Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor are the two foremost Colonial American poets. They form a classic study in contrasts: She was emotional, he cerebral; she secular, he spiritual; she feminine, he masculine; she stylistically straightforward, he complex; she generically varied, he generically limited; she well known by her contemporaries, he little known until the twentieth century. These are only generalizations; however, they suggest a special problem that Bradstreet criticism has overcome: the inability to divorce her work from biographical, historical, and personal elements.
One of Bradstreet’s distinctive poetic strengths is her generic variety. She wrote epics (“The Four Monarchies” and the “Quaternions”), dialogues (“A Dialogue Between Old England and New,” among others), love lyrics, public elegies (on Sir Philip Sidney, Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, and her parents, for example), private elegies (on her grandchildren and daughter-in-law), a long meditative poem (“Contemplations”), and religious verse. Few other Puritan poets successfully tackled so many genres.
Although Bradstreet’s contemporaries admired her early imitative poetry (“The Four Monarchies,” the “Quaternions,” and the elegies on Sidney, Du Bartas, and Queen Elizabeth I), her later personal poetry is what endures (and endears). Poems included in Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America fall within an essentially Renaissance tradition, while those in Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight initiate a distinctive tradition of American literature. Bradstreet’s love poems to her husband are admired for their wit, intricate construction, emotional force, and frank admission of the physical side of marriage: As she says in “To my Dear and Loving Husband,” “If ever two were one, then surely we./ If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.” Bradstreet’s personal elegies on her grandchildren skillfully dramatize the Puritans’ unremitting battle between worldliness (grieving for the dead) and unworldliness (rejoicing in their salvation). However, her masterpiece is probably her long meditative poem “Contemplations,” praised for its maturity, complexity, and lyricism. Her love poems, personal elegies, and “Contemplations” reveal the human side of Puritanism from a woman’s vantage point.