Poems by Anne Dudley Bradstreet
Reprinted in Early American Writing
Published in 1994
Edited by Giles Gunn
"We both are ignorant, yet love bids me/These farewell lines to recommend thee,/That when that knot's untied that made us one, I may seem thine, who in effect am none."
Throughout the colonial period, settlers in North America maintained close ties with their European homelands. The main connection was trade. All of the American colonies sent products such as fish, furs, lumber (wood used for buildings), tobacco (a leafy plant processed for smoking), rice, indigo (a blue dye), and livestock (animals raised for meat) to Europe. In exchange they received European-made weapons, ammunition, household items, and other necessities they could not produce themselves. The colonists also depended on Europe for news about recent world events.
Another strong link was culture. As the American colonies became more established, educated citizens increasingly relied on European books, pamphlets, and other publications. This was the only way they could stay in touch with scientific advances, political ideas, religious thought, literature, and drama. Soon colonists were thinking of themselves as members of a vast community or "Republic of Letters" that extended across the Atlantic to embrace both Europeans and Americans. Wealthy colonial leaders, merchants, and plantation owners traveled to Europe for their education, studying at prestigious institutions. They took extensive tours, mingling with the most influential social circles to gain firsthand exposure to current achievements, manners, tastes, and learning.
In the 1600s and 1700s colonists began making contributions of their own, producing the early forms of American literature that are read today. Settlers issued books and pamphlets promoting settlement in North America, and leaders chronicled the histories of their colonies. Many colonists kept personal diaries or wrote their autobiographies. Religious reformers published essays on social issues and spiritual struggles. Colonists who had been kidnapped by Native Americans wrote captivity narratives, which became immensely popular. Prior to the late 1600s, works written by Americans were printed in England. The first American printing press was founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1638 for the publication of official documents and religious materials. Publishing books for literary purposes did not take place until much later. (In fact, many works from the colonial period did not appear in print until the nineteenth century.)
Nevertheless, a literary community was emerging, particularly in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Puritan New England. (Puritans were members of a Protestant Christian group that observed strict moral and religious codes. They first settled in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, then dominated New England until the 1690s.) The Puritans were a well-educated society, as all church members had to learn to read at an early age so they could understand the Bible (the Christian holy book). Since Puritan leaders disapproved of any activities that did not lead to spiritual improvement, the only permissible reading materials were the Bible, sermons (ministers' lectures), and history books. Novels, plays, and many types of poetry were banned. Eventually Puritans encouraged both the writing and reading of captivity narratives, which they regarded as the ideal expression of the struggle between good and evil. (See The Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.) Early on Puritans urged church members to write spiritual autobiographies (accounts of personal struggles with good and evil based on passages from the Bible), which could be read by fellow Puritans or used as sermons by ministers. (See John Winthrop's Christian Experience.) The Puritans would have been surprised to learn that these spiritual autobiographies as well as captivity narratives eventually led their descendants to write novels in the nineteenth century.
During the colonial period Puritans also approved of poetry that communicated a spiritual message. Many religious leaders explained the Scriptures (passages from the Bible) or depicted their struggle between good and evil in poetry form. Several Puritans gained prominence as religious poets in both America and Europe. Among them was Michael Wigglesworth (1631–1705), a Massachusetts pastor who wrote The Day of Doom (1662), a book-length poem that is considered the first American best seller. His work was quite popular at the time, and his name was a household word. Edward Taylor (c. 1645–1729), another Massachusetts minister, is now regarded as an important Puritan poet, but his work was not discovered until the twentieth century. The honor of being the first published American poet, however, is reserved for a woman—Anne Dudley Bradstreet (1612–1672), a frontier Massachusetts housewife.
Bradstreet was born in Northampton, England. She was the second of six children of Thomas Dudley (1576–1653) and Dorothy Dudley. Her father was a clerk and a member of the gentry (upper or ruling class). In 1619, when he became steward (manager of a large estate) to Theophilus Clinton, Earl of Lincoln, he moved his family to the earl's estate in Sempringham. (An earl is an English nobleman, or member of the ruling class.) At the time the estate was a center of Puritan learning and activism (efforts to promote reform). Leading Puritan ministers often preached in the earl's chapel, and many of the Puritan gentry and nobility met there to have discussions.
As a child Anne received an excellent education. She had private tutors, and she read many books from the earl's extensivelibrary. The ambitious young pupil studied theology (theory of religion), philosophy, and literature, and she learned to appreciate music and art. At nine years of age, she met her future husband, eighteen-year-old Simon Bradstreet (1603–1697), who was the son of a Puritan minister and a graduate of Cambridge University. He came to Sempringham to be an assistant to Thomas Dudley. The couple was married in 1628, when Anne was only sixteen and after she had recovered from smallpox (a potentially fatal virus disease that causes skin sores and scars). Historians speculate that their marriage was arranged, but Anne's poems suggest that she and Simon had a close and happy relationship during their forty-four years together.
The newlyweds moved to the estate of the dowager (a widow holding property or a title from her deceased husband) countess of Warwick, where Simon was appointed steward. Soon, however, political conditions turned against Puritans. King Charles I (1600–1649) favored William Laud (1573–1645), a bishop in the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church, the official national religion), who used his influence to exclude Puritans from holding political office. As part of his effort to limit the role of Puritans in government, Charles I suspended Parliament (the supreme legislative body) in 1629. All Puritans in England, including the Bradstreets and Dudleys, realized they were losing influence in the country.
Puritan leaders therefore decided to promote religious reforms in England by establishing a Puritan settlement in America. In 1630 the Bradstreets and Dudleys joined other Puritans, including lawyer John Winthrop (1588–1649) and preacher John Cotton (1585–1652), and set out aboard the flagship Arbella, which led ten other vessels on the voyage to North America. Having begun their journey in April, they arrived at Salem, Massachusetts, harbor in June. Bradstreet was surprised by the harsh climate and rough surroundings in North America—a stark contrast with the privileged life she had known in England. After the families settled in Newtowne (now Cambridge), Massachusetts, Bradstreet joined the church in Boston. Since her husband and father held high positions in the Massachusetts Bay Company, the investment company of the colony, she led a relatively comfortable life. She apparently found time to write because the earliest of her surviving poems, "Upon a Fit of Sickness," dates from 1632. Composed while Bradstreet was ill and hovering near death, this poem reflects the somber reality of her new life.
The Bradstreet family moved several times over the next two decades. During this period Bradstreet devoted herself to domestic life and gave birth to eight children. She had her first child, Simon, in 1633. Later she wrote in a poem titled "In Reference to Her Children"(1678): "I had eight birds hatched in one nest/Four Cocks [boys] there were, and Hens [girls] the rest." In 1635 the Bradstreets moved from Newtowne to Ipswich, Massachusetts. Despite her domestic responsibilities and the hardships of frontier life, Bradstreet began to write poetry in earnest. In 1645 the Bradstreets moved to North Andover, Massachusetts. Finally settled, Bradstreet lived there for the rest of her life.
Even though it was unusual for women to pursue creative or intellectual pursuits at the time, Bradstreet's family took great pride in her work. They encouraged her to continue writing, and in 1647 her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, carried a manuscript of thirteen poems to England. The book was published in 1650 without Bradstreet's knowledge. Titled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, it was the first collection of poetry written in America. Although The Tenth Muse is an important contribution to American literature, there is little mention of the New World (European term for North America and South America) in the work. In fact, the numerous classical allusions (references to great literature from previous eras) in the poetry are a reminder of the days when Bradstreet studied in the comfort of the earl's library in England. The Tenth Muse is not considered to be her best work, as she did not find her true poetic voice until later in life. Bradstreet continued to write both poetry and prose, but nothing else was published during her lifetime. Her last known poem was "As Weary Pilgrim," which she wrote in 1669 (it was published in 1876). Bradstreet died in North Andover in 1672.
Things to Remember While Reading Poems by Anne Bradstreet:
- The Tenth Muse was concerned primarily with history and politics, but Bradstreet's later poems are about everyday life in New England. The private poems reveal that she had difficulty submitting to the strict beliefs of Puritanism. The Puritans believed every moment spent on Earth was merely a preparation for life in Heaven after death. They preferred the wilderness because they believed that the more they suffered in their Earthly life, the higher the reward would be in the afterlife. Some of Bradstreet's poetry suggests that she was unhappy in the New World, and she missed the luxury of her previous existence in England.
- Bradstreet frequently depicted hardships such as the fear of death in childbirth, which she described in "Before the Birth of One of Her Children." Written for her unborn child, to whom she expressed her love in case she did not live through the birth or died shortly after the child was born. Published in 1678, "Before the Birth of One of Her Children" was written sometime between 1640 and 1652.
- A favorite of modern readers is "The Author to Her Book," which Bradstreet possibly wrote in 1650. In this poem she expressed dismay and embarrassment over the shortcomings of The Tenth Muse, which she compared to a disobedient child whom she had to abandon ("And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,/Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door"). Yet the publication of The Tenth Muse inspired her to continue writing poetry.
- Bradstreet composed several poems about her relationship with her husband, who was often away from home on business. One of the best known is "To My Dear and Loving Husband," which she wrote sometime between 1641 and 1643. It was published in 1678. The Bradstreets had a strong marriage, and in this poem she described their love as being richer than any material wealth and enduring long after death: "That we may live no more, we may live forever."
- "Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House" was written by Bradstreet when the family home burned on July 10, 1666. Copied from a loose piece of paper by her son Simon, it was published in 1867. Like many of Bradstreet's poems, this one expressed her reliance on spiritual values instead of material possessions. She said the fire was the will of God, which she must accept: "My hope and treasure lies above."
"Before the Birth of One of Her Children"
All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death's parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable. How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon't [it] may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend thee,
That when that knot's untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my days that's due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
The many faults that well you know I have
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel'st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or love'st me,
These O protect from step-dame's injury.
And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent hearse:
And kiss this paper for thy love's dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.
"The Author to Her Book"
Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true
Who thee abroad, expos'd to publick view,
Made thee in raggs, halting to the' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge)
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:
I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joynts to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobling then is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i'th' [in the] house I find In this array, 'mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam
In Critick's hands, beware thou dost not come;
And take thy way where yet thou art not known,
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none:
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door.
"To My Dear and Loving Husband" (1678)
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more then whole Mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
"Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House" (July 10th, 1666)
Copied Out of a Loose Paper
In silent night when rest I took
For sorrow near I did not look
I wakened was with thund'ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of "Fire!" and "Fire!"
Let no man know is my desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To strengthen me in my distress
And not to leave me succorless.
Then, coming out, beheld a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took [God],
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was His own, it was not mine,
Far be it that I should repine;
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast,
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sat and long did lie:
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie,
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy table eat a bit.
No pleasant tale shall e'er be told,
Nor things recounted done of old.
No candle e'er shall shine in thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice e'er heard shall be.
In silence ever shall thou lie,
Adieu, Adieu, all's vanity.
Then straight I 'gin my heart to chide,
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mold'ring dust?
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast an house on high erect,
Framed by that mighty Architect, [God]
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent though this be fled.
It's purchased and paid for too By Him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown
Yet by His gift is made thine own;
There's wealth enough, I need no more,
Farewell, my pelf, farewell my store.
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.
What happened next . . .
John Foster, who set up the first printing press in Boston, Massachusetts, released Several Poems in 1678, six years after Bradstreet's death. It was the first American edition of her poetry. In 1867 John Harvard Ellis published The Works of Anne Bradstreet in Poetry and Prose.
Did you know . . .
- Ruth Belknap (dates unknown) was another American colonial poet. Like Bradstreet, Belknap was a member of a privileged family. Being the wife of a minister in Dover, New Hampshire, kept Belknap from poverty. However, like Bradstreet, she still had a difficult life. In her poem "The Pleasures of a Country Life" (see box) she described in detail all the chores she had to accomplish as a typical housewife. In the same poem, Belknap went on to describe the difference between people who lived in the country and those who lived in town. She portrayed the latter as lazy and much less industrious than colonists who were forced to labor on the farm.
For more information
Dunham, Montrew. Anne Bradstreet; Young Puritan Poet. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.
Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1991, pp. 115–19.
Gunn, Giles. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 178–92.
James, Edward T. and others, eds. Notable American Women, 1607–1950, Volume I. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 222–23.
White, Elizabeth Wade. Anne Bradstreet, "The Tenth Muse." New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.