Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
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...
(The entire section is 2044 words.)
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Despite the prominence of both her father and her husband in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, facts about Anne Bradstreet are scarce, and her poems are the major source of biographical information. She was born Anne Dudley in Northampton, England, probably in 1612. From the age of seven, she lived in the household of the earl of Lincoln, whom her father served as a steward for more than a decade. As the child of a Puritan family, she became conscious of sinfulness early in life. Her physical health suffered. She regarded smallpox, which afflicted her at age sixteen, as a punishment for her “carnal” desires. In 1628, she was married to Simon Bradstreet. Two years later, the Bradstreet and Dudley families sailed to the New World on the Arbella along with John Winthrop and the original Massachusetts Bay colonists.
In the New World, the Bradstreets lived in several places before settling permanently in Merrimac (now Andover). Both her father and husband assumed leadership roles in the colony from the start. The former remained politically active into his seventies, serving four one-year terms as governor between 1634 and 1650 as well as thirteen terms as deputy governor. Her even more durable husband began as secretary of the colony, served thirty-three years as a commissioner of the New England Confederation, and in his seventies and eighties served as governor. He was also interested in frontier trading, and his frequent absences from home became the subject of two of his wife’s best poems.
For some years after her marriage, Bradstreet continued to suffer from poor health and the added humiliation of not being able to...
(The entire section is 717 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Beginning with ambitious but uninspired poems on remote subjects, Bradstreet proceeded to discover her vocation as a poet of more personal matters. Of the poems in the first edition of her book, only “The Prologue” anticipates the more intimate kind of poem for which she is now best known. Her typical subjects became birth, illness, recovery, death, leave-takings, and her love for her husband, her children, and God. Her witty elaborations of basic metaphors—her book as her child, her children as birds, her husband as the sun—show Bradstreet’s poetic imagination at its best.
In 1630, Anne Bradstreet, about eighteen years old, sailed to America aboard the Arbella, the flagship of the great Puritan migration to the New World. Bradstreet’s father, Thomas Dudley, and her husband, Simon Bradstreet, had decided to trade a comfortable life in England for a difficult one in the New England colonies—and religious freedom. As a dutiful Puritan daughter and wife, Bradstreet submitted to their wishes, although she later confessed that her “heart rose” in despair after seeing the desolate Salem settlement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The tension generated by her conflicting identities as a Puritan, as a loving wife, mother, and grandmother, and as a woman poet in a decidedly patriarchal culture...
(The entire section is 606 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Through her poetic voices, Anne Bradstreet assumes a clear (but complex) presence, yet factual data about her are surprisingly scant. Joseph McElrath, editor of The Complete Works of Anne Bradstreet (1981), shows that even her birth date is uncertain. She was born Anne Dudley, one of Thomas Dudley and Dorothy Yorke’s six children, probably in 1612 in Northampton, England, but she may have been born as late as 1613.
In 1619, the family moved to Sempringham, where Thomas Dudley became steward to the earl of Lincoln. Both he and his employer allowed the prospective poet an unusually good education for a woman. Scholars even speculate that she had access to the earl’s library. There she may have read staples of...
(The entire section is 519 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Anne Bradstreet began life as the privileged daughter of a cultured and wealthy father, Thomas Dudley, a “judicious dissenter” who had married into the British aristocracy. Between the ages of seven and eighteen she lived in the household of Thomas Clinton, the third earl of Lincoln, whose estate her father managed. In this environment she met her future husband, Simon Bradstreet, who was her father’s assistant and eleven years her senior. Both left the estate for separate destinations in 1624, but they were united in marriage four years later. In 1630 Anne and Simon Bradstreet, together with her parents and other Puritans, sailed for Massachusetts Bay Colony, where she lived for brief periods in Salem, Charlestown, and...
(The entire section is 850 words.)