Anne Bradstreet

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Article abstract: Not only the first American woman poet, Anne Bradstreet ranks as the first true American poet of either sex.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

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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 Tenth Muse contains a few other poems. “A Dialogue between Old England and New” indicates that Bradstreet maintained a strong interest in contemporary events in the early 1640’s, when the policies of King Charles I that had sent people such as the Dudleys and Bradstreets to Massachusetts were leading toward civil war in England. Yet the most interesting poem in the collection for most people is the first one, appropriately called “The Prologue.” In the poem, Bradstreet writes in a personal vein about her vocation as poet.

“The Prologue” is essentially a plea to accept the work of a woman invading a man’s province. Most critics have taken its humility at face value, and it is true that Bradstreet is often humble and even apologetic about her poetry, but it is also true that talented people usually recognize that they have talent, and it is possible to read some passages as ironical needling of the “superior” men. Her wit cannot be disputed. Instead of the “bays” (i.e., laurels) that men poets receive, she asks for “thyme or parsley wreath.” She surely knew (as doubtless many men did not) that laurel is indeed a botanical cousin to the housewife’s kitchen spice, the bay leaf. Whether ironical or not, Bradstreet displays in “The Prologue” a sincere desire for “some small acknowledgement” of women’s artistic capacity and a discernible indignation that such recognition has been so long forthcoming.

Because The Tenth Muse was presumably published without her consent, in “The Author to Her Book,” written for a possible second edition, she compared her book to an “ill-formed” child, an embarrassment to its mother. Of her literal children, however, Bradstreet was proud. In a poem of 1659, they become “eight birds hatched in one nest, of whom five have flown, while three remain in the nest.” In most of her later poems—some included in a posthumous 1678 edition of her book, some unpublished until 1867—the long, earnest, and fairly dull poems on set subjects have given way to highly personal domestic poems.

Several take the form of letters to her husband, who, as a figure of some consequence in the colony, made frequent business trips. Although her marriage most likely was an arranged one, these poems attest that a deep love had developed between them. She depicts Simon as her “mine of gold” or her “Sun” whose absence is her “winter.” She writes also of her illnesses, of her children, and, as time goes on, of the deaths of grandchildren, several of whom proved less hardy than their parents; also, in 1666, of a fire that destroyed their home.

Some of her poems refer to events that are dated or datable; one of her most admired, “Contemplations,” does not. She may well have begun it relatively early in her career, but it was not published until after her death. It is a mature poem in thirty-three stanzas, all but the last containing seven lines. Various critics have described it as a religious meditation, as an example of the seventeenth century emblem poem, even—because of its interest in landscape and vegetation—as an anticipation of romantic nature poetry. It blends elements of the “public” quaternions and of the more personal family poems. She also composed for her son Simon a series of Meditations Divine and Moral in prose urging that his appreciation of “mortal things” ultimately yield, like hers, to a Puritan faith in eternal ones.

Anne Bradstreet died on September 16, 1672 at the age of sixty.

Summary

Anne Bradstreet was both a meditative and a lyric poet. The scope of her work was circumscribed by religious and domestic boundaries beyond which modern women poets have plunged successfully. Yet as an artist, she was not only unique in her time and place but also progressed far beyond the level reached by the numerous religious and domestic female writers who flourished a full two centuries later. In culturally limited Massachusetts of the middle decades of the seventeenth century, she was able to apply the techniques she had learned from English and French Renaissance poets to the raw material of her own life. In her time for a woman to be an original meditative and lyric poet was a bold step, “obnoxious,” as she put it, to men in general and probably more intensely so to the men who were fashioning the New England Puritan commonwealth.

So in her way Bradstreet was a torchbearer for women. She apparently took no initiative in publishing her work, but she persisted in writing original poems, her last datable one, “As Weary Pilgrim,” coming in 1669, only three years before her death. Virtually all English women writers before her had concentrated their efforts on translations of works by men. The next woman to challenge men’s poetic hegemony pointedly, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, was born the year before Bradstreet died.

In 1953, an important twentieth century poet, John Berryman, composed a major poem called Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Although male critics had come to credit her achievement over the intervening centuries, Berryman’s poem, an imagined dialogue, even an imaginative identification, with this woman who had lived three centuries earlier, symbolizes the full, ungrudging recognition of her as a sensitive victor in the dual struggle with environment and language—in other words, as a poet.

Bibliography

Bradstreet, Anne. The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Edited by Jeannine Hensley. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967. The best modern edition of Bradstreet’s poems, Hensley’s boasts several attractive features: a foreword by Adrienne Rich, an informative introduction by the editor, and an index of proper names in Bradstreet’s poems. Hensley orders the poems chronologically insofar as this order is known or can be inferred.

Cowell, Pattie, and Ann Stanford, eds. Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983. A selection of colonial and nineteenth century essays followed by twenty-one modern ones from a variety of critical perspectives with emphasis on the feminist. An unusual and useful feature in an anthology of this type is its thorough index.

Martin, Wendy. An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Martin regards Bradstreet as the initial figure in a “female counter-poetic” linked to traditional Puritan values. For the most part the three essays are separate entities, the one on Bradstreet emphasizing her struggles with religious faith and with her numerous illnesses.

Rosenmeier, Rosamond. Anne Bradstreet Revisited. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991. Intended to supersede Josephine K. Piercy’s study for the same publisher, this work’s format is unusual in a Twayne book. Its approach is suggested by the titles of the three main chapters: “Daughter-Child: Actualities and Poetic Personas,” “Sister-Wife: Conflict and Redefinitions,” and “Mother Artist: A Typology of the Creative.”

Stanford, Ann. Anne Bradstreet: The Worldly Puritan. New York: Burt Franklin, 1975. A biography with criticism by a leading Bradstreet scholar. The subtitle alludes to the conflict between the “invisible world” of Bradstreet’s Puritan heritage and the “visible world” of her poetic vision. Stanford also casts light on Bradstreet’s reading and her interest in American landscape.

White, Elizabeth W. Anne Bradstreet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. The most thorough Bradstreet biography. White includes useful discussions of the religious and political influences on Bradstreet’s family, of the difficulties faced by the first wave of Massachusetts immigrants, and of the way Bradstreet transmuted these difficulties and numerous family griefs into impressive poems.