Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In this poem, Anne Bradstreet explains many of her purposes in writing poetry, couching her explanation in terms that might seem palatable to a male audience. Consistently using understatement and appearing to deprecate both her own talents and those of women more generally, Bradstreet makes a pointed commentary on the biases that keep readers from taking women writers seriously and deter women from writing in the first place. By using the “needle” as a symbol of women’s proper place, contrasting it to the “pen,” she emphasizes the sharpness of her critique even as she associates with the domesticity of sewing.
Using words that indicate either her inferior status or man’s elevated one, Bradstreet effectively crafts a manifesto proclaiming the need for poetry to be radically reconceptualized. Criticizing or underselling herself, she mentions her “mean pen” (meaning poor or low-quality writing), “obscure lines” and “lowly lines,” and “unrefined ore” (or crude writing). In contrast, she seems to praise traditional topics, going back to ancient times, as “superior things,” as is men’s ability
To sing of Wars, of Captains, and of Kings,
Of Cities founded, Common-wealths begun . . .
On such topics, “Men can do best,” writing with their “high flown quills.” In general, she says, “Preeminence in all and each is yours”—that is, men’s.
So, where then can women fit? And on what basis can Bradstreet argue for women’s inclusion in poetry? Harking back to writers of ancient times (such as Homer and Virgil), she speaks of their muses or inspiration. Pointing out that Calliope, the muse of poetry, was female, she rhetorically asks why the Greeks saw her as the primary muse. She then argues that the men do not follow their own criteria—they “play the fool and lie”—as they do not praise womanly things.
Bradstreet caps this off with the succinct dismissal, “Let Greeks be Greeks, and Women what they are.” Extending the metaphor of war beyond the subject matter of poetry, she makes it the subject of this poem. Rather than men and women warring against each other, she argues for separate spheres. Stating that men “excel” at war, she suggests that they keep writing about that and leave the other topics to women.
It is but vain unjustly to wage war.
Men can do best, and Women know it well.
Preeminence in all and each is yours . . .
Finally, she associates female accomplishments with culinary herbs, thyme and parsley. She says these herbs could be used for women's wreaths of praise, leaving to men the “Bays,” another word for “laurels,” of which wreaths are traditional made. Here, as in the needle analogy, she uses female domesticity to emphasize women's worthiness of praise.