem begins with Bradstreet wandering along the banks of Lacrim (a variation on the Latin word for tears, suggesting grief or mourning) and coming across the two sisters in heated conversation. Based on Puritan ideology, it is clear which one of the sisters will "win," or have the figurative last word, but the conversation between the two brings up some realistic quandaries surrounding faith. Flesh begins by asking her sister how she can subsist on contemplation and meditation alone.
Flesh wonders if the lack of immediate results is crippling. She also tries to engage Spirit's attention by pointing out varied and wondrous material goods. She extols the joy in honor, riches, precious stones – "enough of what you will." Flesh, as critic Robert J. Richardson writes, "is not gross, detestable sensual, or mindless." Instead, her questions are probing and valuable, as she is trying to mediate between the sinful self and the redeemed self - which are, as Bradstreet implies, close siblings.
Spirit speaks next, and her words are far stronger. It is clear that the conflict between the two will never be reconciled. Spirit lashes out against her sister: "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 into dust." Spirit does not take time to refute Flesh's arguments, but instead simply insists that her sister is wrong and worthy of denouncement. Spirit claims to spend her time thinking of things that lie beyond Flesh's mental capacity, and smugly declares that she will be the victor.
Richardson notes "the crowning irony" in the second half of Spirit's monologue, which is that "Spirit describes Heaven in the very material terms she has just scorned." She speaks of her royal robes, precious stones, royal walls, and sparkling rivers. Spirit asserts that the pursuit these things is not inherently wrong, but that she prefers the eternal versions. The City where Spirit will eventually dwell for eternity is free from "sickness and infirmity" and "darksome night," but Flesh cannot go there.
Spirit predictably "gets the last word" in the conversation between the two sisters, as it would have been unlikely that Bradstreet would have given the victory to Flesh. However, as with many of Bradstreet's poems, the questions surrounding religion are not necessarily straightforward. "The Flesh and the Spirit" alludes to the internal conflicts that many Puritans faced. Dr. Jim Wohlpart writes:
Like many Puritan texts, [the poem] describes the internal, psychological struggle that existed because of the Puritan belief in total depravity. The conflict between the sinful self and the redeemed self originated from the condition that, according to Puritans, humans, who are stricken with original sin because of Adam’s fall, must always keep an awareness of their depraved status in the forefront of their thoughts.