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.
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...
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