Poetry of Anne Bradstreet

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image via wikipedia

I cannot remember which blogger mentioned the poetry of Anne Bradstreet as among their favorite (please, tell me if it was you!), but I must agree that her poems are spectacular. I love Bradstreet’s religious themes, but also I loved her personal accounts of life. Although her writing was from a comparatively primitive pioneer era, her poems on motherhood and womanhood, on struggling to find balance in life, on developing and sustaining her Christian faith, and on writing still resonate with me in this very different age.

Anne Dudley Bradstreet traveled with other Puritans to New England in the late 1620s, having been married at the young age of 16 to Simon Bradstreet, who would later be governor of the Massachusetts colony. It was another decade before her first child was born. Anne Bradstreet was born in the shadow of the great writers of the seventeenth century, including Shakespeare (who she probably never read, having been a Puritan who saw drama as scandalous) and Cervantes (who I personally find rather ridiculous but Bradstreet probably had read in translation).

image via Wikipedia

Ironically, the volume of her own poetry that was published in her lifetime (without her permission) was full of poems that I just could not get into for boredom: a poem on each of the four elements, a poem on the humors of man (from blood to phlegm), a poem on the stages of man, a poem on the monarchies of the world. I did not read any of those in full. The Anne Bradstreet website does not include any of those poems; I found that that site features the best of Bradstreet, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in giving Bradstreet a try.

The poems that most resonated with me, those that I would call “the Best,” were the personal, womanhood-inspired poems, ones that she never intended for publication but that reflect her struggles and worries: poems of the heart.  In the prologue to her volume of poetry (online), a volume that she circulated among friends but never intended for publication, she observed that she had no intention to compete with epic subjects.

To sing of wars, of captains, and of kings,
Of cities founded, commonwealths begun,
For my mean pen are too superior things:
Or how they all, or each, their dates have run;
Let poets and historians set these forth,
My obscure lines shall not so dim their work. (“The Prologue” stanza 1)

Some poems by Anne Bradstreet that I loved gave me insights into motherhood, and love, and womanhood. “To My Dear and Loving Husband” (online) is one of my new favorite love poems, and poems like the one where she worries about her son traveling to England (online) were ones I could relate to, even though my son’s transportation options are more reliable. Here’s one of my favorite “mother” poems which is just perfect in its crafted metaphors.

I had eight birds hatcht in one nest,
Four Cocks were there, and Hens the rest.
I nurst them up with pain and care,
No cost nor labour did I spare
Till at the last they felt their wing,
Mounted the Trees and learned to sing.  (“In Reference to Her Children” online, lines 1-6)

I also loved the struggles of personal faith in the midst of life. Personal struggles to one’s faith haven’t changed all that much throughout time for a Christian. “By Night While Others Slept” (online) is a wonderful affirmation of Bradstreet’s own faith in God, and I felt the truth of her words.

image by Dan Zen via Flickr CC

“Verses on the Burning of My House” (online) likewise captures a crisis of faith; although I’ve never gone through such a dramatic challenge myself (such as losing all my personal belongings in a fire), I love Bradstreet’s ultimate acceptance. That is a faith in the purposes of life that I’d like to emulate.

There’s wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love;
My hope and Treasure lies above. (“Verses on the Burning of My House”)

She writes traditional affirmations of love to her husband (which I’d argue suggest a happy and not a domineering marriage for either party) and approaches everything with an undeniably Christian perspective. Yet, the Puritan Anne Bradstreet struck me as ahead of her time. I found this quote on the Anne Bradstreet website: “[Bradstreet] was a free thinker, who could even be considered an early feminist.” I don’t actually know what “feminist” means; it’s such a fluid term these days. But I do love Anne’s personal responses to the critics (although it’s possible she didn’t intend to share her works with the critics). She was unafraid of sarcasm, and in “The Prologue” she declares her rights to be a poet.

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong;
For such despite they cast on female wits,
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance–
They’ll say it was stolen, or else it was by chance. (“The Prologue” stanza 5)

As I mentioned above, it is possible that Anne Bradstreet did not intend her poetry for publication. A family friend (one of her husband’s brothers-in-law) secretly copied her work and had it published in England. I don’t know what I think of that: Would she have been discovered otherwise? Did she, a young colonial woman in New England in primitive conditions, realize that publication was an option? Then again, if she had expressly requested the texts to not be published, this would have been a horrible breach of trust.

image by vlasta2 via flickr CC

We cannot know exactly what her intentions were, but we do have her personal response to the situation in the poem, “The Author to Her Book” (read online), which seems to capture every writer’s anguish at letting their works be read.

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did’st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call. (from “The Author to Her Book” lines 1-8)

Personally, I loved all the poems that I read in full. I’m fascinated by the relevance of Bradstreet’s poems 350 years after she wrote them, and I’m glad for the chance to feel my own faith reaffirmed as I read her beautifully rendered testimony to Chrisitanity and the hope for the hereafter.

After reading just a small bit of Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, I feel like I know her. I recognize myself. That is, I believe, what makes a great poet.

Note: I had begun reading her poetry in a free Google ebook of an 1800s publication. I do not suggest this format. This did not work for a few reasons, the primary reason begin the archaic spelling/printing, using f for s and occasionally u for v. I had to abandon that ebook after reading a poem about a child at suck at its mother’s breast. That was just not a passage I wanted to read with those different spellings. I finished reading some poems on various websites, and I look forward to a chance to read her poems with a volume in my hands, with modern spelling, please.

Reviewed on April 11, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’m curious about this writer, too. A couple bloggers suggested to me the biography Mistress Bradstreet by Charlotte Gordon. I haven’t had much time yet to read her poems, but I plan to. First published female writer in England or America? That’s a milestone. I’m interested in her take on the era of course, too. Maybe I should read her alongside A Scarlet Letter. 🙂

    • Jillian » Given your Christian faith, I think you’d really appreciate her poetry. I really should revisit A Scarlet Letter too. I remember really liking it when I was in high school.

  • All right, I’ll bite. How do we know that “The Author to Her Book” is personal, and not, say, a conventional form, or ironic. And from whence the anguish? “errors were not lessened,” “rambling brat” – see what happens if you read the poet as playful and amused.

    Jillian – a step too far. Nowhere near the first published female writer in England.

    Bradstreet would be great fun alongside Hawthorne.

    • Amateur Reader » ah, good point. I think of the faith poems as being personal, but you’re right, I’ve overstepped in thinking of this one. From what I read, she wasn’t keen on the fact that her poems were published behind her back, but we don’t know what she really thought.

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