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.
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.
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.
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.