Anne Bradstreet: Reluctant Revolutionary,
America's First Poet
by Annabelle Moseley
n the title page of the first collection of poetry written in America, its author, Anne Bradstreet, was hailed as "the tenth muse lately sprung up in America." This image conjures a young goddess sprouting, flaxen-haired, from colonial fields among the forests of New England; fully formed, inspired and inspiring. It calls to mind the way Athena leapt to life from her father's head, or as Aphrodite found birth, her adult shape emerging from the sea-foam off the coast of Crete. In that same collection of poems now known as The Tenth Muse, Bradstreet wrote of the ancient kings of Greece and Rome, making the image of her as the unaccounted tenth daughter of Mnemosyne and Zeus all the more fitting.
Indeed, there is great poetic appeal to the phrase "tenth muse" attached to Bradstreet by her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, who was responsible for bringing her poems to publication. Couple the glamour of this moniker with the weight of her best poems and the sheer achievement of this pilgrim woman who became "if not the mother, at least the grandmother of American literature" (Campbell 2) and one can imagine Anne Bradstreet ought to be crowned with the laurel leaves of the great Greek poets of old. Instead, with her trademark humility, Anne herself calls for a far more modest crown. "Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bayes," she writes (Showalter 8), referencing another name for a crown of laurel leaves. It is interesting to note that thyme and parsley are common cooking herbs, part of a woman's traditional domain; in sharp contrast to the laurel leaves that so many male poets and athletes have enjoyed, both literally and metaphorically, since antiquity. However, Bradstreet has also punned a bit, as "bayes" brings to mind another common kitchen herb, the bay leaf. While choosing the common kitchen herbs over the crown of laurel, she has with the word "bayes," blended the two domains: male and female, poet and cook.
What is behind this eloquent modesty? Would the grandmother of American literature, the "direct ancestress of distinguished men of letters such as Oliver Wendell Holmes" (Campbell 2) and author of renown truly prefer a circlet of kitchen herbs to a crown of laurel? This is, after all, the author who penned in the Prologue to her first published book, "To sing of wars, of captains, and of kings,/ Of cities founded, commonwealths begun,/ For my mean pen are too superior things" (Bradstreet 15). In that same stanza she continues, "Let poets and historians set these forth,/ My obscure lines shall not so dim their worth" ( Bradstreet 15).
The second stanza of the Prologue is also riddled with self-deprecating words such as "...my wond'ring eyes and envious heart" and "...simple I according to my skill" (Bradstreet 15). It can become a fun exercise to read alone or with a class, trying to spot and tally all the insults with which she so eloquently attacks herself. The third stanza has the deriding jewel: "My foolish, broken, blemished Muse so sings... 'Cause nature made it so irreparable" (Bradstreet 16). The fourth stanza holds the zinger: "A weak or wounded brain admits no cure" ( Bradstreet 16).
Did Bradstreet "know her place" as a woman? Was she a paragon of Puritan female modesty, fully a product of her times? Or was there, perhaps, something more at work besides mere humility?
Charlotte Gordon, the author of a laudable recent biography of Bradstreet, wonders, "Was she as ambitious as I think she was" (Gordon xiii)? An interesting turn, offering as much punch as a well-written sonnet's volta, comes in the fifth stanza of that same prologue. Anne Bradstreet begins with the bold lines: "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/ Who says my hand a needle better fits" (Bradstreet 16). The entire Prologue is one of great wit and veiled sarcasm. Just as the first four stanzas delivered one put-down after the next, (each written cleverly, therefore giving evidence of the woman's innate intelligence) the last four stanzas argue against the stereotypes against women she has constructed for her opening.
Once she has relaxed the censure of the critical reader, she cites the Greeks to strengthen her delicately-balanced argument that a woman can write poetry, too. The Greeks, those poetic forefathers, thought well enough of women to make them the nine sources of inspiration, the muses. She makes a good point; why couldn't a female create poetry if it is the female energy that inspires it? But her timing is as good as the best comedian who can disguise truth in a scathing one-liner and then reassure the audience with a more self-deprecating approach. She immediately follows "And poesy made Calliope's own child/ So 'mongst the rest they placed the arts divine" with "But this weak knot they will full soon untie,/ The Greeks did nought, but play the fool and lie" (Bradstreet 17). In Bradstreet's age where Greek poetry was so extolled, citing the Greeks as giving women an important role in poetry was genius. But then she gestures as though to punch a hole in her own argument, affirming that women could never equal men. She writes, "let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are/ Men have precedency and still excel" (Bradstreet 17).
Now that Bradstreet has lulled the male reader, the would-be protestor, into a sense of security, she adds, addressing men directly, "Preeminence in all and each is yours;/ Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours" (Bradstreet 17). Bradstreet's argument about the Greeks was a good one, and its ring of truth is still hanging over the poem's stanzas even as she refutes it. She has done a brilliant thing; she has offered an argument for women poets, though disguised it with such humility that it could be tolerated. After all, Bradstreet was living in tenuous times for women. As she herself admits, "If what I do prove well, it won't advance. They'll say it's stolen, or else it was by chance" (Bradstreet 15).
Her humility as an outgrowth of devotion to her faith seems to have been genuine and inherent in her from childhood. She recorded in her diary, "In my young years, about 6 or 7 as I take it, I began to make conscience of my wayes and what I knew was sinful… I could not be at rest until by prayer I had confest it unto God" (Campbell 6-7). But although a good part of this humility was intrinsic to her, as it seems a running theme throughout her writings and accounts of her life, Anne Bradstreet was also an intellect shrewd enough to ascertain that a Puritan woman in the 1600's would not achieve very much without a display of lowliness.
After all, her first book, The Tenth Muse, was published on her behalf but supposedly without knowledge in England by her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, who also wrote an introductory "epistle," to the book, along with Nathaniel Ward, John Rogers, and other men who composed "introductory verses." These men, who believed in the value of Bradstreet's work, wrote as endorsements, not just in the way authors write blurbs for other authors today, but because something groundbreaking was occurring: Anne Bradstreet was about to be published, and, though they could not know this, become the first female bestseller. Men had to sanction this success. "…No fewer than eleven men wrote testimonials and poems praising her piety and industry, prefatory materials almost as long as the thirteen poems in the book" (Showalter 3). Woodbridge paves the way for men not to be intimidated or irritated by the poems. In his words, "..any ingenious reader will too much commend the author, unless men turn more peevish than women, to envy the excellency of the inferior sex" (Bradstreet 1). Woodbridge insists Bradstreet had no knowledge of his taking the poems off to be published. This prevents her from seeming ambitious, a traditionally masculine quality. Finally, he assures that she did not neglect her housewifely duties in the writing of her work. "…These poems are but the fruit of a few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments" (Bradstreet 2).
Anne Bradstreet uses her modesty as a literary device as deftly as any poet might employ assonance or hyperbole. Although she claims to be unable to write of wars, captains and kings, those are the subjects of much of her first book: the pre-Christian empires of Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome in a long poem of heroic couplets, "The Four Monarchies." "These were not the standard subjects of women's verse," and in her prologue, "Bradstreet protected herself from criticism by insisting that she was a modest woman who had no intention of competing with male epic poets" (Showalter 7).
Anne Bradstreet, this trailblazer of women in poetry, was a woman of contradictions: a pilgrim and a poet. The pilgrim crossed the Atlantic, leaving her well-born English roots behind. The poet found her voice between pregnancies and bouts of sickness in her housewifely existence in colonial Massachusetts. Both archetypes, inherently, are travelers: the first of the body, the latter of the spirit. Both the pilgrim and the poet are moved by something bigger than herself- God, poetry, or, in some cases, one and the same. Thus when this muse "sprung" up in America, it was not with the spontaneity of a daughter of Zeus. Rather, her genius bloomed over a lifetime.
Anne Dudley was born in 1612 in Northampton, England, to Thomas and Dorothy Dudley. "Her father was a clerk and a member of the gentry. In 1619, when he became steward to Theophilus Clinton, Earl of London, he moved his family to the earl's estate in Sempringham" (Saari 243). Anne, therefore, enjoyed a privileged upbringing of relative ease and comfort. "The ambitious young pupil studied theology, philosophy, and literature, and she learned to appreciate music and art" (Saari 244). She had access to the earl's huge library, and based on the fine intellect reflected in her work, it can be presumed she took advantage of it regularly.
When Anne was nine, she met her future husband, Simon Bradstreet, eighteen years of age and come to Sempringham to be Thomas Dudley's assistant. (Saari 244). These two men, Thomas Dudley and Simon Bradstreet, Anne's father and future husband, would be the two people who would most inspire her to write; her father because he had encouraged her education and she wanted to make him proud; Simon because he supported her and made her feel loved and cherished. Simon was very handsome, and as she grew up, Anne fell in love with him, eventually experiencing lust. "But as I grew up to be about fourteen or fifteen I found my heart more carnal and sitting loose from God, vanity and the follys of youth take hold of me" (Campbell 15). As Anne writes of feeling "vanity" it can be presumed she was considered a good-looking woman, a proper match for the dashing Simon. Since there are no documented portraits of Anne, we must rely on such presumptions.
When she suffered with smallpox the next year, she thought it was sent by God to teach her to amend her vanity and lust. "...The Lord laid his hand on me and smote me with the small-pox. When I was in my affliction, I besought the Lord and confessed..." (Campbell 15). Nevertheless, Anne married the man she so desired. "The couple was married in 1628, when Anne was only sixteen and after she had recovered from smallpox. Historians speculate that their marriage was arranged…" (Saari 244). This is a reasonable speculation, but in any case, their marriage was loving and joyful, as Anne's poems tenderly detail. She was one of very few women in her time to get to know her future husband at length, and to fall in love with him, prior to their wedding.
The couple began their life together on the "estate of the dowager countess of Warwick, where Simon was appointed steward" (Saari 244). It makes Anne's colonial experience all the more profound when one realizes her genteel beginnings, the wealth and comfort and beauty that surrounded her youth and early marriage. Surely, she must have missed some of these early luxuries in later years.
The transition came in 1630, when, due to a loss of Puritan influence in the government, including Parliament, "the Bradstreets and Dudleys joined other Puritans, including lawyer John Winthrop and preacher John Cotton, and set out aboard the flagship Arbella…" (Saari 244). Both Anne's father and husband would serve as governors in the colonies.
Though she would be from a family of privilege, in the New World, challenges awaited her. It took some time for her to first become pregnant, and as pregnancy and successful childbirth indicated a woman's favor with God and validated her place in the Puritan community as a blessing to her husband, Bradstreet was eager to be with child. Her husband was frequently away on business, which grieved her. Still without child, she took ill with consumption. After being afraid that she would die, and after many prayers for God to help her, she recovered. To thank and praise God for his intervention on her behalf, and also as a gift to all her family members who has helped tend her, she wrote her first poem, "On a Fit of Sickness" (Gordon 127). She continued writing, and "just after she had written her first serious poem, the elegy to Sidney, her new baby had arrived without blemishes. This had to mean that her work was not tainted by sin; she was pure of heart" (Gordon 196-197). She had written of "her devotion to the Lord in a poem. Now her womb was filled with life. Clearly, poetry writing had ushered in a baby" (Gordon 130). Anne went on to have eight healthy children, four of each gender. In her poem entitled, "In Reference to Her Children," she writes, "I had eight birds hatched in one nest/ Four Cocks there were, and Hens the rest." The community Anne lived among "saw each of her healthy babies as a testimony to her godliness, despite what might otherwise be seen as increasingly maverick behavior," (Gordon 197) namely, her writing.
Anne was indeed fortunate not to have died in childbirth, as many women of her time did, and to have recovered from more than one serious illness. She was also fortunate not to lose any infants or young children. She was therefore seen by her community as blessed by God, and therefore, though she was female, no one questioned her writing.
It was Anne's everyday life in the New World that would eventually inspire her most stunning poems. Her sorrows would include frequent sickness, the deaths of several grandchildren and a daughter-in-law, the death of her father, and, famously, the burning of her house. She would find her strongest voice drawing from the people and places that were part of her early American experience. However, much of her earlier writing is of other subjects, all of which show her vast knowledge. Her first collection contained a theme of fours. She wrote poems for the four elements, the four humours (ex. Blood, phlegm) the four ages of man, the four seasons, and the four monarchs. She also wrote a clever "Dialogue Between Old England and New." Though she tried different forms, she wrote most often in couplets.
Anne was well aware of other brilliant women who ended up as outcasts, and did not wish to suffer that same fate. Her friend Anne Hutchinson had been vilified as a dangerous upstart. Hutchinson was well educated, held prayer meetings in her own house and spoke of alternative religious beliefs rather than attending church. As more and more women and eventually men began to follow her, she was branded a threat to the well-being of the colony. "...the Hutchinson dilemma had directed everyone's attention more pointedly than ever to the question of the proper role of women in society and what should be done to those who had stepped out of bounds" (Gordon 177). Eventually, Anne Hutchinson was banished from the colony, gave birth to a baby in the wild, born with defects, and was therefore seen as punished by God, having birthed an abomination. "Some people even whispered that Hutchinson's child was not human but a demon fathered by Satan" (Gordon 196). She was eventually killed in an Indian attack. This was a horrifying example to Anne Bradstreet of what could happen to a woman who didn't know her place.
Worse still, Anne's younger sister Sarah took "tentative steps down Hutchinson's dangerous path," ascribing some of Hutchinson's philosophy and behaving wantonly and independently. Her first husband eventually left and divorced her, claiming she gave him a venereal disease. Thomas Dudley paid a second man of lower class to marry Sarah; he too, left her. Sarah's actions put a stain on her family by association (Gordon 231-233).
When Anne's brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, the husband of her sister Mercy, left for England on business, he took Anne's poems with him. "...how it came about, no one knows. Did Anne hastily put the finishing touches on her manuscript and place it in John's hands? Did he urge her to let him have a copy..." (Gordon 240). In any event, it seems highly unlikely that John took the manuscript without Anne's knowledge and consent. The Dudley, Bradstreet and Woodbridge families attached much hope to the manuscript. "Perhaps one daughter's heresies could be redeemed by another's piety" (Gordon 240). Perhaps the stain Sarah had left on the family honor could be removed by Anne's humble success. The book did succeed, and it indeed reflected well on Anne and her family.
However, Anne was well aware that her published collection was not as strong as she would have liked. In "The Author To Her Book," the voice is strong and wry and addresses the published work as an offspring. As memorable as Sylvia Plath writing of her unborn child as her "little loaf" may be Anne Bradstreet addressing her (from her standpoint) premature publication as her "rambling brat," the "ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain,/ who after birth did by my side remain" (Saari 248). It is as though the speaker's written work is a misshapen, premature birth that she is compelled to acknowledge, but in part, regrets. Bradstreet acknowledges that the manuscript was taken before it was ready, in the lines: "…snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true/ Who thee abroad, expos'd to publick view" (Saari 248).
Bradstreet's voice in "The Author to Her Book" is charming- a blend of biting sarcasm and tenderness. She writes, "Thy visage was so irksome in my sight; / Yet being mine own, at length affection would/ Thy blemishes amend…" Here, her book is a homely child, of whom she is embarrassed until that shame is tempered by the love of what she has birthed, despite its flaws. Puritan language of her daily life pleasingly starches the poem's ends, as it continues, "In better dress to trim thee was my mind,/ But nought save home-spun Cloth, I'th'house I find" (Saari 248). One wonders if this is a momentary glimpse into the frustrations of a gentlewoman who grew up among fineries in England now living simply as a Puritan in America and aware of her limitations, without access to the libraries and overall culture of the Old World. Further, her book is dressed in the "homespun cloth" of a woman's name, when, as aforementioned, most books of the time were considered "better dressed" when signed with men's names. "The Author to Her Book" closes with a virgin birth image that has an empowering and saucy feminist spin for its time: "And take thy way where yet thou art not known,/ If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none:/ And for thy Mother, she alas is poor, / Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door" (Saari 249).
Written on July 10, 1666, a poem Anne penned after their house burned completely to the ground is quite possibly one of Bradstreet's most memorable and haunting. This poem was copied out of a loose paper (Saari 249) and was titled: "Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House." It begins in a voice that narrates the palpable fear the speaker felt in being awakened to the knowledge that her house was in flames:
In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
?I waken'd was with thund'ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of "fire" and "fire,"
Let no man know is my Desire.
The eight syllable per line pattern reigns supreme in this poem as does the iambic tetrameter. Falling two syllables short of iambic pentameter, the rhythm of the poem feels like the racing heartbeat (or even skipped heartbeats) of a person awakened from sleep to an instant experience of great distress. This long poem of fifty-four lines reads as frantically as would the realization that all one's earthly possessions are gone- destroyed. The poem culminates in a realization that shows the familiarity a Puritan woman must have had with the famous message of the Book of Ecclesiastes: "All is vanity," in this earthly world:
Then streight I gin my heart to chide,
Anne Bradstreet's poetic voice is one, mirroring her own life, that has known disappointment, and does not set hopes on anything of this world, which she knew to be fleeting and unstable. The poem continues:
And didst thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Thou hast an house on high erect:
Fram'd by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent tho' this bee fled.
It's purchased, and paid for too
By him who hath enough to doe.
Her voice is consistently one of wisdom and of strength, of trusting God instead of this world. Bradstreet does not ultimately need or rely upon the trappings of an earthly house any more than she requires the approval of male critics, however much she might wish for either. Bradstreet's poetic voice lives by the credo "All is vanity." There is only one aspect of her life that she seems unable to withstand imagining doing without. That is her husband, Simon. Bradstreet wrote a great number of poems begging God to keep him safe from illness, to keep him from harm abroad and have safe
passage. Her love and need for Simon is the undersong, the tension that counterbalances her attempts at Puritan, but almost Zen-like detachment.
Indeed, Anne Bradstreet's masterpiece is "To My Dear and Loving Husband," which is arguably one of the greatest love poems ever written. Its tone is not one of a starry-eyed lover who is just falling in love or lust, but rather it is a voice of experience that is still longing for the beloved, even after the many years have passed. It is sweeping in emotion and not without flashes of sweetness, but that sweetness is so well grounded in reality, so tempered with humility and grace, time and sincerity that it works effortlessly to convince the reader that epic love is possible between a husband and wife of many years. At two lines shy of fourteen, it can masquerade as a sonnet before closer inspection. Shakespeare was alive when Bradstreet was born, and the erudite Anne knew his work, having grown up with the vast library of the Earl of London. This love poem can hold its own when compared to Shakespeare's. It has a classic beauty and could easily be entitled "Penelope Addresses Odysseus," as it fits the literary archetype of the faithful, devoted wife.
Lines five and six bear the mark of an educated woman, as they reference "all the riches that the East doth hold" when the speaker asserts she values her husband's love "more than whole mines of gold." Bradstreet's reference to the wealth of this world is in sharp contrast to the ending couplet which values the wealth of the next: "So while we live in love let's so persever/ That when we live no more we may live ever." This poem is a heartfelt tribute to a man who, by the speaker's account, was a true and loving partner. As America's first published poet, Anne Bradstreet was a woman ahead of her time, but it was her "dear and loving husband" that at least, did not prevent her publishing, as many men might have done, and at best, helped encourage it. He made her feel loved in a way she could not imagine being without. She needed him in a way that could not reconcile itself with the stance of detachment called for by one who could withstand the rugged existence of a New England colony. Also it is worth noting that her love for him is not the repressed love for a spouse that Puritan culture would have encouraged. It is a passionate love.
In a Graduate seminar I recently gave on the works and life of Anne Bradstreet, I opened with "To My Dear and Loving Husband," arguably Bradstreet's most famous poem, yet few of the students had ever encountered it. I asked the students if they found any passion in the poem; all pointed to the line "my love is such that rivers cannot quench." Then I presented the fact that this line was written by a Puritan woman, addressing the erotic love she felt for her husband, in Colonial America in the seventeenth century. A writer in the Elizabethan tradition, she based her form on the sonnet. I asked the class if they could sense the passion, exaggerated, heightened by the tightness of her form. They agreed that it was palpable.
Indeed, sometimes form, whether written in Bradstreet's day or today, can have the reputation of being prudish or restrictive, yet when done masterfully, it constricts rather than restricts. It is like a corset, a fitting image from Bradstreet's time. It tightens, it holds together with a solid structure, but in that structure, there is an undeniable overflowing, an outpouring of flesh. That is what the best sonnets achieve, and it is what Bradstreet has done. It is why this Shakespearean-style poem for her husband pulses with an undercurrent of sexuality. This paradoxical blend of passion and restraint was one of the main themes of Bradstreet's life.
"By 1671, at age fifty-nine, Anne had begun to suffer from a "consumption" that, her son Simon recorded, "wasted" her to skin and bone" (Gordon 280). She had been deeply grieved over the recent deaths of several grandchildren and her beloved daughter-in-law. Anne's "last known poem was "As Weary Pilgrim," which she wrote on August 31, 1669 (it was published in 1876). Bradstreet died in North Andover in 1672" (Saari 246). She had been ill for several months, and the cause of death was likely tuberculosis (Lewis). Beginning with the image of a "weary pilgrim" taking sublime joy in the promise of rest, the poem's speaker has a voice accustomed to suffering, and ready to leave the pain of this world for the peace of the next. Anne's many sicknesses, culminating in this final, worst illness, are evident in the weary, pained language that is detaching from life such as "This body shall in silence sleep,/ Mine eyes no more shall ever weep,/ No fainting fits shall me assail,/ Nor grinding pains my body frail…" Indeed, Bradstreet's worldly detachment in this poem mirrors that same emotion so evident in others, especially "Upon the Burning of Our House."
It is important to note that this pious last poem so filled with faith was not penned by a woman who had never experienced doubt. She once wrote, "Many times hath Satan troubled me concerning the verity of the Scriptures, many times by atheism" (Gordon 197-198). She was human, and admitted her weakness, even feelings of brokenness. She had struggled with belief and doubt, which makes the deep faith of this poem that much more powerful.
There is a language of piety in this pilgrim-poet's final song, such as, "What though my flesh shall there consume/ It is the bed Christ did perfume…" and she has the unflinching voice of a woman who has made peace with the idea of death. She reasons in harshly beautiful, faith-filled language: "And when a few years shall be gone,/ This mortal shall be clothed upon./ A corrupt carcass down it lays,/ A glorious body it shall rise" (Bradstreet 322). But her final line is quietly passionate, filled with belief and an intense focus on Christ. Though worn by life, she speaks in a virgin voice, in two closing lines that do in poetry what Bernini's St. Theresa in Ecstasy does in art: "Lord make me ready for that day,/ Then come, dear Bridegroom, come away." In the voice of a pious lover, Bradstreet sends hauntingly come-hither words to God. She is a holy seductress, our grandmother of American literature. She is our reluctant revolutionary, passionate pilgrim, tenth muse; and above all--our first published poet.
Bradstreet, Anne. The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Ed. Jeannine Hensley. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.
Campbell, Helen. Anne Bradstreet and Her Time. New York: Kessinger Publishing, 1890. (reprint)
Cook, Faith. Anne Bradstreet: Pilgrim and Poet. Carlisle, PA:EP Books, 2010.
Gordon, Charlotte. Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Anne Bradstreet." May 20,2010.
Nichols, Heidi L. Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour of the Life And Thought of a Puritan Poet. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&RPublishing, 2006.
Saari, Peggy. Colonial America: Primary Sources. Farmington Hills, MI: U-X-L, an Imprint of the Gale Group, 2000.
Showalter, Elaine. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.