Anne Bradstreet Essay - Critical Essays

Anne Bradstreet American Literature Analysis

Bradstreet benefited from an education unusually thorough for a woman of her time. Knowledgeable about history, theology, and science, she also demonstrates a familiarity with numerous earlier poets. She wrote an elegy on the famed soldier, diplomat, and poet Sir Philip Sidney that displays a keen interest in his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591). She also appears to have been influenced by the English meditative poets of her own century. The poet she honors most highly, however, is the French religious poet Guillaume de Salluste (Seigneur du Bartas), whose epic La Semaine (1578; The Divine Weeks, 1608) was a favorite among Puritans.

In her early writing, Bradstreet favored quaternions, poems with subject groups of four. For centuries, the material world was believed to be composed of four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Thus, human temperaments and physiological types were explained as various mixtures of these elements and were called “humours.” Two of Bradstreet’s quaternions consist of successive speeches by the respective elements and humours in which they boast of their own importance. “The Ages of Man” follows a similar pattern, with Childhood, Youth, Middle Age, and Old Age speaking in turn. While rather stiff and uninspired, these poems show that Bradstreet had accumulated considerable astronomical, geographical, historical, theological, medical, and psychological information. “The Four Seasons of the Year,” though occasionally betraying a love of nature, is similarly conventional and bookish.

Her longest poem, “The Four Monarchies,” versifies in 3,432 lines a portion of ancient history for which her chief source was Sir Walter Ralegh’s History of the World (1614). The last and shortest history is of the Roman monarchy, and it culminates in “An Apology” for being unable to carry it out to its projected length. The loss is not great, for “The Four Monarchies,” which labors to show the vanity and futility of ancient pre-Christian ambition, is a tedious poem.

Those and a dozen other, shorter poems make up her The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. Except for the introductory poem, “The Prologue,” which provocatively asserts her commitment to poetry even as it seeks to disarm masculine criticism of her pioneering work, this collection was not responsible for establishing her reputation as one of the two most significant poets of the colonial era in America (Edward Taylor being the other). Readers must turn to the posthumously published poems to appreciate Bradstreet’s poetry.

Motherhood became a paramount fact of her life and also one of her favorite metaphors. In “The Author to Her Book,” her book is an ill-favored child whom she has labored to improve. She wittily bids her child not to fall into a “critic’s hands” but to explain that her mother has had to turn her “rambling brat” out of the house because of poverty. This metaphor is useful in establishing the mock-modest tone that she employs when referring to her own work. Bradstreet is not being hypocritical; rather, she enjoys assuming the role of the hard-working amateur—a role made somewhat more difficult to sustain by the publication of her book. She reminds her critically inclined readers that few parents would care to be held completely responsible for their offspring.

Her own children are often her true subject as well. Her family poems avoid sentimentality and brim with the honest sentiment of a woman who trusts in heaven but loves her husband and children beyond any other earthly thing. If her book becomes her child, her children in one poem become the birds of her nest. Inevitably the theme of death arises. “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” which is addressed to her husband, expresses the fear of the colonial housewife—for whom each pregnancy is the prelude to a possible death. Several other poems memorialize grandchildren who died in infancy or early childhood. The feeling in these poems is artistically restrained, and the attitude is one of resignation to God’s mysterious will, yet there can be no doubt of the genuineness of her grief on each occasion.

Two poems occasioned by her husband’s absence on business focus on her intense love for him. In one, she argues that her love exceeds that of the female deer, dove, and fish for their absent mates; when he returns, they will “browse,” “roost,” and “glide” together. In the other, “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment,” she uses the sun to describe her husband and her love for him.

Like most of the 1650 poems, “Contemplations” is conventional and rather general in its thought, but the voice is unmistakably Bradstreet’s. It is a compact spiritual autobiography affirming that the hope of heaven is the only security worth striving for. Her fine prose work, “Meditations Divine and Moral,” addressed to her son Simon and unpublished until 1867, demonstrates her good sense, poet’s ear, and talent for grounding her religious outlook in close observations of the world around her.

Bradstreet was a poet of considerable talent who, lacking fruitful contact with other poets, nevertheless learned to write by studying the works of past poets. Discovering her true subject matter in religious and domestic themes, she also fulfilled the demanding role of a colonial housewife with a large family. American critics were somewhat tardy in recognizing her accomplishments, but it is...

(The entire section is 2266 words.)