Anne Bradstreet Bradstreet, Anne - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Anne Bradstreet 1612(?)–1672

(Full name Anne Dudley Bradstreet) English-born American poet and prose writer.

Bradstreet was America's first published poet and the first woman to produce a lasting volume of poetry in the English language. Her work is considered particularly significant for its expression of passion, anger, and uncertainty within the rigid social and religious atmosphere of Puritan New England, and for the insight it provides into the lives of women from that period.

Biographical Information

Bradstreet was born in England to a Puritan family. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was steward to the Earl of Lincoln, a leading nonconformist in the religious strife of England. Because of her father's high position and the availability of the Earl's extensive library, Bradstreet's education was unusually comprehensive for a woman of her time. In 1630 she moved with her husband and her parents to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where her husband and her father served as governors of the settlement. As a New England colonist, Bradstreet encountered a life of hardship to which she was unaccustomed. In 1647 her brother-in-law returned to England, taking with him the manuscript of Bradstreet's poems. He published them without her knowledge, entitling the collection The Tenth Muse (1650). The volume met with immediate success in London. Surprised by the work's reception, but unhappy with its unpolished state, Bradstreet undertook to revise the poems, some of which were lost in the fire that destroyed the Bradstreet home in 1666. Six years after her death the revisions and some new poems were published under the title Several Poems. Bradstreet's prose meditations and later poems did not appear in print until 1867.

Major Works

Most of Bradstreet's works may be placed into one of two distinct periods. The "public" poems that appeared in The Tenth Muse are structurally and thematically formal, written in the style of Renaissance poetry. The Quaternions, which consist of four poems, each of which are divided into four parts, treat the humours, elements, seasons,

and ages of man, and are imitative of Guillaume Du Bartas's Divine Weeks and Works. "The Four Monarchies" is a long unfinished poem, patterned after Sir Walter Raleigh's The History of the World, describing what were considered the four great monarchies of civilization. The elegies contained in The Tenth Muse are dedications to public figures such as Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Philip Sidney. Bradstreet's later poems—described by most scholars as her "private" poems—are less stylized and more personal. In these works, Bradstreet expressed anxiety about her health and the safety of her family, as well as passionate love for her husband, and uncertainty concerning her religious devotion. The elegies "In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet" and "To the Memory of My Dear Daughter in Law, Mrs. Mercy Brad-street" are poignant meditations on death in which Brad-street questions her faith. In "Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666," she mourns the loss of her possessions, eschewing the Puritan ideal of the primacy of spiritual rewards over worldly pleasures, but concludes the poem with a sense of resignation and faith. As Wendy Martin has noted: "Much of [Bradstreet's] work indicates that she had a difficult time resolving the conflict she experienced between the pleasures of sensory and familial experience and the promises of heaven. As a Puritan she struggled to subdue her attachment to the world, but as a woman she sometimes felt more strongly connected to her husband, children, and community than to God." Bradstreet's poems to her husband Simon contain erotic symbolism noted by many critics, and her most critically acclaimed poem, "Contemplations," evidences an appreciation of nature and solitude similar to that found in the work of the later Romantic poets.

Critical Reception

Bradstreet received praise for the formal poetry of The Tenth Muse, which adhered to courtly standards and thus marked her as highly talented. Afterwards, however, she was largely ignored by critics until the late nineteenth century, when a volume of her later poems was published for the first time. Commentators then offered little praise, viewing her poetry as only a slight exception to what nineteenth-century readers perceived as the austere, repressive nature of Puritanism. In the mid-twentieth century, feminist critics became interested in Bradstreet's work, recognizing her exploration of the paradoxes between religious doctrine and individual belief, and the often blatant sexual imagery of poems addressing her husband or her God. While Bradstreet's public poetry is considered by many contemporary critics to be stilted and imitative, her private poetry is acclaimed for its deft use of ballad and lyric forms, and for its insightful exploration of complex personal issues.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Tenth Muse, Lately sprung up in America (poetry) 1650

Several Poems Compiled with great variety of Wit and Learning, full of Delight (poetry) 1678

The Works of Anne Bradstreet in Prose and Verse (poetry and meditations) 1867

The Works of Anne Bradstreet (poetry and meditations) 1967

The Complete Works· of Anne Bradstreet (poetry and meditations) 1981

Alvin H. Rosenfeld (essay date 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Anne Bradstreet's 'Contemplations': Patterns of Form and Meaning," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, March 1970, pp. 79–96.

[In the following excerpt, Rosenfeld discusses Bradsteet's "Contemplations" in terms of its similarities with the works of later Romantic poets.]

On first reading, the thirty-three stanzas of "Contemplations" seem to be held together very loosely, if at all, but a closer reading begins to reveal certain patterns of imagery and ideas within the poem. The seasonal metaphor is one of these and contributes significantly to both form and meaning. A second pattern, the daily cycle of morning and night, with its attendant periods of light and dark, obviously ties in closely with the yearly cycle of the seasons. The progression of natural images—directing the poet's vision from tree to sun to river to bird to stone—is a third and needs to be examined carefully. A fourth element of structural and thematic importance involves the elaborate switches in narrative and dramatic time. A fifth concerns the noticeable contrasts between Classical and Biblical allusions. A sixth has to do with tone and mood and the varied uses of the lyrical and elegiac modes together with the larger form of the narrative. All of these factors help to make the poem the rich and complex work that it is. They also lend the poem unity, although it is a unity that is not easily apparent and only becomes so when one isolates some of the patterns of form and meaning and examines them, at first, somewhat apart.

Anne Bradstreet's use of the seasonal metaphor—which moves the poem from autumn through winter to a temporarily realized season of eternal spring and summer—is an anticipation of the English Romantic poets and inevitably provokes parallels with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. As with those poets, her seasons are both physical and spiritual and participate in the same cycle of the waning and revival of life. As more than one critic has already pointed out, several of her lines on the seasons resemble some of the most memorable lines in the poems of Shelley and Keats, a factor that may permit us to read her poetry in the light of what we have learned from theirs.

Particularly appropriate—and helpful—in this connection is the place of the poet as the central figure in the drama of seasonal change. For it is the threat to the poet in his vocation as poet and not just as mortal man that is always crucial in the Romantic's evocation of the seasons. That is true for the Wordsworth of the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," for the Coleridge of "Dejection: An Ode," for the Shelley of "Ode to the West Wind," for the Keats of the great odes—and for the Anne Bradstreet of "Contemplations." A significant part of her poem's theme (and one finds it also in the poems just cited) has to do with the challenge to the imagination of the poet's heavy and constant sense of time, flux, and a final oblivion. A major portion of this theme in "Contemplations" is carried by the seasonal metaphor.

The poem actually begins with it—"Some time now past in the autumnal tide" (1)—and from this point on it is pervasive, appearing explicitly in at least a third of the stanzas and implicitly in many of the others. The poet invokes it immediately when, walking alone in the woods of an autumn day, she quietly gives herself up to the splendid scene and is moved to remark: "More heaven than earth was here, no winter and no night" (2). She is moved by the majesty of the trees and particularly by one "stately oak" which, with its height and strength, seems to defy and transcend a "hundred winters … or [a] thousand." But the lines that most fully express the poet's attachment to the metaphor of the seasons appear later, in stanzas 18 and 28:

When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
And then the earth (though old) still clad in green,
The stones and trees, insensible of time,
Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen;
If winter come and greenness then do fade,
A spring returns, and they more youthful made;
But man grows old, lies down, remains where once he's laid. (18)

The dawning morn with songs thou dost prevent,
Sets hundred notes unto thy feathered crew,
So each one tunes his pretty instrument,
And warbling out the old, begin anew,
And thus they pass their youth in summer season,
Then follow thee into a better region,
Where winter's never felt by that sweet airy legion. (28)

The Shelleyan note is inescapable in the first of these stanzas, the Keatsian in the second. Anne Bradstreet seems to share with these poets a consciousness of the rejuvenescence of life, of the chance to recover from the old to make always new beginnings, which comes with the cycle of the "Quaternal seasons," as she refers to them in an earlier stanza (6). Stanza 18 ends, however, on a pessimistic note about man's ability to participate in the seasonal cycle, and at this point we have a departure from the later Romantic poet's affirmation of seasonal death and rebirth. Anne Bradstreet was of another age, after all, and she is nowhere closer to that age than here, where she qualifies a strong personal impulse towards Romantic beliefs with the traditional Christian assertion of man's mortality:

By birth more noble than those creatures all,
Yet seems by nature and by custom cursed,
No sooner born, but grief and care makes fall
That state obliterate he had at first;
Nor youth, nor strength, nor wisdom spring again,
Nor habitations long their names retain,
But in oblivion to the final day remain. (19)

Theseus' famous speech in A Midsummer-Night's Dream about the imagination giving to airy nothing "a local habitation and a name" is echoed here, and its implications are that the poet has suffered not only a reversal of her commitment to the seasonal metaphor but of the very quality of her imagination. For although the poem goes on to affirm that "man was made for endless immortality" (20), the kind of immortality referred to and pursued is that of orthodox Christianity and not Romantic renewal on earth. Christianity's idea of resurrection after death is based, in part, upon the symbolism of the seasonal cycle, but its final goal is transcendence of all natural forms to eternal life beyond. A prose passage in Anne Bradstreet's "Meditations Divine and Moral" helps to make this point emphatic:

The spring is a lively emblem of the resurrection: after a long winter we see the leafless trees and dry stocks (at the approach of the sun) to resume their former vigor and beauty in a more ample manner than what they lost in the autumn; so shall it be at that great day after a long vacation, when the Sun of righteousness shall appear; those dry bones shall arise in far more glory than that which they lost at their creation, and in this transcends the spring that their leaf shall never fail nor their sap decline.

This is a graceful description of familiar Christian doctrine and represents, one imagines, what Anne Bradstreet would have claimed to be her final religious position on the questions of life, death, and immortality.

Does it also represent her deepest responses as a poet, one wonders? The question must be asked, and not just for "Contemplations" but for other of her poems as well. For if one closely reads "The Flesh and the Spirit," "Verses upon the Burning of Our House," the elegies on Sidney, Du Bartas, and Elizabeth, the poems to her husband, and "Contemplations," it soon becomes clear that the currents within the poetry itself seem too often to run counter to a position of religious orthodoxy. And if it is finally unfair to throw Anne Bradstreet fully into the camp of the Romantics, so too is it unfair to cast her completely as a traditionally believing "Puritan" poet.

Several critics have called attention to "the clash of feeling and dogma" in her poetry, to the struggle between "how she really feels instead of how she should feel," and that is precisely what we are faced with here. This struggle adds character and strength to her poetry, and one should not attempt to dismiss it, as is sometimes done, by seeing it as merely an incidental flaw in an otherwise clearly defined position of either staunch Puritanism or...

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Jane Donahue Eberwein (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: '"No Rhet'ric We Expect': Argumentation in Bradstreet's 'The Prologue'," in Early American Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring 1981, pp. 19–26.

[Here, Eberwein reevaluates Bradstreet's "Prologue," concluding that, rather than a confession of humility, it is a subtle assertion of the poet's skill and power.]

For an acknowledgment of a poet's simple capacities and modest literary goals, Anne Bradstreet's "The Prologue" elicits strangely varied responses—especially in regard to voice and tone. Is the poet humbly submissive or bitterly angry? Is she self-deprecating and self-denigrating, as some readers find, or a prefeminist champion of her sex? Both extremes...

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Helen Saltman (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: '"Contemplations': Anne Bradstreet's Spiritual Authobiography," in Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, G. K. Hall & Co., 1983, pp. 226–37.

[In the following essay, Saltman examines Bradstreet's "Contemplations" in the context of Puritan theology and Biblical inspiration.]

Anne Bradstreet's poem "Contemplations," is no ordinary Puritan spiritual autobiography in which the convert emphasizes his human weakness, particularly pride, in his struggle for faith. Rather, it is an account in which the poet dwells on the theological concepts (masked in metaphor and Biblical allusion) that support the Puritan doctrine of...

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Walter Hesford (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Creative Fall of Bradstreet and Dickinson," in Essays in Literature, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring 1987, pp. 81–91.

[Here, Hesford argues that Bradstreet finds her deepest inspiration in the autumn season and in intimations of mortality.]

Applying a Calvinistic misreading of a biblical lesson, Bradstreet explains why stability must elude us in this life:

All the comforts of this life may be compared to the gourd of Jonah, that notwithstanding we take great delight for a season in them and find their shadow very comfortable, yet there is some worm or other, of discontent, of fear, or grief that lies at the root, which in...

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Timothy Sweet (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Gender, Genre, and Subjectivity in Anne Bradstreet's Early Elegies," in Early American Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1988, pp. 152–74.

[In the following excerpt, Sweet considers the ways in which Bradstreet created a feminine poetic persona for herself in the context of the male poetic tradition.]

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Paula Kopacz (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: '"To Finish What's Begun': Anne Bradstreet's Last Words," in Early American Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1988, pp. 175–87.

[In the following essay, Kopacz discusses the endings of Bradstreet's poems.]

On a number of occasions Anne Bradstreet indicated concern about finishing her poems. In marking the hiatus after writing the first three sections of the long poem "The Four Monarchies," for example, she writes, "After some days of rest, my restless heart / To finish what's begun, new thoughts impart" (lines 1–2). Three-fourths of the way finished, she found herself "restless" to get on with the job. Forced to cut short her description of the fourth monarchy,...

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Patricia Caldwell (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Why Our First Poet Was a Woman: Bradstreet and the Birth of an American Poetic Voice," in Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, Vol. 13, 1988, pp. 1–35.

[In the following excerpt, Caldwell discusses Bradstreet's struggle with traditional male images symbolizing poetic creation, and concludes that Bradstreet became the founder of American poetry precisely because of her marginal position.]

It takes a worried man—or woman—to sing a worried song, and it is not surprising that Bradstreet's earliest poetry is more worried, in a more obviously "feminine" way, than anything she wrote later. Self-consciously erudite, duly apologetic, and above all,...

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Beth M. Doriani (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "'Then Have I … Said with David': Anne Bradstreet's Andover Manuscript Poems and the Influence of the Psalm Tradition," in Early American Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1989, pp. 52–69.

[In the following essay, Doriani discusses Bradstreet's use of the poetic conventions of the Biblical Psalms.]

"What we need to realize now," said Robert Daly in 1978 [in God's Altar: The World and the Flesh in Puritan Poetry], "is that … Puritan orthodoxy was conductive to the production of poetry, and that Bradstreet's poetry is illuminated by an understanding of the theology which structured the experiences her poetry expressed." Daly argued that Bradstreet remained...

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Rob Wilson (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: '"Enrapted Senses': Anne Bradstreet's 'Contemplations,' " in American Sublime: The Genealogy of a Poetic Genre, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, pp. 67–93.

[Here, Wilson argues that the sublime first emerges in American poetry in Bradstreet's verse.]

That there is a God my Reason would soon tell me
by the wondrous workes that I see, the vast frame
of the Heaven and the Earth, the order of all things,
night and day, summer and winter, spring and autumne

The consideration of these things would with amazement
certainly resolve me that there is an Eternal...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Skeick, William J., and JoElla Doggett. "Anne Bradstreet." In their Seventeenth-Century American Poetry: A Reference Guide, pp. 34–54. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1977.

Covers Bradstreet criticism from 1844 to 1975.


White, Elizabeth Wade. Anne Bradstreet: The Tenth Muse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971, 410 p.

Standard biography of Bradstreet.


Aldridge, A. Owen. "Anne Bradstreet: Some Thoughts on the Tenth Muse." In his Early...

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