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 woman in the Scottish ballad “The Demon Lover.” His Bradstreet also faces a demonic tempter, the male poet persona, another mask for Berryman himself. Such temptation, never acted upon but remaining wholly within the mind of the woman tempted, allows the poem to remain within the realm of historical possibility.
The structure of the poem is distinctive, though its stanza form resembles the eight-line configuration Yeats favored. The poet tempter’s voice blends with Bradstreet’s thoughts, and the tension is unremitting. Bradstreet mentally renounces family, faith, and life in Puritan Massachusetts; she desires to yield to her poet tempter, and realizes that in the very thought she has sinned. Even so, she does nothing overtly; to those who know her, she remains among the elect and is destined for salvation. That she lives for many years after the temptation, though she has privately succumbed, adds the burden of hypocrisy to guilt.
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet represents the poet’s final departure from the Poundian symbolism of his earlier verse. He sought in its movements from formal rhetoric to low idiom a means of personalization that would yet allow him to mask the individual he personified. The result allows his Bradstreet to function simultaneously as unfulfilled wife, unfulfilled poet, and vicarious lover who sins in thought though not in deed. She is, therefore, a more particularized creation than Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock; she is associated with the strictures of her Puritanism yet is also a reflection of the same moral scruples in which Berryman was raised.
Berryman’s Bradstreet is, like her creator,...
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