Article abstract: Not only the first American woman poet, Anne Bradstreet ranks as the first true American poet of either sex.
Although no record of Anne Bradstreet’s birth survives, she was the daughter of Thomas and Dorothy Dudley of Northampton, England, and according to a reference in one of her poems she must have been born in 1612. Her father, though not highly educated, was a substantial man who valued books and learning. Dorothy, apparently also literate, probably taught her daughter religion, and the Dudley children grew up with books. The Dudleys claimed kinship to a much more prominent branch of the family: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, while John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, was the grandfather of Sir Philip Sidney, famed courtier and important English poet. Several other members of the Sidney family had literary talent, including Philip’s sister Mary, later Countess of Pembroke, and his niece Mary, later Lady Mary Wroth. It is clear that early in life Anne Dudley became acquainted with the poetry of Sidney. Another favorite was the Protestant French poet Guillaume Du Bartas.
In a letter to her own children years later, Bradstreet explained that she was an obedient child who took comfort in reading the Bible but confessed that at the age of fourteen or fifteen was beset by “carnal” desires. Meanwhile, the family had moved to the coastal town of Boston in Lincolnshire, where Thomas Dudley served as a steward to the earl of Lincoln. At the age of sixteen Anne suffered from a common but deadly disease, smallpox; her face may well have been scarred for life as a result. Also at sixteen she was married to Simon Bradstreet, a Lincolnshire man and Cambridge graduate.
The Dudleys were Puritans, oppressed by religious authority and eager to make a new livelihood abroad, and Thomas Dudley became one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Still much under the influence of her father, the eighteen-year-old Anne Bradstreet and her husband sailed from the Old World Boston in 1630 to settle a new Boston across the Atlantic.
It is well to remember that the work of Anne Bradstreet existed on two fronts. When she arrived as part of the earliest wave of Massachusetts Bay settlers, she was a young wife who, in the years that followed, became the mother of eight children. The duties implicit in such a life in a newly planted colony represented all the work that even a healthy woman might reasonably be expected to perform, and Anne Bradstreet suffered frequent illnesses. This work would not of itself have made her famous, but the work for which the world knows her is intimately connected with her status as colonial wife and mother.
Her earliest poems cannot be dated precisely, but by 1647, when she was thirty-five, someone, generally conceded to be the Reverend John Woodbridge, her brother-in-law, returned to England with a stack of her poems in manuscript. Three years later the first book of original poetry by an American, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America, appeared in London. Most of the poems now considered Bradstreet’s best had presumably not yet been written, but the book has become justly famous.
The poems therein represent an apprenticeship rendered long by circumstances. Even the bookish Dudleys and Bradstreets could not have carried any great library to Massachusetts. For a number of reasons, poets thrive on fruitful contacts with other poets, and, the possibility of a few amateurish versifying friends aside, Anne Bradstreet had no such contacts. The time and energy she could devote to the lonely task of composing poetry must have been severely limited. Few poets can have learned their craft under more trying conditions.
Her book, which in a later poem she claimed to have been “snatched” from her in an “unfit” state by friends “less wise than true,” consists mainly of long poems, primarily quaternions, or four-part poems. There are four of these interrelated quaternions, on the four elements, the four humors, the four ages of man, and the four seasons, respectively. The subject matter is traditional, the “elements” being the classification of the physical universe into fire, air, earth, and water which goes back at least as far as Plato. The four humors represented four different mixtures of the elements in humans which determined their physiological and temperamental types. Modern English vocabulary still retains the adjectives—choleric, sanguine, melancholy, and phlegmatic—used to describe the four basic types. The poems, varying in length from 264 to 610 lines, are all written in rhymed pentameter couplets. These poems hardly show Bradstreet at her best, nor does her unfinished The Four Monarchies in 3,572 lines, many of which paraphrase Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614).
(The entire section is 2039 words.)