Anne Bradstreet

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Anne Bradstreet Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2293

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.

First phase

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.

Second phase

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. “The Flesh and the Spirit,” for example, is in dialogue/debate form, while “As weary pilgrim, now at rest” and “Of the vanity of all worldly creatures”—both meditations—examine the battle between body and soul to attain the eternal peace that only Christ’s love will bring. “David’s Lamentations for Saul” is a versified retelling of the scriptural story. Bradstreet’s epitaphs on her mother and father, as already stated, follow the form of the Puritan elegy.

Standard, often biblical, imagery is another distinct aspect of the second phase. While this imagery is to some extent present in the earlier and later phases, it is particularly evident in the middle stage. In the first stage, Bradstreet’s images are traditionally Renaissance, and in the third stage, they are biblical but infused with emotive and personal force. The elegy on Thomas Dudley illustrates the traditionally biblical images found in phase two: Dudley has a “Mansion” prepared above; and, like a ripe shock of wheat, he is mown by the sickle Death and is then stored safely. The other orthodox poems also use biblical images almost exclusively.

Appropriately, in these poems, Bradstreet generally excludes the personal voice. Only “As weary pilgrim, now at rest,” the theme of which is the heaven-bound soul housed within the “Corrupt Carcasse,” succeeds in combining the general and individual situations. Universality and individuality form the special strength of Bradstreet’s masterpiece, “Contemplations.” This thirty-three-verse meditative poem fits best into the second stage because of its spiritual content. Given the poem’s importance, however, it must be discussed separately. Bradstreet skillfully evokes a dramatic scene—she walks at dusk in the countryside—then uses it to explore the relationships among man, God, and nature.

In stanzas one to seven, the poet acknowledges nature’s potency and majesty by looking first at an oak tree and then at the sun. If they are glorious, she muses, how much more glorious must their creator be? Stanzas eight to twenty recall man’s creation and fall, extending from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel and finally to Bradstreet’s own day. The answer to man’s misery, however, is not nature worship. Instead, man must acknowledge that God made him alone for immortality. In stanzas twenty-one to twenty-eight, the poet considers the amoral delight of nature—the elm, the river, the fish, and the nightingale—incapable of the tortures of free will. Stanzas twenty-nine to thirty-three show that beyond the natural cycle, only man (“This lump of wretchedness, of sin and sorrow,” as the poet states) can be resurrected within the divine cycle.

“Contemplations” contains some of Bradstreet’s most original and inspired poetry within the three-part structure of the seventeenth century meditation. These parts correspond to the mental faculties of memory, understanding, and will. In the first part, the person creates or recalls a scene; in the second part, he analyzes its spiritual significance; and last, he responds emotionally and intellectually by prayer and devotion. Clearly, these are the three basic structural elements of “Contemplations.” Although Bradstreet ultimately returns to orthodoxy, this poem is no mere religious exercise; it is “the most finished and musical of her religious poems.”

Third phase

The third phase of Bradstreet’s poetry includes love lyrics, elegies on grandchildren and a daughter-in-law, and other works inspired by private matters (the burning of Bradstreet’s house, the publication of her first collection, the poet’s eight children). However, unlike the poems of the previous stage, which are overwhelmingly spiritual, the poems of the third phase are primarily secular. If they deal with religious matters—as the elegies do, for example—it is within a personal context. One critic calls Bradstreet “the worldly Puritan,” and these late poems show the material face of Puritanism. Bradstreet’s personal involvement affects structure, tone, rhythm, and metaphor. “In memory of my dear grand-child Elizabeth Bradstreet” illustrates many of these changes.

Because she was more comfortable writing of private matters in a private voice, Bradstreet’s poetic structure arises naturally from content and context. The elegy on Elizabeth, for instance, divides into two seven-line stanzas (it is a variation of the sonnet form). In stanza 1, the poet says farewell to her grandchild and questions why she should be sad since little Elizabeth is in Heaven. In stanza 2, Bradstreet explains that nature’s products perish only when they are ripe; therefore, if a newly blown “bud” perishes, it must be God’s doing. The structure aptly complements the poet’s grief, disbelief, and final resignation. Both stanzas effortlessly follow the rhyme scheme ababccc. Bradstreet’s love poems are also constructed in an intricate but uncontrived way. Both poems titled “Another [Letter to Her Husband]” show careful attention to structure. The first poem of this title personifies the sun and follows the sun’s daily course; the second ties together three images and puns suggesting marital harmony (dear/deer, heart/hart, and hind/hind).

A marked difference in the poetry of the third phase is its tone. Instead of sounding self-conscious, bookish, derivative, overambitious, or staunchly orthodox, Bradstreet’s later poetry is poised, personal, original, modest, and unwilling to accept orthodoxy without question. Another tonal change is subtlety, which the elegy on Elizabeth illustrates well. Throughout the poem Bradstreet hovers between the worldly response of grief and the unworldly one of acceptance. This uneasy balance, finally resolved when Bradstreet accepts God’s will, makes the elegy especially poignant. The poet’s other late elegies on her grandchildren Anne and Simon and her daughter-in-law Mercy are also poignant. The secular love poetry that Bradstreet wrote to her husband—often while he was away on business—conveys playfulness, longing, and, above all, boundless love. The tone of Bradstreet’s late poetry tends to be more varied and complex than the tone of her early poetry, the only notable exception being “Contemplations,” placed in phase two.

Bradstreet’s rhythm reflects her increased poetic self-confidence. Gone are the strained lines and rhythms characteristic of the “Quaternions” and “The Four Monarchies”; instead, the opening lines of Bradstreet’s elegy on Elizabeth show how private subject matter lends itself to natural, personal expression: “Farewel dear babe, my hearts too much content,/ Farewel sweet babe, the pleasure of mine eye,/ Farewel fair flower that for a space was lent,/ Then ta’en away unto Eternity.” The delicate antithesis in lines one to three and the repetition of “Farewel” add emotional force to the content and emphasize Bradstreet’s difficulty in accepting Elizabeth’s death. The other late elegies are rhythmically varied and use antithesis to underscore life’s ever-present duality: flesh/spirit, worldliness/unworldliness. For example, within the elegy on three-year-old Anne, Bradstreet conveys her problem in coming to terms with yet another grandchild’s death when she uses this forced, monosyllabic rhythm, “More fool then I to look on that was lent./ As if mine own, when thus impermanent.” The love poetry is also written with special attention to rhythmic variety.

The poet’s metaphoric language in the later works is free of bookishness and imitativeness. She does not resort to classical allusions or literary images but chooses familiar, often domestic or biblical, metaphors. In the elegy on Elizabeth, the entire second stanza comprises a series of images drawn from nature. Bradstreet heightens her grandchild’s death by saying how unnatural it is compared with the natural cycle of trees, fruit, corn, and grass. The love poetry draws on nature images too—the sun, fish, deer, and rivers, for instance. In her late personal poetry, Bradstreet also feels comfortable using some extended images. “The Author to Her Book,” for example, extends the metaphor of Bradstreet’s relationship as author/mother to her book/child, while “In reference to her Children, 23 June 1659” humorously compares Bradstreet and her children to a mother hen and her chicks. These images are original in the sense that they arise in an unaffected, apparently spontaneous, way. They are not original in the sense of being innovative.

The elegies on Du Bartas, Thomas Dudley, and Elizabeth Bradstreet are representative of stages in Bradstreet’s poetic career. Her poetry has always been known, but now, more than ever, critics agree on her importance as one of the two foremost Colonial poets. Until recently, scholarship focused on biographical and historical concerns. Modern criticism, however, concentrates on structure, style, theme, and text. This move toward aesthetic analysis has deepened scholarly appreciation of Bradstreet’s talent. In addition, the rise of women’s studies ensures her place as a significant female voice in American poetry. She has stood the test of time as “a writer of unquestionably major stature.”

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