New England asks her mother what is wrong with her, and why is she filled with so many woes that deluge her realm, especially since she is full of “honour, wealth, and peace happy and blest.” Old England replies that she thinks New England should be aware of her mother's sorrows. Meanwhile, Old England has taken a purging concoction and her weak body is reeling. She hopes that New England will bring her a cordial. If Old England ceases to exist, she says, her daughter cannot live either.
New England wonders why her mother will not tell her what is wrong, for she cannot help without knowing the problem. She goes through England’s history, listing events and calamities to try and identify the source of the problem. These events include the Norman invasion, Edward’s deposition, Richard’s imprisonment in the tower, and the War of the Roses. New England asks if Old England fears Spain’s “bragging Armado,” France’s conspiring, the Scots, or the Dutch. She wonders if it might be drought, famine, or pestilence, and entreats her mother to tell her the source of her grief.
Old England concedes that the things New England has mentioned are old “sores” that still hurt her, but she is not worried about foreign foes right now. Old England tells her daughter that before she explains the effect of her illness, she will explain its cause - her many sins. She has breached “sacred laws” and engaged in idolatry and superstition. In her land, the citizens ignore and pervert the Gospel and sell church offices for money. They scorn Saints and defile the Sabbath. She refers to adultery, bribery, murder, usury, and oppression as “the Hydras of my stout transgression.”
She cites the mocking of preachers and stopping the mouths of the Prophets as further examples of the abuse of religion in her country. Old England ends by saying that she should have looked at the fall of her neighbors, Germany and Ireland, as a warning, but her heart was still “obdurate and stood not aghast.”
New England agrees that these are truly reasons to lament, and that she is also partly complicit in her mother's woes. She exhorts her mother to tell her what specifically is wrong so she might help. Old England explains that the King and the law are arguing over who is more sovereign. There are people on either side of the argument, but Old England herself does not know where she stands. The contention between subjects and master is resulting in war after war, with “Religion, Gospel, here lies at the stake.” She asks her daughter for pity because her towns are devastated, the fields are sere, families are poor, virgins are being ravished, and the grain is gone. She asks her daughter to assist with “thy utmost skill.”
New England responds that Old England should shake herself off and get up to face the day. The darkness of Catholicism is now gone and the sun is rising on a new day. New England blesses the Nobles, the Commons, the Counties, and the Preachers. New England says that if she ever finds herself in the same situation as her mother, she knows that “miseries [will] abound.” Thankfully, she says, all of the trappings of popery are gone from England – the miters, surplices, croziers, prelates, etc. The burning of these vestments of Baal will create a bright flash that will light all of Christendom.
New England and her mother “hate Rome’s Whore, with all her trumpery.” Now, Charles will take the throne and splendid days of peace and glory will come out of the mists. Justice will reign in the Courts and bribes will cease. The “happy Nation [will] ever flourish,” and Rome and her vassals will be sacked. The day of redemption is at hand for Old England, and she will live up to her full potential. Days “of happiness and rest” will follow. New England concludes that her mother and Parliament will prevail and promises her that “in a while you’ll tell another tale.”
This lengthy poem demonstrates Bradstreet’s knowledge of history and her opinion about the religious tensions between Protestantism and Catholicism. While "Dialogue" is not one of her most celebrated poems, it is nevertheless an early example of her poetic skill. Through the poem, she evinces her concern over the destruction caused by civil and religious strife in her home country, which she is still quite attached to despite her settlement in America. As the Poetry Foundation page on Bradstreet explains, the poet’s own values are emerging in this poem. “There is less imitation of traditional male models and more direct statement of the poet’s feelings.”
The poem covers the English crisis of 1642, which occurred at the beginning of the English Civil War. King Charles I and Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, split for a variety of reasons, the most prominent being the division of power between the monarchy and the legislature. This war was not continuous and only featured three major battles, but was nonetheless disruptive to English life until 1649, when Charles was executed.
Bradstreet styled this poem as a dialogue between Old England, the mother, and her daughter, New England. New England asks her mother why she is suffering and mournful, especially since she possesses more wealth and national glory. The mother wonders if her daughter is ignorant of her woes, and warns her child that if she dies, her daughter will die along with her (indicating that New England was of course founded by and is administered by Old England). New England then tries to speculate the cause of her mother’s grief. She lists all the possible reasons for her mother's turmoil, citing events from England’s past, like the Anglo-Saxon conflicts, the Norman invasion, feudal rebellion, and the War of the Roses, as well as asking if it is a natural problem such as drought, famine, or pestilence.
Old England decides she will clarify the effects of grief rather than try to speculate about the causes, because she herself does not truly understand. She concedes that many of the bloody events in England's past have had a lingering negative effect on her, but she is not concerned with that now. At the moment, the religious turmoil is what is primarily bothering her. Old England is vexed about the fact that “The Gospel is trod down and hath no right."
Old England then starts pointing out aspects of Catholicism that she finds onerous, such as the sale of indulgences and corruption in Church offices. Other violations like Sabbath-breaking, drunkenness, profanity, usury, extortion, and more indicate the English's lapse in morality. She explains that she ignored the prophets and mocked them, and regrets that she learned nothing from other countries that have experienced something similar. New England listens while Old England goes ponders whether or not Charles I or Parliament “is the chief, the law.” She seems more concerned with her citizens' suffering rather than choosing an ideological side. She laments the numerous tragedies in her country, like plundered towns and houses, poor starving children, “ravisht virgins, and my young men slain.”
After Old England completes her doleful speech, New England takes on the role of counselor and, as critic Kenneth A. Requa says, a “diagnostician and prophet.” She foresees a Protestant crusade of sorts, which would move westward, converting the Catholics and eventually the Jews. This theme is in line with Bradstreet's own religious beliefs. She was a strong Protestant and arrived in Massachusetts on the Arbella, alongside future governor John Winthrop, whose “city upon a hill” speech perfectly encapsulated the Puritans’ belief in the higher purpose of colonization, their “errand in the wilderness.” Requa explains, “Although history finally proved that religious optimism of Anne Bradstreet was ill-founded, nevertheless she created a strong, confident voice to present her vision of New England’s ultimate mission to the world.”