It was irrelevant to Berryman whether on not the historical figure represented in his Homage to Mistress Bradstreet ever actually experienced the discontent described in the poem. The Bradstreet it describes is a montage of frustrations, temptations, and feelings of guilt, very much like those of the poet who created hen. Though Berryman had written the poem’s first stanza and several lines of the second in March, 1948, he set them aside for nearly five years until the tone of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953) gave him inspiration for the idiom he sought. Using notes he had made on the historical Bradstreet during this hiatus, Berryman wrote fifty new stanzas during the first two months of 1953, completing the entire poem on March 22 of that year. He was fond of saying that he finished the poem five years to the day after he had started it.
Berryman had been fascinated with Bradstreet as early as 1937. He read her poems and letters to her husband, and examined as much historical detail as he could find about daily life in Puritan Massachusetts. Bradstreet’s mediocrity as a poet, coupled with the severe moral code of the society in which she lived, predisposed him to see an affinity with his own circumstances. To a degree, then, she is a mask for Berryman, whose guilt for his marital infidelity was strong following the affair he described in his sonnets; however, Bradstreet is also “Lise” herself and at least one other lover. By 1953, these distinctions had become relatively unimportant: Bradstreet had become every person who doubts or feels guilt, frustration, and estrangement.
Berryman considered both himself and Bradstreet to be poets in societies hostile to their art. He portrays her as rejecting both her husband and father and the Puritan deity that sanctions their view of life. Even so, Berryman knew that this was taking great liberties with the historical evidence available. The historical Bradstreet’s letters portray her as a model of devotion to her husband; members of her family encouraged her writing of poetry and (without her knowledge) saw to the first publication of her poems. This is likely the reason Berryman chose to have his heroine’s dilemma resemble that of the...
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Anne Dudley was born in 1612, presumably in Northampton, England, of a well-read and intelligent Nonconformist father. In 1628, at the age of sixteen, she married twenty-five-year-old Simon Bradstreet, a graduate of Cambridge University. They sailed to America on the Arabella in 1631. Anne herself was a Puritan of profound religious conviction, but she was intelligent and well educated, and with her natural inclinations strengthened by her surroundings in the New World she became capable of strong-willed behavior, even to the point of rebellion. She could not unquestioningly accept the tenets of American Calvinism and energetically stood up to the demands of her father and her husband, both of whom became governors of Massachusetts Colony. At the same time, she became the mother of eight children, overcame illnesses, was a loving daughter and wife, and wrote enough poetry to fill a thick volume. She died in 1672.
In Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, John Berryman’s response to Anne Bradstreet is one of total approbation. He warms to her with a fervor that at times approaches adulation. The poem covers her whole life, yet the work is not a biography; rather, it provides an account only of the external aspects of her life. More important, the poem is an attempt to give a spiritual biography of the woman and of colonial Massachusetts. Berryman’s success in this attempt is notable because of the power of his language and style.
Berryman catches the essence of his subject’s conflicting characteristics, the power of her personality, in the first stanza. She is restless but patient. She is a loving mother but also a scholar of both literature and the Lord. As the stanzas develop, so does her character. She realizes that in the alien New World she and her husband must love each other. They must recognize worldly love and its importance because time is transitory. The years rot away.
In the fourth stanza, the poem’s art and power become apparent. The first three and a half stanzas are spoken by the poet about his subject, and then the poet’s voice blends with that of Mistress Bradstreet, who continues the poem with only occasional interruptions by the poet and occasional dialogues between her and someone else. This stylistic technique, which pushes back the limitations of poetry—a technique begun by the great innovator Ezra Pound and carried on by...
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