The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America

by Anne Dudley
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

The bulk of Bradstreet’s work is perhaps of most interest to the scholar. John Berryman’s long biographical ode “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” (1956), however, served to reawaken a general interest in her poetry, an interest that has been sustained by the poetry’s own merits. Sometimes unjustly called “imitative,” Bradstreet works...

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The bulk of Bradstreet’s work is perhaps of most interest to the scholar. John Berryman’s long biographical ode “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” (1956), however, served to reawaken a general interest in her poetry, an interest that has been sustained by the poetry’s own merits. Sometimes unjustly called “imitative,” Bradstreet works within carefully established traditions in which modern notions of originality have less meaning.

In her elegy “In Honor of Du Bartas,” an early poem in praise of the “pearl of France,” written in the rhymed iambic couplets she found in Joshua Sylvester’s translation, “the tenth muse” calls her own muse only a “child” but reverently brings her “daisy” to the religious poet’s hearse, using the same conventions that the English poet John Milton (1608-1674) did in “Lycidas” (1637). Although her funeral offering is humble, she hopes someday to do more; in other words, she intends to establish herself as a poet, a goal she would pursue with total dedication.

While Bradstreet is generally subservient to men (“Men do best, and women know it well”), recent feminist scholars have begun to show in her an independence that “subverts biblical patriarchy.” In her poem “In Honor of Queen Elizabeth,” to mention only one place, she takes issue bluntly with men in general, stating wittily: “Let such as say our sex is void of reason,/ Know ’tis slander now but once was treason.”

Her long poems written in Ipswich about 1642 on the four elements and the four humors reflect the poet’s wide reading. Bradstreet had before her the example of her respected father Thomas Dudley, who had composed a poem—no longer extant—on the four parts of the world, each represented by a sister. His approbation may have encouraged his daughter further; she composed two more quaternions, one on the ages of man and a second on the four seasons. All these poems are loosely linked to show “how divers natures, make one unity.” “The Four Monarchies,” the last of the quaternions, is unrelated to the others and is indebted to Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World.

It is a second group of poems, however, found mostly in Several Poems, about her life, her family, and her husband that attracts modern readers to Bradstreet. In “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” she refers to herself charmingly as her husband’s “friend” and worries that soon she might die and her children might fall into the hands of a “stepdame” (stepmother). The thought of parting from her husband plays a role in several of her “marriage poems.” “To My Dear and Loving Husband” expresses the notion that the couple should live such lives that they both will achieve eternal life: “Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere/ That when we live no more, we may live ever.” This concluding couplet (“persevere” rhymed with “ever” in the seventeenth century) provides the familiar paradox that only in dying does the Christian attain life everlasting. “A Letter to Her Husband Absent Upon Public Employment” states her desire that Simon should quickly return to her as the sun returns to the earth in summer. “Another (Letter to Her Husband)” again identifies her husband with the sun (Phoebus) and makes use of what the English metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) calls “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests.” This poem is entirely secular, however, a rarity for her, as is the following one in Several Poems, which is also called “Another (Letter to Her Husband).” It, too, relies on contemporary conventions, especially on puns, as when the poet calls herself “hartless,” meaning both that her heart left when her husband had to go away and that she is a “hind” (or doe) whose “hart” (or buck) has gone.

“In Reference to Her Children” identifies each child with a bird, her four boys (“four cocks”) and four girls (“four hens”). Children are the subjects of many of Bradstreet’s poems, such as one called “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth,” in which the poet points out that fruits and vegetables in time mature and die, but that a baby not yet two years old should die can only be evidence of a special Providence. The same theme of unquestioning faith appears in “Upon the Burning of Our House,” in which she identifies her house as “His.” It is, however, her realistic depiction of fire in the night, the destruction of her library and papers, and the wistful lingering over lost possessions that move the reader most.

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