In a seventeenth-century manuscript inspired initially by the fear that she would die in childbirth, Lady Mary Carey included among the prose meditations several poems on the suffering of motherhood.(1) The longest of the poems, and the final entry in the manuscript, is an occasional meditation on the miscarriage of her last child. The loss of the fetus was a danger many pregnant women faced, a threat far more common than the risk of maternal death in childbirth, but no other seventeenth-century woman appears to have written at any length about the experience her contemporaries variously referred to as "abortment," "mischance," and "untimely birth."(2) Miscarriage, much less poems about miscarriage, is not in fact a common literary subject until the second half of the twentieth century. Aside from veiled references in the novels of Dickens, Eliot, or Hardy, authors address the human dimensions of the loss openly in literature only when medical, social, and psychological studies begin to recognize and understand the magnitude of this silent sorrow.(3) Lady Carey's meditative poem on her own miscarriage provides an opportunity for another occasional piece on this and the similar, largely neglected poems written in the last decades. Together the emotional pain unmistakable despite the changing cultural attitudes toward birth and death reveals a common threat to the self in the unfulfilled promise of life.
Over the centuries that separate Mary Carey from her modern counterparts, death has moved gradually out of the house into the hospital and hospice, losing some of its familiarity and becoming more frightening. Women now able to control their fertility through better methods of contraception and often choosing to narrow that period of fertility also tend to put a greater premium on the timely and successful pregnancy than earlier generations did. The debate over the right to life and the increasingly sophisticated technologies used to monitor the fetus have added to a consciousness of in utero existence; numerous help groups formed to deal with fetal and neonatal loss further contribute to the growing sensitivity toward the physical and psychological effects of miscarriage. And yet the poems themselves suggest that the experiences of spontaneous abortion or miscarriage have much in common.(4) "Upon [y.sup.e] Sight of my abortive Birth [y.sup.e] [31.sup.th] of December 1657" helps understand more fully how both Mary Carey as well as later poets cope with the emptiness, self-doubts, and guilt unique to the suffering of miscarriage. Whatever their immediate engagement and gender, theirs is a loss not easily resolved.
Mortality rates for earlier periods are notoriously difficult to establish, and even now in England a fetal loss before the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy need not be registered. Seventeenth-century Bills of Mortality, however incomplete, nonetheless document in their lists of "Abortive, and stilborn" an awareness of miscarriage apparent in the contemporary medical texts and guides to midwifery.(5) Their considerable concern about causes and prevention reveals obvious sensitivity to the many pregnancies that end in miscarriage.(6) Most spontaneous abortions occur in the first trimester, generally from the seventh to fourteenth week, and reflect fetal abnormalities caused by infections as well as genetic disorders; later miscarriages often involve placental and uterine difficulties of attachment.(7) Yet common misperception then and now held the mother responsible for the mischance or abortment. Detailed advice about temperate habits and moderate conduct during this "Sickness of nine Months" counseled against undue emotion, excessive exercise, and restrictive clothing, certain that even severe coughing and sudden noises could end the pregnancy.(8) Throughout the seventeenth century the often lengthy advice found in such works as Child-birth, The Womans Doctour, or The Compleat Midwife's Practice Enlarged varied little in content and expression; all reflect the belief expressed in The Midwives Book: "almost all men and women desire to be fruitful naturally, and it is a kind of self-destroying not to be willing to leave some succession after us" (Sharp 164).
The personal grief caused by the failure to be fruitful is unmistakable in Lady Carey's poem. Where her contemporaries often record miscarriages, if at all, with little more than a reference to their occurrence, she confronts at length the "sad affliction" and "greate trouble" others succinctly note in diaries, memoirs, and letters.(9) Her loss was perhaps particularly difficult because it occurred late in her child-bearing years, when she was apparently in her mid-forties. At the time of her miscarriage Carey had borne seven children, losing all but the last two in their infancy. "All my Children were only Children," she notes in one of her prose meditations; "each Child when it died, was all I had alive." Their deaths were for her "a heart terrifying Sorrow" (146). That a woman cannot "forget her sucking Child" and must "have Compassion on the Son of her Womb" (11, refoliated 1) is obvious in the brief poems written after the deaths of her fourth child, Robert, in December 1650 and her fifth, Peregrine, in May 1652. Unlike the simple lines with which she attempts to overcome her sorrow, the ninety-two lines of verse she finished within two weeks of her miscarriage in December 1657 are consciously meditative in their structure and intent. Both the poem and the prose reflections use a figurative language deeply rooted in the Bible. The rhythms and imagery of the prose give rich texture to her belief that "God who hath made my Soule to thirst for him, he will satisfie my Soule, it shall be as a watered Garden; And I shall drinke of [y.sup.e] Waters of life for all Eternity" (101). Her verse seamlessly incorporates passages from the Scriptures and glosses these and other lines in the margins with biblical citations. The scriptural context of the poem's language and the meditative pattern of its structure contribute to a personal immediacy missing from the often conventional exercise in prose meditation. Where the prose contemplates the "evill Disposition" of a heart "overcharged [w.sup.th] Miscarriages in this kind" (140-41), the poem confronts the emotional pain of a miscarrying womb.
Carey struggles to resolve the unexpected and disturbing sight of her abortive fetus: "What Birth is this? a poore despised Creature? / A little Embrio? void of Life, & Feature" (1-2)? Initially she attempts to see the good in the miscarriage, seeking consolation in the belief that she has created another soul that will live eternally. Carey also finds solace in "My living, pretty Paire, Nat: & Bethia," but the sight of the "poore despised Creature" (27) remains troubling. The birth of the unformed child challenges her womanhood, and she needs to reassure herself about her maternity by taking comfort in the previous deliveries of seven "Stronge, right-proportion'd, lovely" babies. The assault on her own sense of gender is also a cruel rebuke to the hope she and her husband had of further joy in another child. Such reactions have come to be among those most commonly documented in modern studies of miscarriage. For the mother especially the loss is literally and figuratively traumatic: "The woman may experience the loss of the fetus as a loss of part of the present, the future, and a part of her self too" (Seller et al. 347). The grief is deep and the bereavement prolonged because the pain usually involves a suffering characterized in the psychology of prenatal and perinatal sorrow as "prospective mourning -- relinquishing wishes, hopes, and fantasies about one who could have been but never was" (Leon 35). Since the majority of pregnancies fail during the months in which the mother first experiences the life within her womb as physically and psychologically part of herself, or as a "narcissistic self-object," the mother's sense of failure often further leads to feelings of inadequacy and doubts about her own self-worth.(10)
Lady Carey's "living, pretty Paire" are only partial compensation for the child "void of Life, & Feature," and she copes less easily with feelings of guilt. Natural to all expressions of grief, guilt is particularly strong among the sufferers of miscarriage. Maternal responsibility for the unborn engenders strong feelings of self-blame, and the lingering guilt reflects the unique physical and psychological dimensions of the loss. Women surveyed in modern clinical studies not surprisingly blame themselves for the body's rejection of the fetus, a failure they believe could have been avoided if the wealth of commonplace misinformation about spontaneous abortion had been heeded. Similar research also confirms a guilt that has little to do with the physical: some women remain convinced that they miscarried because they failed somehow to love the unborn adequately and others because they were being punished for their "badness."(11) In the decidedly less secular world of the seventeenth century, Mary Carey's self-blame seems natural.
Guilt becomes for her a means of understanding what she appears to accept conditionally. Carey openly confronts her spiritual and emotional conflicts:
And if herein God hath fulfill'd his Will,
His Hand-Maid's pleas'd, compleatly happy still;
I only now desire of my sweet God,
The Reason why he tooke in hand his Rod?
What he doth spy? what is [y.sup.e] thinge amisse?
I faine would learne? whil'st I [y.sup.e] Rod do kisse:
Methinkes I heare God's Voice, this is [y.sup.e] Sin,
And Conscience justifies [y.sup.e] same within. (31-38)
Her need to find the "thing amisse," even though she willingly submits to the rod, leads not surprisingly to a sense of sin. Self-blame encourages, as recent studies of miscarriage show, an "illusion of control" that ultimately proves counterproductive.(12) In this instance, however, guilt does not promote "maladaptive coping." The voice of God that she imagines in meditation offers in its admonition the comfort of a simple and irrefutable justice: "Thou often dost present me [w.sup.th] dead Fruit," her Lord appears to speak forthrightly; "Why should not my Returns, thy Present sute" (39-40). The voice reminding her of the "dead Heart" in all that she has brought to God is not vindictive; its biblical language gently urges her to "Mend now my Child, & lively …