"A Heart Terrifying Sorrow": An Occasional Piece on Poetry of Miscarriage

Article excerpt

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.

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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). …