Anne Bradstreet Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Anne Bradstreet wrote poetry from the 1640’s to her death in 1672. Naturally, her work developed and deepened over this thirty-year period. The critic Kenneth Requa’s distinction between her public and private poetic voices (in “Anne Bradstreet’s Poetic Voices,” Early American Literature, XII, 1977) is a useful way to assess her poetic development. Her public voice, which dominates the early poetry, is eulogistic, imitative, self-conscious, and less controlled in metaphor and structure. Most of the poems in The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America illustrate these traits. Her private voice—more evident in Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight—is often elegiac, original, self-confident, and better controlled in metaphor and structure. Any attempt to divide Bradstreet’s work into phases has its dangers. Here, however, it is convenient to consider representative elegies from three roughly chronological stages: “poetic” involvement, conventional involvement, and personal involvement.
Almost all the verse in her first collection conveys Bradstreet’s public, poetic involvement. Specifically, in secular poems such as the “Quaternions,” “The Four Monarchies,” and the elegies on famous Elizabethans, Bradstreet as professional poet or bard dominates and controls. “In Honour of Du Bartas” (1641) contains the typical Renaissance characteristics of public content, imitative style, classical allusions, and secular eulogy. The poem’s content could hardly be more public, since it dutifully details the accomplishments of Bradstreet’s mentor Du Bartas—his learning, valor, wit, and literary skill. Although Bradstreet contrasts her meager poetic powers with Du Bartas’s unlimited powers, her involvement is not personal; rather, it eventually points to a favorite moral for Renaissance poets. No matter how bad the writer, the dead person (in this case a poet, too) will “live” in the poem’s lines. The “Quaternions”—a quartet of long poems on the four elements, the four humors, the four ages of man, and the four seasons—and the interminable rhymed history “The Four Monarchies” are similarly public in content.
An extension of public content and bardic involvement is imitative style. For example, “In Honour of Du Bartas” contains conventional images like the simile comparing Bradstreet’s muse to a child, the hyperbole declaring that Du Bartas’s fame will last “while starres do stand,” and the oxymoron in “senslesse Sences.” Although Bradstreet’s early imitative style is skillful, it hinders her from expressing the unique voice of her later work. Furthermore, tradition compels her to scatter her public poems with classical allusions. In the three elegies on Du Bartas, Sidney, and Queen Elizabeth I, these allusions are a conventional part of the Renaissance pastoral elegy, and in the “Quaternions” they imitate the medieval/Renaissance debates.
Finally, these lengthy early poems may contain secular eulogy, also a characteristic of the pastoral elegy, and hyperbole, common in the debate form. The opening lines of “In Honour of Du Bartas,” for example, state that Du Bartas is “matchlesse knowne” among contemporary poets. In such a richly literary age, Bradstreet obviously uses hyperbole and eulogy to emphasize Du Bartas’s greatness for her.
The second phase—conventional involvement—includes religious poems within a public or orthodox context. In many ways this is a transitional voice, for some poems recall the imitativeness and bardic self-consciousness of the first phase, while others anticipate the domestic content and individual voice of the third phase. A few poems (such as “David’s Lamentations for Saul” and “Of the vanity of all worldly creatures”) are from The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America; more are from her second collection (the elegies on Thomas and Dorothy Dudley and “The Flesh and the Spirit,” for example). In this poetry, Bradstreet moves closer to mainstream Puritan verse. The elegies on her parents are conventionally formal and fit the pattern of the New England funeral elegy, whose hallmark was public praise of the dead one’s life and virtues to overcome personal grief. “The Flesh and the Spirit,” “As weary pilgrim now at rest,” and “Of the vanity of all worldly creatures” treat the theme of worldliness versus unworldliness generally and impersonally to reach orthodox conclusions.
Bradstreet’s elegy on her father, “To the memory of my dear and ever honoured Father Thomas Dudley,” begins with an apparently personal touch: Bradstreet’s claim to write from filial duty, not custom. Even so, as she reminds her readers, this filial duty allows her to praise her father’s virtues fully and publicly, not partially and privately. In later elegies, Bradstreet does not explain so defensively why she follows certain conventions; indeed, she frequently modifies or ignores them. In this early elegy, however, these conventions constrain Bradstreet’s own voice so that she writes forced lines such as these: “In manners pleasant and severe/ The Good him lov’d, the bad did fear,/ And when his time with years was spent/ If some rejoyc’d, more did lament.” Lacking are the emotional force, personal involvement, and dramatic struggle between flesh and spirit found in the later poems.
Another characteristic apparent in the second phase is Bradstreet’s use of fairly standard poetic structure....
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