Anne Bradstreet

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Anne Bradstreet American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2266

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 safe to say that her best poems will be long remembered.

“The Prologue”

First published: 1650 (collected in The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, 1650)

Type of work: Poem

A colonial woman begins her book of poems by defending it against captious criticism.

“The Prologue” is Bradstreet’s apology for her book of poems. At first, it seems like an apology in the common sense of the word, for she refers to her “foolish, broken, blemished Muse” and begs elaborate pardon that her poems are not so fine as those of other poets, although she insists that she is doing the best she can. Upon closer inspection, “The Prologue” turns out to be an apology in the literary sense of a defense of her art. One of her favorite poets, Sir Philip Sidney, also referred to his own work condescendingly. This attitude has a special meaning when expressed by a woman writing in a New World Puritan outpost before 1650.

“The Prologue” is written in eight six-line iambic pentameter stanzas, using the rhyme scheme ababcc. Bradstreet begins by advising her reader that she has no ambition to write an elaborate, important poem such as an epic. She lauds the sixteenth century French poet du Bartas but notes that her work will be much simpler. She hopes it will not be judged too harshly, for her ability is severely limited.

In the second half of the poem, she modifies her defense. She acknowledges that men expect women to practice feminine arts such as needlework and refuse to recognize any value in a woman’s poem. She intimates that the Greeks, in making the Muses feminine, had more regard for feminine creativity but concedes that this argument will not convince the men. She then concludes with two stanzas confessing the superiority of male poets but asking “some small acknowledgment” of women’s efforts. After all, Bradstreet’s “lowly lines” will simply make men’s poetry look better by comparison.

Even read literally, as it often has been read, this poem displays clever strategy. How could any fair-minded person expect competent poetry from uneducated people who had no opportunities to travel or associate familiarly with other poets and who spent most of their lives bearing children and serving their needs and those of their husbands? Even when blessed with talent and sufficient leisure to compose, such writers offered no threat to the male poets, many of whom could take education, frequent association with their peers, and leisure for granted. By displaying humility at the beginning of her book, Bradstreet hoped to forestall, or at least minimize, the inevitable criticism of a woman poet.

It is difficult, however, to escape the conviction that irony lurks everywhere in this poem. In the first place, it is scarcely possible that Bradstreet considered her brain “weak or wounded” as she styles it in the poem; talented people are usually aware of their talent. If she cannot write “of wars, of captains, and of kings,” she has the resources to write about her husband, children and grandchildren, domestic life (including the cruel experience of watching her home burn), and the spiritual struggle common to all Puritans.

The last four stanzas of the poem betray signs of an ironic counterattack upon her critics. Her fifth stanza almost undermines the effect toward which she is working by nearly boiling over with indignation at men’s refusal to accept the woman poet. Such criticism is “carping”; it maintains that any feminine poetic success must be the result of either plagiarism or “chance.” Why did men call poetry “Calliope’s own child”? The answer that she attributes to the men—that the Greeks did nothing but “play the fools and lie”—mimics a weak-kneed response.

In her final stanza, she catches the true satiric tone. Addressing “ye highflown quills that soar the skies,” she asks not for the “bays,” or traditional laurel wreath honoring poetic achievement, but for a “thyme or parsley wreath” befitting the woman who is expected to reign chiefly in the kitchen. She might as well have asked for a bay leaf, the common kitchen spice, but such a request might have reminded her audience that the laurel leaf and the bay leaf are closely affiliated. In effect, Bradstreet has asked for a recognition less humble than it seems. Her final point—that her “unrefined ore” will make the male poets’ “gold” appear to shine more brightly—taunts the egotism of the males, who are probably flying too high to notice.

“A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment”

First published: 1678 (collected in Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight, 1678)

Type of work: Poem

In ” a verse letter to her absent husband, a woman affirms her love.

“A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment” is one of two Bradstreet poems on this subject. She must have been familiar with the classical epistle, or verse letter, which English poets had begun imitating in the sixteenth century. She addresses her husband by a series of metaphors, the main one being the sun. She likens herself to the earth in winter, lamenting “in black” the receding light and feeling “chilled” without him to warm her. She is home with only “those fruits which through thy heat I bore”—her children—as reminders. With her husband “southward gone,” she finds the short winter days ironically long and tedious.

She continues to project her sun metaphor into the future. When he returns, the season will be summer figuratively and perhaps literally: “I wish my Sun may never set, but burn/ Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,” a zodiacal allusion to early summer. She closes by reaffirming their married oneness: “Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,/ I here, thou there, yet both but one.”

Though neither so intricate in form nor elaborate in imagery as John Donne’s famous “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” published in 1633, this poem on the same theme shows Bradstreet’s resourcefulness with imagery and able handling of her favorite pentameter couplets. While exhibiting great devotion to Simon, this poem succeeds because it also reflects devotion to the art of lyric verse.

“In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659”

First published: 1678 (collected in Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight, 1678)

Type of work: Poem

A mother bids a loving farewell in turn to each of her eight children.

One of Bradstreet’s most charming poems, “In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659” distinguishes and describes each of the “eight birds” from her “nest.” Several times she indicates precise dates for her poems or the events they describe; this one suggests a time of relative leisure after five of the eight have left home.

She maintains the bird metaphor throughout the poem’s ninety-six lines, describing the various “flights” of five of her children and her concerns about those remaining in the nest. Four are “cocks,” four “hens.” The oldest having flown “to regions far,” she longs for his return. The next two, both girls, have been married, while the second son is at “the academy,” where he will learn to sing better than nightingales. Number five is “mongst the shrubs and bushes,” which may mean that he has taken up farming. She hopes that the youngest three will not fall victim to birdcatchers, stone-throwers, or hawks.

Recalling the pains and cares of their early childhood, she notes that their growing up has not ended her constant concern for their welfare. Going on to remind the children that her own days are numbered, she tells them that she expects to be singing among the angels soon. The closing lines beg her brood to emulate in their own families the loving attention and moral instruction she has bestowed on them, thus keeping her alive in a way. She ends by bidding her offspring farewell and assuring them that she will be happy if all goes well with them.

Forty-eight tetrameter couplets might seem rather a long time to keep the bird metaphor going, but Bradstreet’s light touch sustains the reader’s interest. Because she evokes her children as individuals and conveys her tender feeling for each of them, this poem written on a particular day for a particular family expresses the universality of mother love.

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Anne Bradstreet Poetry: American Poets Analysis