Anne Bradstreet came to America as a teenager, one of the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The daughter of Thomas Dudley, who was second in rank only to Governor John Winthrop, and the wife of Simon Bradstreet, secretary to the colony, she was highly placed in the new Puritan community. However, conditions near Boston were such that she did not feel privileged. In fact, in a retrospective letter she left her children shortly before she died, she stated that she was revolted by the sight of the New World. It fell far short of the life she had grown up enjoying in England. Yet she also told her children in the same letter that she submitted to the life to which God had called her.
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In many ways, Bradstreet was remarkably successful in trying circumstances. She was often sickly, worried early in her marriage because she seemed unable to have children, and lived in an unforgiving environment in which mortality rates, especially for women and children, were high. Nevertheless, she persevered and had eight children, all of whom lived to adulthood and all but one of whom outlived their mother. This was a considerable accomplishment for the time and place in which she lived. Besides family good fortune, she was also unusually successful in her poetic career. Few in the colonies of New England had time to compose poetry, especially women with eight children. In fact, few women at all wrote and published poetry in the seventeenth century. Yet Bradstreet so prevailed in her art that she is credited with the first published book of poetry from the New World: The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in New England: Or, Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight (1650).
Bradstreet’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in later life. While she had had success in childbearing, her daughter-in-law Mercy, wife of first son Samuel, lost four children in rapid succession and then died giving birth. In the midst of these losses, Bradstreet’s home burned to the ground. The elegies she wrote for her grandchildren and Mercy and the poem she wrote on the burning of her house represent the work of someone who, in a world that increasingly featured uncertainty and suffering, longed for a permanent afterlife.
Historical accounts of the fire establish that, on the night of July 10, 1666, a careless servant put hot ashes from a fireplace into a hogshead barrel over the porch. At about two o’clock in the morning, the wooden barrel caught fire, and the flames spread to the house, which, according to Elizabeth Wade White’s biography, was made of pine and oak and quickly burned to the ground. At the time of the fire, Mercy and her second baby, nine-month-old Anne (her first baby Elizabeth had died a year before), were living in the house with Anne and her family. Although no lives were lost, everything else was, including a priceless collection of eight hundred books.
Bradstreet’s poem tells the same story as the historical account but with God as the major player, not the careless servant, and with frequent references to the Bible as a guide to understanding the event. Bradstreet’s being awakened suddenly in the night by an unexpected disaster is suggestive of the admonition that the Lord will come like a thief in the night. After she sees her home engulfed in flames, her heart calls on God for strength. When she can no longer watch, in an echo of Job 1:23, she blesses his name that gives and takes. She argues that, because all in the house belongs to God, it is only just that he take it. At this point, it would seem that the poem could end: A disaster followed by a Scriptural consolation would seem sufficient.
Instead, Bradstreet shows that acceptance is not easy. She finds herself recalling material things that she has lost as well as realizing that guests and the hospitable light and warmth of the home are lost as well. Again, she calls on scripture, recalling Ecclesiastes 1:2 that all is vanity in this world. After an argument, in which she chastises herself for investing hopes in mutable objects, she reaffirms that the Almighty Architect has built and furnished a permanent home for her in heaven, an allusion to John 14:2. She also alludes to Luke 12:34: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Chastising herself for investing in material objects and recalling the price paid for her salvation by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, she more decidedly accepts what has happened and looks to the hereafter. Ultimately, the fire prefigures Judgment Day, when Bradstreet knows that she will stand before God with all worldly possessions—the chaff of life—burned away, only a naked soul.
Much of the critical debate about Bradstreet centers on her allegiance to Puritanism. Did her faith and her personal response to life conflict? If so, did such a conflict indicate that she rebelled against her faith and God? Or was she being a typical Puritan, expressing her doubts as Puritans were encouraged to do in order ultimately—and designedly—to exemplify faith at work in everyday life? Ann Stanford and Adrienne Rich take the first position, arguing that Bradstreet’s impulse to write did not derive from Puritan dogma but from personal intention. On the other hand, Jeffrey Hammond maintains that modern readers often mistakenly see Bradstreet as a conflicted individualist because of modern conceptions of authorship and that such a reading isolates her from the context in which she wrote. That she expresses doubt in her poems, Hammond asserts, does not make her an anomaly in her times but rather quite typical.
Puritan writers are acutely aware of a conflict that typifies all human life after the Garden of Eden. The flesh and the spirit, as White argues, are often at war, and it is necessary finally to detach from those things to which one is most attached in this world. Certainly, Bradstreet was attached to her home of twenty years, where she had raised eight children, watched her first grandchild die, and was now helping to raise her second grandchild. To detach from these deeply felt associations was, as the poem makes clear, very difficult.
In this poem, as in so many of the later poems, as disasters struck, Bradstreet had to struggle to accept harsh realities. Only the hope of a heavenly permanent home and trust in God made it possible to accept God’s will and withdraw from her most beloved worldly associations. In selecting such difficult moments about which to write, she intends to teach her readers the redemptive possibilities of suffering. The ultimate goal of a Puritan was to live a redeemed life, and the ultimate goal of a Puritan writer extended beyond personal expression to confirm the faithfulness of God. Jeannine Hensley believes that Bradstreet had the same intention in her poems as she outlined to her children in her letter to them: “I have not studied in this you read to show my skill, but to declare the truth, not to set forth myself, but the glory of God.”
Sources for Further Study
Baym, Nina, ed. Literature to 1820. Vol. A in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Contains an annotated version of the poem, an introduction to Bradstreet, a bibliography, and an introduction to Puritan literature.
Gordon, Charlotte. Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Interesting and easily readable biography, but not always well-documented or accurate. Wrongly identifies a dropped candle as the cause of the fire.
Hammond, Jeffrey. Sinful Self, Saintly Self: The Puritan Experience of Poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993. Corrects the misconception that Bradstreet was rebellious and at odds with Puritanism. She was typical of Puritans in honestly examining her conscience and sharing her doubts to confirm her faith.
Mehler, Carol R. “Anne Bradstreet’s House Fire: The Careless Maid and Careful God.” In Vol. 5 in Studies in Puritan American Spirituality, edited by Michael Schuldiner. New York: Mellen, 1995. Uses historical documents to establish the cause of the fire and identifies biblical allusions.
Stanford, Ann. Anne Bradstreet, the Worldly Puritan: An Introduction to Her Poetry. New York: Burt Franklin, 1974. Argues that Bradstreet was atypical of Puritans in her willingness to give play to her feelings rather than simply submitting to Puritan doctrine.
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